Thank You, Appellate Court

February 7, 2024

I am loathe to praise Donald Trump. I am so opposed to him and what he represents—perhaps just as opposed as his fiercest critics. That’s saying a lot, for the critics are so numerous, so talented, so diverse, so incisive, so funny—and on it goes. One boon (and potential curse) of technology and social media is the great availability of the analysis, cogitations, skits, declamations, and so on of like-minded people on just about any topic. Donald Trump has his critics and deriders, and I’ve marveled at just how thorough they can all be and in such creative and comprehensive ways.

Trump has also had his supporters, obviously, and it’s that group that compels so many of us to devote so much attention and energy to thinking/opining/worrying about him and his influence.

The praise concerns the way Trump has perfected a method, or rather the way he has been unflinching in the application of that method.

Some time ago, when Ron DeSantis was still a contender and mattered, John Oliver commented on Donald Trump’s designation of DeSantis as “Meatball Ron.” Oliver made a concession about Trump, commenting, with a smirk, “he’s still got it.” Oliver’s appreciative nod, right there alongside the biting satire before and after, got the balance of things right. As we deal with the insanity of a phenomenon like Trump, it’s best not to yell loudly all the time, but to give the devil his due, when earned. Smiling at Trump is an unpleasant prospect; but naming and acknowledging how Trump’s charisma and methods work provides a partial safeguard against him. Laughing at him needs to be done carefully—not only in the sense that his danger should never be dismissed as laughable, but also because meanness and attacking as gratifications in the wake of Trump provide only so much comfort, and that at the risk of some of our dignity, or at least our efforts to elevate our ways at improving things.

As of February 6, when the DC Appellate Court pronounced that Trump does not have unbounded presidential immunity, the tide, long in the making of turning, seems to have decisively turned against Trump. It’s now a matter of time. For so long the great defenders of democracy and justice, the great lawyers and commentators, like Glenn Kirschner, Meidas Touch folk, Andrew Weissmann, and others of the cable news/internet, have been promising, directly and indirectly, that the time was coming. That accountability, so long denied, was on its way. Until yesterday, no one could be certain.

That’s part of the whole insanity of the debacle of Trump—the calling into question all norms, all protections of civil society and the legal profession. But yesterday, after a delay too many of us felt was worrisome and extreme (despite the characterization of one month as “light speed” by those who have experience in appellate court timelines), the court ruled in a way to place some ground, terra firma, beneath our feet once again. Here was a circumstance where a specific response was called for, was needed—and here was a response where all the criteria were met, with elegance and power. And the world (or the part of it with its proper dose of TDS) sighed. We looked on in marvel as propriety, civility, adulthood, calm, and reasonableness were all on display in just the measure needed.

So why should Trump be praised? Part of me feels that, with the immunity question resolved (or on the fast track to resolution), the inevitability of accountability has been scripted; there are various possible drafts, but they all produce the same result. The word inexorable must be used once again. Trump had succeeded in calling into question the concept of inexorability. That was his genius. But he has met his match in some fine professionals in the court system.

What is Trump’s method? It’s more than shamelessness, though that’s a necessary condition. Trump’s method of assertiveness, of never backing down, of being the “perfect bully,” was—and remains—so flawless. It’s his devotion to his method, perhaps, that is so unprecedented. He has taken an idea and has shown us what it looks like to instantiate that idea without alloy or mitigation. Since 2015, I always thought a pivot was coming. To normal people, a strategy works and works and works—until it shows signs of breaking down and not working in the future. At such moments, lesser people will pivot. Trump has shown us what a powerful method looks like without the pivot. 

Never before has such an experiment been on display to so many, all connected, immersed in conversation and commentary. We looked on and wondered: Why would he so endanger himself when he could easily protect himself? The psychologists (most notably, his niece), and conscientious insiders like Barbara Res, give us the needed insight here—but that insight here is not my main concern. Trump has shown us things, almost as a public service.

In nearly breaking the country, he has shown us just how dangerous it is to take for granted things like democracy, the legal system, and the social contract built on conventions of decency. 

But also, in losing, he has helped us affirm some verities: the system basically worked—even on January 6 and all that followed and went before.

For so many months, I considered Trump a fool and a clown that … how could he be dangerous? He puts himself on display, like, all the time. He can’t be taken seriously, and we’ll all be returned to our normal way of behaving once he’s off the scene. So it would go, I thought. But then, after he lost the election, he kinda was off the scene, and began mildly fading—until the indictments started coming in. Like a switch that had been flicked, the insanity of support exploded and has been settling in ever since. True, many commented that it wasn’t deep or considered support, but it was pervasive and growing. And Trump’s method went in the only direction he knows—more assertiveness, more never backing down, more defiance of facts, more gas lighting, more projection, and on it went.

Since 2020, all Trump needed for succeeding in every major design of his was perhaps one more cog—Mike Pence not standing up—or any of the others—Randy Bowers, Brad Raffensberg, William Barr, and so on—and it might have all been different. Or yesterday, the appellate courts could have phoned it in, and on the wrong side of the argument. It’s not hard to imagine, with the alteration of just one or a few pieces, a completely different outcome rather than the one which now points so clearly to accountability.

And it’s because of the closeness of the outcome, the fragility of it all, that I praise Donald Trump. It’s for his uncanny ability to succeed in ways no other person could. He shows us what’s possible, so he’s, yes, a cautionary tale, but he’s also reminder of the awesomeness of human potential. He really could have won. He shows us the power, the horrible efficacy, of a strong man. Oddly, that power affirms the value of human life. One individual can matter. One leader can completely remake a great nation, a great tradition. As horrible as that possibility is, especially as most of us would use the word “destroy” instead of “remake,” it does bring with it an affirmation of human agency. We matter. 

So, Donald Trump is a great man. He’s also a loser, an ignoramus, and a creep. In the end, he shows us what we are capable of—just how close we can come to the edge of the abyss, and just how resilient our institutions can be in pulling us back from peril. Thank you, Appellate Court—for doing your job, with decency and thoroughness, at a time when those attributes were never in greater need.

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