Jack Smith's indictment unmasks Trump as a complete and utter buffoon
The emperor has no clothes, but he does have boxes in his bathroom.
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By David R. Lurie
The greatest political gift for Donald Trump’s Republican rivals this primary cycle may be that already infamous photograph of Donald Trump’s bathroom.
That picture, in last week’s DOJ indictment, of a cramped Mar-a-Lago water closet — with a small window, a chandelier, and piles of boxes arrayed near the toilet — exemplified what may turn out to be the most politically damaging aspect of special counsel Jack Smith’s case against the former president: It’s a deeply embarrassing document that portrays Trump as a weak and incompetent buffoon rather than the valiant warrior against the deep state his followers have so long believed him to be.
As far right pundit Ben Domenech observed just after Trump’s CNN town hall, Ron DeSantis and other Trump rivals for the Republican presidential nomination face a fundamental problem: The extremists who now determine the outcome of GOP primaries have made a huge “investment” in “Trump as a figurehead” of the “populist movement that has transformed the Republican Party.” DeSantis strategists acknowledge that the primary campaign will be determined by voters who view Trump as their charismatic leader, and who have long believed that he is the singular figure who can save them from the dangers of a frighteningly changing, and rapidly diversifying, country.
DeSantis’s campaign has recently been pitching a strategy of setting out to beat Trump by moving “to the right” of him, and asserting, for example, that DeSantis is a more committed anti-vax conspiracist and more devoted to ending reproductive rights, advancing homophobia, and implementing censorship. But DeSantis has gained little traction with his effort to portray the former president as too “left” for a GOP that is increasingly dominated by “ultra-MAGA” voters, and for obvious reasons.
As Domenech observed, the extremists DeSantis needs to “peel away” from Trump are “invested” in their charismatic leader, who has — through a carefully cultivated cult of personality — effectively portrayed himself as a singular, and heroic, leader, and the only figure who can prevail against the supposed internal enemies that MAGA followers have come to fear.
Furthermore, Trump has demonstrated that he can readily preempt DeSantis or anyone else attempting to promote a newly appealing bigoted or conspiratorial idea to “the base.” Trump did so last Saturday, when he brought a crowd of Georgia Republicans to their feet, simply by repeating, and adopting as his own, DeSantis’s transphobic lines. Watch:
Yet last’s week’s indictment may have pointed to Trump’s actual Achilles’ heel with his long adulatory base: The document unmasked him to be far more of a buffoon than a warrior.
As Domenech said after the special counsel’s indictment was unsealed, the document “reads … like a Coen Brothers script.” Any Big Lebowski fan immediately picked up on the allusion, which was not to “the Dude,” but to the ironically nicknamed Jeffrey “Big” Lebowski, an apparently rich and powerful millionaire, who lives surrounded by trophies demonstrating his power (including a picture with Nancy Reagan), but is eventually revealed to be a fool.
The Big Lebowski’s failed effort to turn “the Dude” into his dupe ends in failure, with Lebowski whining in frustration on the floor of his empty mansion. Jack Smith’s indictment similarly portrays Trump as a deposed emperor with no clothes.
This is the guy who’s supposed to vanquish the “deep state”?
While some have said that the indictment fails to explain Trump’s motive for his crimes, it’s hardly difficult to discern Trump’s state of mind: In the wake of his failed coup, Trump hoarded, and was determined to retain, tokens of his lost power. The very fact that Trump had no good reason to keep his hands on the trove of documents he stole only makes the episode more pathetic.
The tale told in the indictment of Trump’s minions stashing boxes, and moving them from room to room, in Mar-a-Lago — desperately hiding them from the prying eyes of government investigators as well as Trump’s own counsel — does, as Domenech suggested, seem like a bizarre, slapstick comedy, albeit a dark one, given that the pointless scheme gravely endangered national security.
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The fact that a trove of the stolen government boxes were moved from the gilt ballroom of Mar-a-Lago (which is often rented out for weddings) to a spot between a toilet and shower in a bathroom only adds to the pathos of the tale.
Furthermore, the Donald Trump depicted (frequently through his own words) in the indictment is the furthest thing from a savvy warrior against determined “deep state” forces. Instead, he’s a fool, seemingly choosing to take every possible step to invite prosecution.
The transcript of the July 2021 gathering in Trump’s New Jersey estate, where the former president shuffled a pile of stolen documents in front of a writer and publisher, announced that the documents were “highly confidential,” and then proceeded to share the contents with his audience — to the chagrin of a member of his staff, who exclaimed “now we have a problem” — reads like a script from the theater of the absurd.
The same is true of Trump’s elaborate, and utterly ineffective, effort to turn his lawyer, Evan Corcoran, into a collaborator. It apparently never occurred to Trump that the attorney — whom he’d only recently engaged — might not agree to risk his career and freedom by acting as his new Michael Cohen, and deep-sixing incriminating materials on his behalf. Corcoran, in fact, rejected Trump’s request to partner with him in crime and, ultimately, a judge ordered Corcoran’s notes to be disclosed under the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege.
The failed effort to turn Corcoran into a co-conspirator was, per the indictment, followed by the shambolic shuffling and reshuffling of boxes by Trump’s now indicted valet — recorded on camera — in an attempt to shield some of Trump’s classified document trophies from the lawyer, and the inducement (by Corcoran) of yet another lawyer to sign a false affirmation for submission to the government.
In sum, the Trump of Mar-a-Lago is far from a hero slaying dragons on behalf of his followers. Rather, much like the Big Lebowski — and Biden, in Trump’s own false depictions of the current president — Trump is a doddering fool, who virtually authored the criminal case against himself.
There’s blood in the water
As the case proceeds towards trial, and more evidence comes to light, the portrait of Trump the incompetent will almost certainly become more pronounced. And the most dangerous way for a would-be authoritarian strongman to appear to his acolytes is as weak, vulnerable, and feeble-minded.
Longshot GOP presidential hopeful Chris Christie has already begun trying to take advantage of the situation. During his CNN town hall on Monday, he called Trump a “loser” and said of the indictment, "Everyone is blaming the prosecutors. He did it! It's his fault."
DeSantis has been far more circumspect about the criminal charges, but he also appears to sense an opportunity to portray Trump as more fool than hero. Last week, DeSantis dismissed Trump’s claims that he would vanquish the deep state immediately after returning to the White House, declaring: “Anyone who says they can slay the deep state in six months should be asked, ‘Why didn’t you do that when you had four years?’” Ezra Klein has likewise observed that DeSantis portrays Trump as a “faintly comic figure” in his recently-released campaign book. The clear implication is that Trump might not be tough enough to be a strongman after all.
That said, the project of “peeling off” Trump from his base is a delicate political maneuver, one that the ham-handed DeSantis has to date shown no talent for accomplishing. Indeed, few have ever succeeded in deposing a charismatic leader and gaining the allegiance of their followers. Furthermore, such a feat is usually accompanied by the death of the older leader (see, for example, Stalin’s succession of Lenin’s place as leader of the USSR following Lenin’s death, and Brigham Young’s ascendance to leadership of the Latter-day Saints following Joseph Smith’s murder).
That said, if any rival for the MAGA throne is to succeed, Trump’s followers must conclude that “the Donald” has lost his mojo, and that the cause of tearing down the constitutional order must be handed over to a more competent and ruthless successor. By giving the nation an extended, and deeply embarrassing, account of Trump as the Big Lebowski, Jack Smith may — however unintentionally — provide his would-be successors a potential path for success.
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