Trump’s Two Storylines

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The biggest challenge of telling the story of history as it unfolds is that you don’t know how it ends. This is a commonplace, of course — a humorous aside or even trite. But the implications of this fact are not always obvious. So it can be worth considering what it means. We are a story-telling species. We take the unorganized facts of existence and weave them together into meaningful trajectories through time. The meaning and logic of these stories are intrinsically linked to and bounded by the unique features of the human brain. When I started studying to be a historian in a PhD program in the early 90s I found this unnerving. But I later realized or perhaps decided that it was one of the essential, nourishing features of being human.

This is always the case. And we are constantly in the process of revising stories — either in our own individual lives or as journalists making sense of the larger world we live in. But there are some moments in which the fracture, the potentially different storylines seem especially great, where the very different lists of what’s important and what’s not is especially stark. We seem to be in one of those moments in the story of the 2024 campaign. And by this I actually don’t mean the hugely consequential question of who wins the election, though of course it’s related to that. I’m talking about the Trump story itself.

On the one hand, we remain locked in this 50-50 contest between Trump and his opponents, soft authoritarianism and damaged civic democracy. It’s the story of 2016, 2020 and now 2024. Trump may be defeated a second and final time. Or he may reclaim power. It may prove to be like a latter-day War of the Roses in which power is snatched back and forth for years until the contest is finally settled. But it’s possible to look at all this and see a very different story.

While Trump may be on the road to reclaiming power, he is also in the process of being eaten alive. He faces almost a hundred separate felony indictments, in four jurisdictions, on charges ranging from novel and uncertain to open and shut. Trump’s uncanny luck has led many of us to think he can’t possibly see the inside of a jail cell regardless of just how he evades it. But this is an illusion created by Trump’s own unique reality-distortion vortex. There are very good reasons to think Trump is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. You may not believe it. But Trump’s own words and actions say he definitely does. The threats of violence and vengeance that make his potential return to power such a horror are driven in large part by his fear and desperation.

Meanwhile his family business, yesterday, took the first steps toward being dissolved. The state of Trump’s finances generally today are as opaque as always. There’s little question that much of his old business has been damaged greatly by adverse publicity. But other revenue sources have clearly increased, perhaps dramatically. While the details are unclear, Trump clearly got a windfall from the de facto Saudi takeover of the PGA Golf. Trump appears to be facing vast legal expenses, though, for the moment, the GOP small donor spigot he still controls appears to be willing to pick up the tab. Regardless, he clearly feels besieged and endangered on every front with the standard ruses and gambits he’s used in the past failing again and again.

In this sense we see most clearly that the two story lines are actually one. The mounting existential threats Trump faces fuel his escalating threats of violence, authoritarian crackdowns and extra-constitutional actions if he is returned to power. A week ago Rolling Stone published an account of Trump privately worrying that he is headed to prison and anxiously asking advisors what sort of treatment he might expect in confinement. While not doubting the reporting, I am always wary of these kinds of stories since I suspect the Trumpworld is so leaky and filled with different layers of lickspittles, backstabbers and hangers-on that you can find people who will say, claim and report lots of things about what Trump is really saying. But it is enough to make us consider the degree to which Trump’s current posture of bravado and menace — while real enough as a threat — is simply his latest con, concealing a weaker and more terrified reality. It may best be seen as the kind of over-the-top aggression that, in his earlier history, allowed him to overawe and cow more conventional business titans when he was actually holding no cards at all.

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