As the Flames Rise Ever Higher

Trump on trial (Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: Associated Press)

A former president of the United States of America occupies an uncomfortable seat at the defendant’s table inside the New York State Supreme Court, as the criminal case of The People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump moves along briskly amid a frenzied American media circus over so-called “hush money”. At stake: a possible 20 years in prison for the 45th president of the U.S. on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records with the intent to commit tax fraud, violate federal campaign finance limits and illegally influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which he ended up winning.

Trump has other much bigger federal and state-level cases against him still in the works, but he has managed so far to stall, delay and bring those other cases to a crawl in the legal system. And so, this one becomes the first full-fledged criminal trial of an ex-president in American history. New York state prosecutors are eager to get the Great Orange One himself to walk those few steps from the defendant’s chair into the real hot seat — the witness stand — where he would testify under oath and likely perjure himself, to use a Trumpian superlative, like no one’s ever seen before.

But what is that funky burning stench we all smell? Is it a dozing Trump harmlessly passing a little gas in the courtroom, as some reports have alleged? Is it the sulphur that runs like blood in his devilish veins getting ready to ignite? Or is it the smell of Trump’s legacy, and American-style democracy too, going up in ever-rising flames all around us?

We only need to look back at the road Trump and America have traveled together the past few years to identify the source of that lingering malodor.

In the wake of the murder of U.S. citizen George Floyd by police in mid-2020, while Trump was still president, Trump used social media to spread hate speech and spur his supporters into violent action against anti-police protesters. So much so that, according to an internal memo within the Facebook social media platform, “[W]e can see clearly that the entire country was basically ‘on fire’” at the time.

In a televised live debate a few months later in September 2020 between then-incumbent Trump, who was trailing in the public opinion polls, and challenger Joe Biden, a career Democrat from the old Cold War school of American politics, Trump’s only strategy was to burn the traditional presidential debate to the ground: He uttered lie after lie, repeatedly interrupted, refused to engage on issues of substance and questioned the legitimacy of the upcoming election just a couple months away. He even issued to a violent extreme-right group, the Proud Boys, a directive to “stand back and stand by”.

And stand by his worshipful sycophants did, as Biden won the 2020 election by a wide margin, and Trump, proceeding in his role of Arsonist-in-Chief, fanned the flames of the four-alarm fire that was literally engulfing the White House. Trump refused to concede defeat and accept the election results. Falsehood after falsehood about widespread election fraud emanated from Trump’s puckered mouth, and lawsuit after lawsuit by him and his supporters failed to turn up any evidence of such fraud.

In Germany on 27 February 1933, the nation’s parliament building, the Reichstag, was burned to the ground. The newly elected chancellor of that country, Adolf Hitler, used the suspiciously timed fire as a pretense to have all constitutional rights of German citizens suspended — an act that led to the rise of Nazi Germany and all the horrors that followed during World War II.

America’s own Reichstag fire moment came almost 90 years later, on the afternoon of 6 January 2021. That day, flocks of Trump supporters, wielding weapons, took over parts of the Capitol building in Washington DC with the intention of keeping Trump in power by hook or by crook. They occupied the Capitol and sought to keep a joint session of Congress from counting the votes to formally validate the rightful victory of president-elect Biden.

Trump, who has admitted wanting to accompany the mob there, was turned away by his Secret Service detail and escorted back to his lair at the White House, where he reportedly watched on television the violent attack that day on a center of the nation’s democratic system without so much as lifting a finger to stop it. “We love you, you’re very special,” he later comforted his defeated followers after the riot was successfully put down by late-arriving law enforcement teams.

6 January was an attempted coup, to be sure, in which Trump and his brand of violent extremists were going to overturn an election. But did that coup attempt totally fail? Looking back three years on, it is not entirely clear that Trump did fail. His supporters have only been emboldened by their success in breaking into the Capitol and coming within a hair’s breadth of helping Trump to illegally overturn the election. Those who were arrested and who are now serving prison time for participaing in the Capitol riot are viewed lovingly as “hostages” by Trump. The Capitol building did not burn that day, true, but the flames of that American-style Reichstag fire rise ever higher still.

