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Donald Trump: American vampire

He strengthens himself by weakening supporters, rivals and the United States.

By Sarah Baxter

There are 19 mugshots of alleged co-conspirators to overthrow the 2020 US election in Georgia, but only one anybody will remember: the picture of Donald Trump, hair gleaming in a L’Oreal “because I’m worth it” moment, eyes glowering at the sheriff’s camera.

There were eight preening politicians onstage in Milwaukee for the first Republican presidential primary debate on 23 August, but only one victor, who was not present. And nearly 300 chumps have been jailed for their role in the US Capitol riot on 6 January, 2021, but only the fate of one man matters. As Gore Vidal once said, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

Trump’s vampiric ability to turn everybody associated with him into stooges and weaklings always makes him stronger. It is the very essence of his success. The power to crush, bully and dominate others is fuelling his comeback and making him a stronger candidate for president than he was before he was hit with 91 criminal charges in four cases (related to allegedly paying hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels, hiding classified documents and election interference at federal and state level).

He sets the rules of the game; others follow, while Trump breaks them whenever he pleases. He cries witch-hunt, complains of being victimised and demands all Republicans rally loyally to his side to protect him, while his allies are hung out to dry. According to Sean Wilentz, professor of American history at Princeton, “The more outrageous Trump’s criminality, the better for his base. They love him the same way alienated people love any strongman. He means business! So he can do no wrong: he is numinous. But he destroys everything he comes into close contact with.”

Trump has no parallel in US politics, Wilentz told me, although he thinks Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana from 1928-1932 on whom Sean Penn’s character in the film All the King’s Men was based, came close. “The only question now is: having destroyed the Republican Party, and having done his utmost to destroy American democracy, will he complete the job?” Wilentz said. “Or will it be James Cagney in White Heat: ‘Top of the world, Ma!’ Boom.”

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We don’t know how the final act will unfold. Joe Biden leads Trump by 1.4 per cent, according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average. The 2024 US presidential election could be a squeaker. But it is hard to imagine any candidate other than Trump winning the Republican nomination after last week’s debate. Most of his Republican rivals, who aped his dark suit and red tie on stage, were simply vying to be runner-up. Their hands shot up in response to a question from the moderator about whether they would support Trump for president if he were a convicted felon, a new low for the supposed party of law and order.

Embarrassingly, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida long thought of as Trump’s top challenger, looked around furtively to see what the others were doing before giving his assent. He has been mercilessly belittled by the Trump campaign. A senior adviser to Trump quipped in June, “Not surprised Ron DeSantis is looking for a set of balls,” when the governor turned up at a fry-up event in Nevada where lamb testicles were served. On the evidence of the debate, he still hasn’t found them.

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Nobody was more eager to defend Trump on the night than the vanity candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. The self-made bio-entrepreneur, a presumably intelligent graduate of Harvard and Yale Law school, has taken to spouting nonsense about FBI agents being behind the 6 January riot and 9/11 attacks under the guise of “just asking questions” to curry favour with conspiracy-minded Trump voters. After he revealed his first name rhymes with cake, critics have begun to call him VivFake. I don’t think his patina of success will last long.

Even Tucker Carlson, who streamed a pre-recorded interview with Trump on Twitter (or X) during the live debate, has been burned by Trump. Carlson was sacked in April by Fox News partly because of the costly defamation lawsuit brought against the channel by Dominion, a company that makes voting machines, over election lies. After being knocked off his perch, Carlson is no longer America’s foremost television host, despite claiming an audience of 74 million for his interview (a ridiculous figure inflated by scrollers).

Of all the allies brought low by Trump, the biggest sap is surely Rudy Giuliani, known as “America’s mayor” for his calm leadership of New York during the 9/11 attacks. I admired his conduct then and have been amazed by his servility to Trump. “They were both super-egos in the 1980s and 1990s but worked around each other,” said Wilentz. “Trump has destroyed him. He has almost a feral sense of the weakness of people and how to bring them into the tent.” Giuliani is now being prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (Rico), the very law he used to put mobsters behind bars. 

Of course, Giuliani has only himself to blame for lying about the “stolen” election and would be a sadly diminished figure even without his craven Trump boosterism. Sacha Baron Cohen filmed Giuliani fumbling with his trousers while in a bedroom with a young woman posing as a journalist in the Borat sequel; and in August a former assistant, Noelle Dunphy, who is suing Giuliani for $10m for sexual harassment, released an audio recording of him calling her “big tits” and saying, “These breasts belong to me.”

Giuliani is now facing ruinous legal bills and has put his $6m New York apartment up for sale. A few months ago he apparently travelled to Mar-a-Lago to beg Trump to fund his defence, but Trump “didn’t seem very interested”, according to CNN.

Jenna Ellis, another of the Georgia suspects, who once described herself as part of the “elite strike force team” of lawyers advising Trump after his defeat, has been told to fend for herself after supporting DeSantis for president. 

Several of the gang of alleged election plotters have petitioned Fani Willis, the Georgia prosecutor, for a speedy trial because they can’t afford to pay the astronomical legal fees involved in Trump’s sprawling case. At the time of writing, Harrison Floyd, the only African-American co-defendant in the case, remains stuck in Fulton County jail because he can’t afford a private lawyer and was denied bond.

Kenneth Chesebro, a formerly reputable attorney, who wound up following Alex Jones of Infowars like a lapdog at the Capitol riot, has just been granted a trial start date of 23 October. It will be a fascinating early test of strength for the prosecution. Trump, otherwise known as inmate number P01135809, wants his case to be severed from theirs so that his trial can be delayed beyond the next election.

Unlike his allies, Trump is not short of money, having raked in $53m in donations since the beginning of this year. Although $40m has been spent on legal fees, his mug shot has already generated $7m in further donations and merchandising revenue. You would think the penny would drop that Trump is out for himself and cannot be trusted. In fact, the opposite is true. Every demonstration of fealty from people who ought to know better further inflates the former president’s cult of personality. He looks strong by making others look weak.

I have stopped thinking his fan base will come to its senses. The poster of Trump’s mug shot bears the word: Legend. If he wins the 2024 election, Trump will exact revenge on his doubters. If not, he will simply find somebody else to blame. Legends can’t be losers, can they?

[See also: Elon Musk owns Donald Trump now]

This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con