Discover more from America, America
Trump Fraud, Known Lies and Enduring Grievance
Long after Trump's crimes are adjudicated, the body politic will still be contending with the cancer that he and his enablers spread
This could be a story about criminal defendant Donald J. Trump and new information about expanded investigation into potentially massive criminal fraud after the 2020 election. Eight sources told The Washington Post that Special Counsel Jack Smith has been gathering testimony from Trump enablers to assess a criminal case involving more than $200 million of possible wire fraud by knowingly lying to Trump’s followers in their push for money between Nov. 3, 2020, and Jan. 20 when he exited the White House.
You may recall that the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack concluded that, in addition to Trump lying to his supporters, “he also ripped them off.” The Post story published on Wednesday underlined that the House found, despite fundraising emails pledging to use funds for a legal defense fund, “virtually none of the money was spent on recounts or legal efforts to challenge the results.”
This alleged case of wire fraud—along with his election fraud in Georgia, theft of classified documents and obstruction of justice in Florida, and incitement of a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—may be yet another ingredient in Trump’s eventual undoing and ultimate departure from the political stage.
Whether any one or a combination of these cases leads to prosecution and conviction, let alone incarceration and a final break with his followers, is another story. As we have learned from Trump’s rising poll numbers in the wake of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment with 34 felony counts of business fraud, his cult is not about to abandon him—at least not yet. Nonetheless, the sentencing over an insurrection conviction provides a clear path to permanently ending his push to retake the levers of power. As the criminal code states:
Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.
Even if this charge does not arrive or stick, I suspect that a cascade of indictments and other civil and criminal charges will make his ability to function as a candidate for president increasingly overwhelming, even for one as desperate to regain power and immunity as he is. And even if he were to navigate through the primaries to the general election, the damage from his legal troubles and his violent extremism will make him radioactive for a solid majority of likely voters.
But the larger question that will be with us far longer than Trump will be is why tens of millions of Americans dedicated themselves to this man and how (or if) they can be integrated back into the democratic system. The cancerous hostility that has been spread by Trump and his enablers—that most of the Republican Party continues to emulate—makes repairing the body politic a mammoth task.
While I don’t profess to have a simple answer, nor do I think one essay will be enough to unpack this decades-long and still-evolving reality, I will offer a few thoughts now. This begins with the decision of Trump followers to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars to a man who claimed to be a billionaire and in need of their dollars to mount his legal defense to prove that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. This is not the beginning of their cult-like commitment, of course, but it was deep enough to keep them swallowing his lies and participating in his latest swindle; as we know too well, some felt so deeply that they headed to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and proudly took part in a violent, criminal attack.
For those who knew that The Washington Post had tallied more than 30,000 lies in the four years Trump occupied our White House—and recognized his violations, degradations and desecrations of democratic institutions and norms, the rule of law, innocent people and the presidency itself—this deep attachment has often seemed incomprehensible.
But we should never underestimate the need to belong, to have something and someone to believe in, to have easy answers for a world that feels increasingly uncertain and out of control, to feel free from the pressure of facts, to latch onto a narrative that can explain away and console their overt anger, grievances and underlying fear.
Add to this the most powerful man in the world telling them—showing them by his example—that it’s quite alright and empowering to express their hatreds, particularly for people of color and other vulnerable populations. Think of the relief that follows from being told that it’s OK to scapegoat others for your misfortunes, to be encouraged to hate liberals as not just adversaries but enemies, and the pleasure elicited by letting those virulent feelings all hang out.
Early last month I asked “How Has Fox News Infected Your World?” in a Saturday prompt. It was stunning, indeed upsetting, to read how many in this community had stories of broken friendships, family relationships seemingly severed forever, and even marriages that split up because of the power of Fox’s propaganda to untether its viewers from reality and sell them the lies perpetrated by Trump, his legal and political enablers, and Fox hosts such as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Maria Bartiromo and others backed by Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch. (If you haven’t read the comments from that prompt, I suspect you’ll find them illuminating, albeit painful.)
In this methodical, cynical and conscious calculation, we have seen that the question of repair goes beyond the political—this gets at the very fabric of a society torn apart for the purposes of enriching a media organization and a major political party bent on getting and keeping power by any means necessary. It’s why the Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News trial that begins Tuesday (after a one-day delay) is so important.
I have written more than once about this $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit and what we have learned so far about the lies that Fox told, despite knowing full well that they were lies, all in the name of securing ratings, Fox’s bottom line and their hosts’ fraudulent bond with their audience. (This was laid out in last month’s “The Recklessness of Rupert Murdoch.”)
The trial will unpack whether, in fact, repeated broadcasts of false claims that they knew were baseless—whether they demonstrated a reckless disregard of the truth about the role of Dominion’s voting machines, the 2020 voting and the election outcomes—is tolerable in a democracy that gives considerable slack to news organizations under the auspices of the First Amendment, especially given the high bar for proof set by the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964.
But beyond the legal ramifications and the financial hit that Fox may face for both actual and compensatory damages, the outcome of this trial may be an important first step in repairing the damage that Fox’s misinformation and disinformation has caused by exploiting MAGA Republicans for their own gain.
Stemming the flow of Fox lies or even their being required to publicly apologize is unlikely to quickly turn the tide, especially assuming Trump continues to use the presidential campaign to spread his violent rhetoric and grievances of political persecution. Expecting a large minority to forsake the narratives they’ve aggressively clung to or to admit they were wrong all along makes limited sense, at least in the short term and especially if other Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are pushing the “anti-woke” culture wars and advocating for an autocratic, white supremacist replacement to democracy.
But clarifying the reliability of voting machines, requiring Fox to admit its lies and denting its polluting power would be a start to fixing what will likely take decades to complete. There’s no going back, no normal to return to; yet there is a visible future in which we all are a little bit wiser, a little bit less heated and willing to make peace with the “other side,” a little more able to acknowledge that despite our political differences we are all Americans.
Today, that might sound a little bit naive and a long way off, especially as Trump-defending Republicans remain fixated on weaponizing their attacks on the justice system and its adherents. But step by step, it just might be possible and even become a reality.
America, America is sustained by paid subscriptions, making it possible to keep nearly all the writing available for everyone. If you’re not already a paid subscriber, I hope you’ll consider becoming one and join the conversation.