‘Like lighting a match’: Trump ramps up rhetoric as legal walls close in
Donald Trump understands the camera. He is particular about angles, lighting and his inimitable orange hair. But come this Tuesday, in a New York courthouse, the camera will become his tormentor as Trump, once the most powerful man in the world, is told to provide a mug shot like a common criminal.
The first reality TV star to be elected US president, and the first US president to be twice impeached and attempt the overthrow of an election, is now the first US president to be charged with a crime. The 76-year-old faces the humiliation of being photographed, fingerprinted and entering a plea to charges involving a 2016 hush money payment to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels.
Related: A 2006 encounter and cash for silence: how the Trump-Stormy Daniels case unfolded
The impact of that is already being felt. There are signs that the legal perils now engulfing Trump are pushing him to new extremes. Trump has never been a conventional politician, but his divisive brand of populist-nationalism is growing ever more intense and extreme.
His 2024 campaign for the White House is embracing a violent rhetoric that could inflame tensions and put America on a path to conflagration. Barricades have gone up around the courthouse in New York. Daniels canceled a Friday television interview out of “security concerns”. Trump’s language on the campaign trail and social media, haranguing his enemies, is laced with race-baiting and antisemitic conspiratorial tropes.
“There’s nothing traditional about Donald Trump and there never has been, but we’ve never been in this situation before and what’s different now is how polarised we are,” said Frank Luntz, a pollster who has worked on numerous Republican election campaigns. “This is like lighting a match in the middle of a bonfire that’s been doused with gasoline. I’m afraid that we’re lighting a match and we’re going to see on Tuesday what happens.”
For a moment, it had seemed that this time might be different. Trump launched his 2024 election campaign last November at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida with an uncharacteristic low energy, steering clear of his stolen election lies and insisting: “We’re going to keep it very elegant.”
He then went unusually quiet before embarking on small-scale campaign events, issuing policy proposals and hiring staff in early voting states. Unlike his ramshackle 2016 effort, his campaign team appeared disciplined. The Hill website observed: “Former President Trump is doing something shocking – he’s running a campaign that is starting to look quite conventional.”
But just as hopes that Trump would grow into the presidency were constantly dashed, so this newly orthodox candidate was never going to last. The trigger came two days after he became the first contender to hit the 2024 election campaign trail, delivering unremarkable speeches in the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
In a surprise move, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, revived what had seemed be a cold case, an investigation into an alleged $130,000 payment to Daniels in the waning days of the 2016 campaign. Daniels has said she received money in exchange for keeping silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump in 2006, when he was married to Melania Trump.
As witnesses testified to a grand jury and the walls closed in, Trump used the threat to raise money and rally supporters as he seeks his party’s nomination to challenge Joe Biden next year. He abandoned all pretence of moderation and reverted to the old demagoguery.
He knows the power of that word ‘protest’. He knows what happened the last time he used that word
At the Conservative Political Action Conference at the National Harbor in Maryland, he spoke in apocalyptic terms of a “final battle” and vowed to supporters: “I am your retribution.” On his Truth Social media platform, he inaccurately predicted his own arrest and called for protests, echoing his charged rhetoric ahead of the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.
Luntz commented: “He knows the power of that word ‘protest’. He knows what happened the last time he used that word. This is a deliberate effort to engage people in his situation and I am concerned about the consequences of him using that word.”
Trump went on to warn of potential “death & destruction” if he were charged and described Bragg as an “animal” who was “doing the work of Anarchists and the Devil, who want our Country to fail”. He accused Bragg, who is Black, of racial bias and even shared an image – later removed – of himself holding a baseball bat next to a picture of the district attorney. Bragg’s office has been the target of bomb threats in recent weeks.
Then, last weekend, Trump held his first campaign rally in Waco, Texas, exactly 30 years after a 51-day standoff and deadly siege there, and began by standing with hand on heart during the playing of a song that features a choir of men imprisoned for their role in the January 6 insurrection singing the national anthem, as footage from the riot was shown on big screens.
The ex-president proceeded to describe the “weaponisation of law enforcement” as the biggest threat to America today and vow: “The thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced.”
When on Thursday the grand jury had voted to indict, Trump responded in similar fashion and, significantly, Republicans rallied to his defence. Such is his grip on that party that even potential 2024 rivals felt compelled to defend his claim of a witch-hunt. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, called the move “un-American”, while former vice-president Mike Pence told CNN the charges were “outrageous”.
Both will have been aware that Trump’s campaign of rage in recent weeks has put him back in the headlines and expanded his lead in opinion polls. DeSantis, promoting a new book, has found himself going backwards. It is little surprise that Trump feels emboldened.
Luntz said: “His numbers have gone up five points since this whole thing came about and I’m afraid that it will galvanise and solidify the support that had been leaving him. Donald Trump is the best politician in my lifetime at playing the victim card. There’s no one who comes close to him.”
Trump alleges that there are political motivations behind all four criminal investigations he is known to face – including into his retention of classified documents and attempts to overturn his election defeat, and a separate Georgia investigation into his efforts to overturn his loss in that state. One line of attack is reframing January 6 as a heroic defence of democracy.
He’s like a political vampire with a taste. He got a taste of what that violence can do on his behalf
Tara Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “It’s clear that January 6 is a badge of valour for him, given that he’s continued to escalate the violent rhetoric similar to that which he used prior to January 6. He seems to get off on the idea of people engaging in violence on behalf of him.”
She added: “He’s like a political vampire with a taste. He got a taste of what that violence can do on his behalf and now he wants more because he feels powerful.”
The shift to the right goes beyond posturing. Trump has unleashed a barrage of policy proposals that include punishing doctors who provide gender-affirming care, measures that would make it harder to vote and imposing the death penalty on drug dealers. He appears to be taking the Republican party with him.
Staunch allies such as Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have risen to prominence in Congress. Republican state legislatures across the country have passed extreme legislation curtailing abortion and LGBTQ and voting rights. DeSantis, seen as Trump’s principal rival for the nomination, has adopted many of the same positions or tried to move even further right.
Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist, said: “I don’t think he’s dragging them anywhere. They’re going willingly and voluntarily. They’re not putting up any kind of struggle. It just tells me intuitively that this is what they want, this is the kind of party that they want to be a part of because they’re doing absolutely nothing to divorce themselves from the extremism that Donald Trump regurgitates every single day.”
Police are likely to close streets around the Manhattan courthouse ahead of Tuesday’s expected appearance. In a sign of the increasingly febrile atmosphere, Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator for South Carolina, mocked Bragg’s sense of priorities by writing on Twitter: “How can President Trump avoid prosecution in New York? On the way to the DA’s office on Tuesday, Trump should smash some windows, rob a few shops and punch a cop. He would be released IMMEDIATELY!”
A potential trial is still at least more than a year away, meaning it could occur during or after the presidential campaign. While it is unclear what specific charges Trump will face, some legal experts have said Bragg might have to rely on untested legal theories to argue that Trump falsified business records to cover up crimes such as violating federal campaign finance law.
Luntz, the pollster, warned: “If you go to kill the king and the king lives, you die. If you prosecute Donald Trump and he is found innocent, there will be no stopping him. If he is found guilty, there’ll be no calming down of his most fervent supporters. Either way, it’s bad for the American democracy.”