In the months after the Capitol insurrection, the “United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack” convened and spent more than a year conducting its own investigation and reaching a firm conclusion that Trump was responsible for the riot. “Donald Trump lit that fire,” committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) wrote in the committee’s final report. “But in the weeks beforehand, the kindling he ultimately ignited was amassed in plain sight.”

In in all fairness, though, Trump could not and did not do it alone. Along with Trump’s legion of cult-like followers, many members of Congress have aided him in everything from trying to overturn the 2020 election to refusing to impeach him as president — twice — for high crimes and misdemeanors. Now, the Republican Party as an institution all but bows to Trump as he role-plays a maladjusted adolescent striking matches in a dry field, denying an election he lost and, should he be elected again, planning to do even worse things the next time around. The conservative political party that once proudly stood for “law and order” in America today answers only to Trump’s law and Trump’s orders.

One of the most outspoken members of the Republican Party who loyally supported Trump throughout most of his four-year term as president was congresswoman Liz Cheney. It was only at the end of that term, when Trump refused to accept defeat in the 2020 election, that Cheney broke ranks and stood against Trump. She later co-chaired the congressional 6 January committee. “We can’t survive a president who is willing to torch the Constitution,” Cheney correctly warns us today.

But who created the deep divisions throughout the United States that helped make it possible for an extremist demagogue like Trump to get elected in the first place and walk right into the White House as president? It was none other than Liz Cheney’s father, Dick Cheney, who served as vice president under boy-king George W. Bush two decades ago. The Bush-Cheney administration had turned the rule of law on its head, both domestically and internationally, causing deep chasms in American society and beyond that Trump later exploited to become president. He still exploits those divisions today. And now the far-right Cheney family urgently warns us about the monster they helped to create? What’s wrong with this hypocritical picture?

Another prominent member of the U.S. Congress did even more to pave the way for Trump: Mitch McConnell, the veteran U.S. senator from Kentucky. When it came to things like opposing gun control and abortion rights, packing the current right-wing-heavy U.S. Supreme Court, adamantly refusing to impeach Trump and declining to save his own political party from Trump’s reptilian grip, McConnell has proven himself over time to be a worthy doorman and enabler for the likes of Trump. McConnell recently resigned from the Senate after decades in power, his legacy as America’s foremost political arsonist in the U.S. Congress firmly intact.

All of which brings us to Trump’s ongoing trial in New York for crimes as serious as breaking tax and campaign finance laws to illegally influence the outcome of a federal election. A porn film actress, Stormy Daniels, has now been called to the witness stand and is delivering damning testimony against Trump. Prosecutors are eager to get Trump himself into that same hot seat of the witness box, where he will be at the mercy of the court. “The man is so bombastic and uncontrollable that he could sink his own ship,” a former Manhattan prosecutor notes. “I mean, you would love to cross-examine this former president and have him contradict himself, have him go on a tirade, alienate the jury. He’s ripe for prosecution to be cross-examined.”

But will that ever happen? We shall see. Trump has gotten himself out of tight situations before. In the meantime, Trump continues turning up the heat against the judge, prosecutor, jury and witnesses in this so-called hush money case in New York, and has been cited with contempt of court numerous times; he is on the verge of possibly being jailed for that. But it’s all in a day’s work for Trump. He has been playing with fire all his life, both in his corrupt business dealings and in the many courtrooms he has found himself seated in as plaintiff and defendant over the years.

Yet this time around, the stakes are much higher: the system of democracy as we know it in the United States, and by extension, across the world. Trump deserves to be jailed for his crimes and to live the rest of his days behind prison walls, clad in a bright-orange prison jumpsuit. But whether that actually happens all depends on which one crosses the finish line of the November 2024 presidential election first — the arc of true justice or the raging brush fire Trump has set in motion and continues to stoke every day.

What is that burning stench we all smell, indeed? Is it the smell of Trump’s last stand or is it democracy’s last gasp? And is it too late at this point, with the next election a few months away, to even drag out the firehoses and extinguish this blasphemous blaze once and for all?

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