Depraved, Deranged, and Doing Real Damage

The former president is a grotesque man presiding over a grotesque party.

Donald Trump
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty

In his speech last night to his supporters at Mar-a-Lago, made several hours after he was arraigned in Manhattan on 34 felony counts, Donald Trump took aim at Juan Merchan, the judge in the case.

“I have a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family, whose daughter worked for Kamala Harris and now receives money from the Biden-Harris campaign, and a lot of it,” Trump said. He also compared the conduct of Merchan, who presided over the Trump Organization’s tax-fraud trial, to something “right out of the old Soviet Union.”

Earlier in the day, two of Trump’s sons, Don Jr. and Eric, attacked the judge’s daughter as well, with the former tweeting a picture of her. This came a few days after Trump posted a fake image of himself swinging a baseball bat at the head of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whom Trump referred to on his Truth Social platform as an “animal.”

I recently wrote that Trump was behaving like a mob boss. That comparison turns out to have been insulting to mob bosses everywhere. Andrew Weissmann, a former lead prosecutor in Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel’s office, was asked on MSNBC about Trump’s attack on Judge Merchan and his family. Noting that he had prosecuted Mafia cases in the past, Weissmann said, “You do not have this behavior from a mob boss. There is a rule in organized crime. You do not do this with respect to prosecutors. You don’t do this with respect to the judge. You certainly don’t go after their families. It’s bad business to do that.” Leave it to Donald Trump to go where Mafia dons will not.

On the day Trump was arraigned, the RealClearPolitics average of polls showed him far ahead of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, 50.8 percent to 24.6 percent, with no other Republican drawing above 5 percent. In recent weeks, Trump has been surging in the polls, including since the indictment was announced.

Sarah Longwell, who has been doing focus groups with two-time Trump voters, reports that in her most recent groups, everyone supported Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination, which hasn’t been the case for months and months.

Almost all elected Republicans who have spoken out have rallied to defend Trump. Senator Lindsey Graham appeared to be on the verge of tears as he begged people to send money to support Trump. Even those positioning themselves to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination are rising to the defense of the indicted ex-president. In listening to them, you would think Trump has never done anything wrong, ever. He is a victim, a persecuted martyr—and, as Marjorie Taylor Greene reminded us, he is in good company: Jesus was arrested too. (This was a particularly nice touch during Holy Week.)

Two things are happening at once: Trump, depraved and deranged, is lashing out, more venomous than ever. As my colleague David Graham notes, in last night’s speech, Trump described Special Counsel Jack Smith as “a radical-left lunatic known as a bomb thrower”; the Fulton County, Georgia, prosecutor Fani Willis as “a local racist Democrat district attorney in Atlanta”; and New York Attorney General Letitia James as a “racist.” All three are investigating Trump.

Republican officials, whether they appreciate and admire Trump or are fearful of and submissive to him, continue to stand by him. They recognize that he is the most dominant and popular figure in the Republican Party. And they are stuck with him.

They have had countless opportunities over the years to take the exit ramp, from the release of the Access Hollywood tape, to Trump’s first impeachment, to his attempt to overthrow an election, to the violent insurrection at the Capitol. They have refused every time. More criminal charges of an even more serious nature are unlikely to change that. We’re witnessing the political equivalent of abuse victims struggling to break with their abusers. Having long failed to part ways with Trump, they now feel like they can never break with him. Privately, many Republicans hope that someone else, anyone else, including prosecutors, will do what they were too craven to do, and free them of Trump. But publicly, they are, almost to a person, on his side. The tribe demands no less of its members. To do otherwise is to suffer the fate of the intrepid Liz Cheney.

Republican leaders never grasped how, at every juncture, their willingness to go along with Trump even when they knew better—their willingness to defend his misdeeds, to attack his critics, to bite their tongue, to engage in whataboutism—increased Trump’s hold on the party and further radicalized the base. As that happened, the “normies” became more passive, more compliant, less influential, and more willing to accept and defend a man who is, by any reasonable standard, crazed and unstable. And so, here we are.

The Trump era has been illuminating in this regard. In the past, wondering just how far a party would go in defense of its leader was a matter of speculation. But Trump has moved this question from the realm of speculation to the realm of reality. The GOP has hitched its wagon to Trump, and he is leading them to places even they never imagined. A grotesque man presides over a grotesque party.

In January 2016, when Trump said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters, people thought it was hyperbole. It turned out to be prophecy.