Trump’s Dangerous Wannabes

Meet the ambitious mediocrities who almost brought down American democracy.

Jeffrey Bossert Clark at a Senate Judiciary Committee nomination hearing
Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a Justice Department official who's accused of supporting plans to overturn the 2020 election results. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

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As more revelations emerge from the January 6–committee proceedings, I am struck by how much the Constitution was threatened not only by outsize figures such as Donald Trump, but even more so by mediocre men and women who thought their moment of glory had finally arrived.

But first, here are three great new stories from The Atlantic.

The Quiet Ones

Donald Trump, a petty and small man, is nonetheless a larger-than-life public figure. Investigating his attack on our elections is like staring into a klieg light: It is unpleasant, doesn’t reveal very much, and leaves you temporarily blinded to everything around you.

The January 6 committee, however, deserves a great deal of credit for illuminating the dangerous mediocrities on whom Trump relied for his mischief—the men and women who were certain that their moment had finally arrived. These people—call them the Third String—thought that they were finally going to The Show, and they were going to burn the Constitution if that’s what it took to stay there.

Consider, for example, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a minor Justice Department official who sought to oust his own boss and get Trump to make him the attorney general, after which Clark would try to overturn the election results. (Clark has denied that he attempted the ousting.) “History is calling,” Clark told Trump, in what must have been his most Very Serious Adviser voice.

What kind of person does that? The kind considered “quiet” and “nerdy” by his colleagues, according to a 2021 New York Times profile, but who apparently thought he was slated for greater things. He was “not known for being understated on the topic of himself,” the Times noted. “Where the typical biography on the Justice Department website runs a few paragraphs, Mr. Clark’s includes the elementary school he attended in Philadelphia, a topic he debated in college and that he worked for his college newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.”

Well. (For the record, I went to Lambert-Lavoie Elementary in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Take that, elitists.)

Clark got his comeuppance in a meeting in the Oval Office when Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue warned Trump that any such appointment would lead to mass resignations, and told Clark: “You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”

And then there’s John Eastman, the former Clarence Thomas clerk, unsuccessful congressional candidate, and former dean of the law school at Chapman University in California who immersed himself in the kookiness of Trump World and ended up having to resign his teaching post days after speaking at the January 6 rally. His “departure closes this challenging chapter for Chapman,” the school said, and then noted that no one would be suing anyone. As a recently retired professor myself, I can tell you this is not usually the preferred exit from the faculty.

(Eastman’s crackpot legal theories are being eviscerated in the House today by retired Judge J. Michael Luttig—for whom Eastman also clerked. Ouch.)

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that emails obtained by the January 6 committee revealed that Eastman—who was in close contact with Justice Thomas’s wife, Ginni—claimed to know that there was a “heated” fight inside the Supreme Court about election cases. He stated this in an email with another pro-Trump lawyer who said the odds of the Court acting would increase if they thought there was a danger of public “chaos.”

Greatness called; if it took intimidating the nation’s highest court with civil disorder, well, eggs must be broken, and all that.

Clark and Eastman were among the brigade of mediocrities who saw in Trump a kind of patron saint of the Third String, the outsider who would sweep away the elites who controlled Washington and replace them with a new elite—namely, themselves. No more working in cubicles, hustling for grants, or sucking up for gigs with minor campaigns. The former White House spokesperson Stephanie Grisham was among the most honest of the lot when she wrote in her memoir how Trump was her ticket to D.C., and that she couldn’t just walk away: “I was a single mom with no trust fund. If I had quit earlier, where would I have gone?”

The big, room-filling figures like Trump or Steve Bannon or Rudy Giuliani are, of course, dangerous even if they are also pathetic. (As The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes once put it, “A clown with a flamethrower still has a flamethrower.”) But these showboaters were doing their damage in full view of the public. A constitutional democracy, in a way, is built to withstand such frontal assaults because we have a safety net in the web of laws and norms that are observed by civil servants and ordinary citizens.

But democracy is in severe danger when that net is cut, thread by thread, by a gray, resentful Third String that believes that greatness, unjustly denied for so long, is finally within reach.


Today’s News
  1. During their visit to Kyiv, leaders from France, Germany, and Italy said they would support making Ukraine a candidate for European Union membership.
  2. Elon Musk took questions from Twitter employees for the first time, and discussed his plans for the platform.
  3. Less than two weeks after formula production restarted at Abbott’s Michigan plant, it shut down again because of flooding from severe storms.

Evening Read
soft-focus photo of Jack White with blue hair and dark collared shirt
(Erik Tanner for The Atlantic)

The Vindication of Jack White

Story by Spencer Kornhaber

Something preposterous was happening the night I visited Third Man Records in Nashville. The label and cultural center founded by Jack White, of the White Stripes, generally strives for a freak-show vibe; you can pay 25 cents to watch animatronic monkeys play punk rock in the record store, and a taxidermied elephant adorns the nightclub. On the March night when I showed up, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead was performing. Through a pane of blue-tinted glass at the back of the stage, another curiosity in White’s menagerie could be glimpsed: a 74-year-old audio engineer in a lab coat who calls himself Dr. Groove.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
A glitching 1920s-era woman
(Adam Maida / The Atlantic)

Read. If you haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway yet, it’s not too late—the book is actually the great novel of the internet.

Or try another recommendation from our reading list about the pleasures and pains of city life.

Watch. HBO’s Barry, which wrapped its third season on Sunday, isn’t a comedy anymore, but it’s become an even better show.

Play our daily crossword.

That’s it for today. I was a young teenager when my sister gave me The War of the Worlds, which I devoured; but though we all know the book, did you realize that it produced a late-1970s musical oddity when it was set to a rock soundtrack and narrated by Richard Burton? It really exists, and you should give it a listen when you want to unplug from the news.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.