Well, they did it. Donald Trump’s enemies went and brought him back to life. With his expected indictment by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, Trump occupies center stage once again, all his lurid depravities ready to distort American politics anew. And it’s going to make everything much worse.
There was a time, not long ago, when Trump had finally stumbled into near irrelevance. A string of MAGA candidates crashed and burned in the 2022 midterm elections. Simultaneously, Florida governor Ron DeSantis won reelection so commandingly that his stature in the GOP seemed to outstrip Trump’s overnight. Once midterms proved Trump’s political uselessness, his legal and personal dramas seemed less like righteous causes and more like burdens to the former faithful. It looked, for a brief moment, as though he might be swept from the national stage—not by dubious or tortured legalisms but by his own ineptitude and smallness.
Adrift, Trump started to generate his own bad luck. He had a friendly lunch with bigoted cranks at Mar-a-Lago. And after he was universally slammed, he claimed impotently that he had been tricked into it. He introduced a line of digital trading cards hinting at a return to his pre-political hucksterism. All the while, he barked at DeSantis from the sidelines and sounded like a pipsqueak hoping to be noticed by the leader of the pack. DeSantis ignored him and gained in popularity. Trump’s political marginalization, for the first time in seven years, was so swift and substantial that it felt slightly disorienting to a country that had revolved around the hourly antics of one man.
But it wasn’t to be. While Republicans were getting sick of Donald Trump, Democrats were succumbing to Trump withdrawal. Bit by bit, through over-exuberance and their own stupidity, Trump’s opponents extended a lifeline to their nemesis. Trump’s first good day post-midterms came at the hands of President Joe Biden. After going on 60 Minutes to shame Trump for being “just totally irresponsible” by mishandling classified documents, Biden was found to have been totally irresponsible with his mishandling of documents—a lot of them over a long period of time. This instantly made Trump’s documents scandal look like something less than the crime of the century. And it gave credence to his default claim that he was the target of a witch hunt.
Then the Biden administration furnished Trump with a tailor-made opportunity to reestablish his populist credentials. After a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, releasing toxic chemicals into a largely working-class community, Biden proved uniquely unresponsive. As the uproar grew over the spill and burn-off, the White House remained practically silent. There was no presidential visit, no cabinet member visit, and no attempt at empathy and reassurance. Trump swooped in. He showed up in East Palestine, distributing water, embracing the mayor, and railing against the indifference of the Biden administration. This was the Donald Trump who had caught fire in 2015-16, the populist who spoke to the unaddressed needs of forgotten America. And it was a masterstroke.
But it wasn’t until news leaked of his pending indictment in Manhattan that Trump would be placed squarely back in the center of our political life. The case against Trump, if it adheres to what we’ve heard so far, is a dog. It’s a double pretzel of a stretch that hangs on an untested theory. Through some alchemical legal process, Alvin Bragg hopes to turn Trump’s alleged false accounting of adultery hush money into a violation of election law. What’s more, the case relies on the testimony of Trump’s former lawyer and convicted criminal Michael Cohen, a uniquely dishonest figure.
The overreach here speaks for itself. Bragg’s case is Trump’s persecution fantasy made flesh. And it screams political weaponization of our legal system. No ordinary citizen would face an indictment built on such vaporous premises. Last year, Bragg reportedly received harsh criticism from officials in the New York attorney general’s office for not being aggressive enough in going after Trump. If this is his way of proving his critics wrong, both he and they will regret it.
Trump’s being targeted by the Manhattan DA will confirm for many his assertion of a corrupt political establishment. Whether or not it ultimately helps or harms his 2024 presidential run isn’t what’s most important. The tragic dilemma of Bragg’s case is that no matter the outcome, it will be very bad for the country. If a judge throws out the case, he or she will be revealing it as a shameful political gambit, and will further loosen the ties binding Americans to the institutions charged with maintaining a free and lawful republic. If Trump wins, he’ll be the man who exposed and defeated the corrupt system that he hopes to seize. The anti-American, anti-democratic fervor of his movement will gain in strength and credibility. If he’s convicted, I shudder to think at what will be unleashed.