GELFAND’S WORLD - We are told that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, he did not take them directly to Canaan, but marched them around in the desert for 40 years. They had been slaves and still had a slave mentality. It was necessary for them to grow out of it and for their children to grow up as free people.
Perhaps it's only a fable, but the underlying lesson is sound. People take a while to grow out of their conditioning and to adapt to new conditions. The same can be said for the way the American people have reacted to the presidency and subsequent behavior of Donald Trump. We are now seeing how well the United States can recover from those years.
There is a clue about how well we are doing: A rational populace would be demanding the multiple indictments and ensuing criminal trials of the criminal president. Are they?
It has taken a while. There have been impediments, both legal and psychological.
But there is evidence that it is happening and that we are evolving in our attitudes, most instructively our views towards the coming criminal prosecutions over election tampering, obstruction of justice, and violations of the Espionage Act. Just like that story of the Israelites changing and growing over their 40 years, the American people seem a lot more ready for Donald Trump to be indicted and tried.
We have two recent examples. The criminal indictment, arrest, and arraignment that Trump endured in New York City did not inspire a massively violent protest akin to January 6, 2021, even though the affront to the ex-president was severe. There were a few Trump worshippers in evidence (including that clown of a congresswoman) but order was kept and NYC stayed as peaceful as it usually does.
But equally important, we are now watching what is the civil equivalent of a rape trial in which Donald J. Trump is the defendant. There is no longer any subterfuge about it being just some corporation, or just a telephone call. This was the real thing, a violent, perverted attack on the person of another human being. And she is not only testifying to the details, she apparently is holding her own against the cross examination that we have come to expect. The only thing missing from the Trump defense is that she was asking for it because of the way she was dressed.
Let's remember how different the situation was when Trump left office. He had just pardoned some of his close friends for what turned out to be substantial criminal acts, and he did so with his usual bravado. The nation and the congress were just barely recovering from the January 6 attack on our Constitutional order, and Trump was openly defending the perpetrators. A substantial fraction of American voters avowed their belief that the election had been stolen from Trump, based on his say-so and the remarks of some of his close associates (Giuliani) and the people at Fox News.
So, on January 20, 2021, Trump was riding high on his support from a not-small minority of the American people, seemingly immune from being prosecuted for any part in the January 6 riots and claiming arrogantly that he was the one who had been victimized by some vast conspiracy.
It has taken a while, but Trump's standing with the American people has been chipped away.
It can never be a complete victory. A large number of Trump followers will not admit that the coming indictments are legitimate. But what appears to be a two-thirds majority of the American people concede that the latest indictments were merited. Of that two-thirds, a substantial majority support the criminal prosecutions.
As an aside, let me say that I am not talking here about Trump's clear political victories including the tax cut and the Supreme Court nominations. The American people can evaluate and decide in the next presidential election whether such policies are desired or not.
But that was the ordinary stuff of Republican theory and principle. It should not require massive antisocial criminality to enact its principles into law. (And if Republicans think that it does require such criminality, maybe they should reconsider their allegiance to those doctrines.)
While a standard conservative Republican policy was being enacted under Trump, there was the constant lying, the vicious personal attacks on everyone who dared to be critical, and most of all, there was the criminality.
And for a large part, the American nation did nothing. Unless of course you count two impeachments that, in retrospect, were serious enough to have removed any other president had there been a more honest Senate.
Why is this of interest right now? I think the American people are ready for the Trump indictments on the serious issues regarding election tampering and obstruction of justice, and maybe even that Espionage Act violation from the Mar a lago collection of ultra-secret documents.
There is an additional complication. My friends who keep track of Fox News point out that even when the worst sorts of stories about Donald Trump come out, Fox commenters avoid talking about them. It's not called the bubble for nothing, and a lot of Americans still live in it.
And this has made it difficult for the rest of us who use more traditional and, to be blunt, more honest and honorable sources. We actually heard all about the three-quarters of a billion dollar settlement that Fox is paying Dominion over Fox's knowing lying. You've got to know you are in the crosshairs before coughing up that kind of money. But Fox viewers didn't get the whole story in all its malignancy. They still worry that Democrats are out to get them, that Democrats are in league with forces of evil, and that Democratically controlled cities are in flames.
But when Trump's obvious and manifest crimes are viewed by normal people, we believe increasingly that some legal action is required. (At one time, I was of the view that it's nice to have a system where the new president can't automatically jail the previous one, but the evolution of the Trump investigations has made ultra-clear that we are, indeed, talking about the legitimate workings of the law.)
People have been held back in their views by the danger that thousands and perhaps millions of Trump supporters would rise up and revolt in some kind of quasi-military actions. After all, that's what they told us. One of the January 6 rioters explained that he was awaiting a second Civil War. There has been a strong sentiment in the pro-gun community that gets expressed as the need for the people to be armed in case a revolt against the United States government should become needed.
But the counter-evidence has filled the remainder of the airwaves and newspaper pages over these past couple of years. Perhaps the most effective, because dramatic, was all those televised meetings of the House committee that considered the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Through a serious mistake by the Republican leadership, the Democrats and two anti-Trump Republicans had the chance to tell the story without being obstructed by the likes of Jim Jordan. And out of those hearings came hours of dramatic video footage showing the rage, the violence, and the clear cut attempt to subvert the Constitutional process of electing a new president.
While the graphic violence videos were being presented, the country was also observing the investigations of Trump's attempt to steal the Georgia presidential vote. And then there was the dramatic revelation of the ultra-secret documents that Trump had taken with him to Mar a lago and then simply held onto, even when asked for their return.
But I suspect that the one thing that has damaged Trumps standing the most, even with his own supporters, is the continuing indictments, trials, and convictions of the January 6 attackers. All the nonsensical excuses (they were like peaceful tourists, or they were Antifa, or their anger was justified) -- all these have gone by the wayside as one by one, they have been convicted and sentenced to prison. One of the things most damaging to the Trump cause is that many of them said they were sorry and many said they had been misled. Some blamed Trump directly. These pleas make the Trump supporters look weak. That swaggering macho affect that they managed to sell during the Trump presidency has been reduced to the whimpering of convicts begging for mercy.
The story of these trials is that the United States government and its Department of Justice have proved to be stronger than the fantasies of a few hundred rioters. In a way, the violent side of the Trump movement has been shown to be a paper tiger, capable of marching angrily to protect statues of confederate generals, but unable to withstand the attacks by United States Attorneys.
And so it goes -- perhaps that same effect will finally be seen with respect to Donald Trump's crimes, of which there are many. I think the American people are ready to accept that a former president is a criminal and that justice can come even to one such as him. There will be those who continue to believe that it is all a conspiracy, but they will be in the minority, and the rest of us will not fear them as if they were the next confederate army.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)