On a Saturday when dark clouds and even killer tornadoes were wending their way over huge swathes of the United States, the sun rose brightly over Waco. On a dusty patch of land in a central Texas town tagged by historic infamy, Donald Trump's army of supporters came early and in surprisingly large numbers on the first weekend of an uneasy American spring.
In the shadow of massive pro-Trump flags—"Trump Or Death 1776 2024" read one fastened to the front bumper of a blue Jeep—flew the undercurrent that the runaway front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination has sparked in a recent speech. Call it vengeance, or retribution, or old-fashioned smiting your enemies.
On this day, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg—the Black, progressive-minded prosecutor who may win an indictment of Trump as early as this week—was the new Public Enemy No. 1. "Alvin Bragg is overstepping his boundaries," a man in a Trump hat, brandishing a T-shirt with a picture of the New York prosecutor reading "ARREST ALVIN BRAGG," told a conservative news network. "We the people are calling for the arrest of Alvin Bragg for crimes of treason and election interference—I don't even know if election interference is a crime—but election interference, obstruction of justice, even lying to a grand jury. Trump done nothing wrong. We're here to show support for the greatest president ever."
This random dude's words were echoed by the more powerful in attendance, such as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who increasingly sits at the right hand of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. "We have to stop allowing Democrats to abuse us," said Greene of Bragg, echoing the call for his arrest, while also calling him a puppet of Jewish billionaire George Soros in an antisemitic trope. She pled victimization: "It's like we are a beaten spouse."
Moments later, the jet rebranded as "Trump Force One" flew in for its dramatic landing, now accompanied by a favorite from the 1980s' Top Gun soundtrack. Kenny Loggins blared from the loudspeakers: "Ride into the danger zone..."
Danger zone, indeed. Do not be fooled by the calming blue of a Texas big sky: the 747 of American democracy is flying on a collision course toward a steep mountainside. With the weight of four separate criminal probes dealing with Trump's outrageous behavior before, during and after his disastrous 45th presidency coming down on him, the hero of America's authoritarian right is gaining altitude in utter defiance of political gravity.
With every headline about porn star payoffs, or threatening phone calls demanding that Georgia politicians find him votes, or a more aggressive federal investigation of his attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump seems to rise another point or two in the polls—building a huge early lead in the race to win the GOP's 2024 White House nod. The only candidate who's shown signs of mounting an intraparty challenge—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—looks increasingly like a frozen deer on the Trump runway, unable to respond to attacks, caught between his me-too, Trump-lite policies and his need to appease traditional Republican fat cats and inside backers like Jeb Bush.
No one knows how a scenario like this ends. But it clearly cannot end well. Will America really see a 2024 campaign where one party's leading candidate isn't jetting around to rallies on Trump Force One but instead is flown between courtrooms in New York, Atlanta, and Washington by armed marshals, wearing an ankle bracelet? And what if the Republican nominee is convicted? How serious to take Trump's prediction in a recent Truth Social post of "potential death & destruction" if he's charged? What to expect from fans vowing "Trump or Death"?
"They're not coming after me, they're coming after you," Trump said Saturday after ambling to the Waco stage, unveiling what ought to be his 2024 campaign slogan. The candidate's occasional rambles into policy—a likely abandonment of Ukraine's defense of democracy, or a fascist level of state control over the classroom—are not what this campaign is about.
Trump's only real promise is a red wedding of revenge, against a "deep state" that ranges from the FBI to Covid bureaucrats, against the army of prosecutors who happen to be Black, against anybody really—school teachers and college professors, or white-coated doctors, or journalists—that people willing to stand for eight hours in Texas dust think are looking down on them.
Why is this working? Don't ask the pundits who get paid a handsome six figures to talk about politics, who seem just as clueless today about Trump and, more importantly, his appeal—maybe more so—than when he cruised down that Trump Tower escalator in 2015.
"You know what I don't get, and I'm going to look stupid on TV for saying this, but I haven't gotten this for the last five or six years," John McWhorter, the Columbia University linguist and New York Times op-ed contributor, a frequent critic of the left, said recently on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher." "Is it really true that there are really these people quote unquote sitting in diners with their hats on, et cetera, who are existentially upset that people like us in blue America look down on them? It seems to me most people aren't caring what the wider world thinks about them—they're buying their groceries... I don't believe they think about us."
John, you need to get out of the Upper West Side more often. They are absolutely thinking all the time about you, and your Columbia colleagues, and op-ed writers like me and you—even when you're intellectualizing their hatred of college campuses—and climate scientists and bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci (successful grandson of immigrants who once would have been lauded by conservatives) and of course lawyers like Alvin Bragg. Anyone who brandishes a diploma and tells them what they don't want to hear. Bonus points for anyone who tells them what they don't want to hear while Black, or while female.
Their movement isn't defined by what they want but by whom they hate, and Donald Trump is the first politician who could articulate that rage with crude bluntness.
I've spent a lot of time since the 2000s listening to people on the right—on my car radio, or at Tea Party gatherings and outside Trump rallies—and their message is pretty unambiguous. Their movement isn't defined by what they want but by whom they hate, and Donald Trump is the first politician who could articulate that rage with crude bluntness. McWhorter also said on HBO that Trump is "charismatic," but he's not—not in the sense of JFK or the Gipper. It's only that he hates the right people, that he is the enemy of their enemy.
For people fearful that whites or churchgoers are becoming a minority in America, or angry that cosmopolitan elites were redefining society as a rigged meritocracy where people without diplomas could be viewed as losers, Trump's hokey 2016 message that "I am your voice" resonated. But the perceived slights of the seven years since then—peaking in 2020 with the massive Black Lives Matter protests, the social controls needed to fight a pandemic, and Trump's Big Lie around his election defeat—have inspired 2023's much more dangerous message, that he is "your retribution."
No wonder that Trump's looming potential indictments—by two Black big-city prosecutors that Fox News regularly blames for urban crime, and by the "deep state" of the U.S. Justice Department—are making him stronger by the day. No wonder his Waco throng stood with Trump in a sick musical celebration of the jailed thugs who attacked police officers in their Capitol Hill insurrection, Beer Hall Putsch martyrs for a new millennium.
In an unreality zone called MSNBC, producers have reinvented the Trump saga as a political version of the O.J. Simpson trial—sometimes giving the whole hour to breathless coverage of the legal dramas for a shrinking audience in McWhorter's "blue America." Those viewers remain certain that Bragg or Jack Smith or Fani Willis will finally take down Trump despite seeing that the Access Hollywood tape and two impeachments and everything else did not.
Here's what's real: American democracy has been in a doom loop ever since 2015. That's because the establishment keeps reaching into the traditional toolbox for the things—hard-hitting investigative reporting, congressional hearings, special prosecutors, and even impeachment—that always took down the bad guys of yesteryear, like Richard Nixon. The tools don't work on a movement based around hatred of journalists and prosecutors and even the FBI.
Today, we stand on the banks of the Rubicon, and I would argue that the Alvin Braggs and Fani Willises and all of us treading water in a faith in democracy and the rule of law have no choice but to cross it. Prosecuting Donald Trump for both his high crimes and his misdemeanors is necessary to keep the republic—even if the consequence is some kind of "Trump or Death" civil war. We are on the highway to the danger zone, but there's no exit ramp.