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Former President Donald Trump walks over to speak with reporters before he boards his plane at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, on Aug. 3, 2023, in Arlington, Va., after facing a judge on federal conspiracy charges that allege he conspired to subvert the 2020 election.Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

The day before Donald Trump was indicted for conspiring to overturn the 2020 election – the third time the former president has been criminally indicted this year, and it’s only August – The New York Times released a poll showing him leading the race to be the Republican nominee in 2024 by 37 points. In a head-to-head contest with President Joe Biden, the poll showed a tie, 43-43. Which would likely mean a Trump victory in the Electoral College.

The topline figures are grim enough. But it is when you delve into the poll’s details that things really get disturbing. Notwithstanding the 78 criminal counts against him – oh, and a judge’s finding that he raped the journalist E. Jean Carroll – just 13 per cent of Republican voters agreed that Mr. Trump has “committed serious federal crimes.” Even among those, 22 per cent would still support him as their candidate for president.

As devastating as this latest case against Mr. Trump is – as devastating as the previous cases, involving everything from mishandling secret documents to obstruction of justice to campaign finance fraud, were – it should be clear that convicting him on these and other charges, though it looks increasingly likely, will not put an end to Mr. Trump or the threat he poses to American democracy. The criminal trials, indeed, are only a prelude. The real trial will be in the political arena.

If there were any doubt of that before, it was evident in the arguments Mr. Trump’s defenders have presented against the indictment, and its detailed description of how Mr. Trump and his subordinates attempted to browbeat officials in seven states into setting aside the results of the election – and, when that failed, to bully his own vice-president into doing the same – by means that had no basis in law, on the basis of claims of election fraud they knew to be false.

To which the defence is – seriously – freedom of speech? As a defence to fraud and threats? If that held, any mobster demanding protection money could argue the same. Any fraud, any crime that involved one person communicating with another could be likewise defended. It’s ridiculous. The indictment makes the distinction clear: Mr. Trump had a right to contest the election result, and to challenge it in court. He did not have a right to take unlawful actions on that basis, or to induce others to do the same.

Mr. Trump’s alternate defences are no better: that, in attempting to have his own bogus slates of electors substituted for the real thing, he was not committing a fraud upon the U.S. system of government but merely testing out an innovative constitutional theory; or that he sincerely believed he had won the election, though he was informed otherwise by literally dozens of lawyers, advisers, state officials and court rulings.

These are not the sorts of arguments likely to prevail in a court of law, with its meticulous rules of evidence and careful sifting of facts from falsehood. Indeed, I don’t think they are even aimed at the court. They are, intended, rather, for the public, or more particularly for his public, the Republican base: a smokescreen, to confuse the gullible and manipulate the unwary; a rallying cry, for his more ardent followers, ever ready to believe that he is the victim of a political “witch hunt,” that the multiplying charges against him are not evidence of his multiple crimes but of a “weaponized justice system.”

So long as they stand by him, Mr. Trump has calculated, he has a chance: of threatening mayhem if he is tried, and more if he is convicted; of winning the election, or if he cannot win it, of enlisting Republican governors to set aside the results in their states, in a replay of the 2020 scheme; of then somehow shutting down every proceeding against him; or if he is convicted, of pardoning himself; or if some other Republican is the nominee, of being pardoned; or if the Democrats win, of squeezing some sort of bargain out of them, his freedom in exchange for social peace.

Hence Mr. Trump’s careful positioning of himself as a martyr to the MAGA cause. “They’re not indicting me,” he tells the faithful. “They’re indicting you. I just happen to be standing in their way.” But of course the opposite is actually the case. If enough people believe him, he hopes, they will stand in the way for him. It is not an unreasonable calculation.

Which is to say that Mr. Trump himself is not the problem. To be sure, he is a monster without parallel in modern democratic politics. Authoritarian, child, psychopath, crook, a bigot, a huckster, a fool, a pathological liar and a probable Russian asset: he is all these things and more, the worse for his utter lack of shame and refusal to be bound by any constraint of any kind. It is the completeness of it that is so remarkable. Name a vice that he does not possess. Name a virtue that he does. Name a crime that he has not either committed or would be fully capable of.

I’ve said it before: Richard Nixon was a crook when no one was looking. But he was not a revolutionary in the Trumpian mode; he sought to make the system work to his advantage, not to tear it apart. Indeed, revolution à la Mr. Trump is unlike any that has gone before. There is no ideological objective, no utopian ideal that requires the old system to be destroyed before the new can be built. Neither is there the strongman’s belief that only he can prevent revolution. There is only his all-consuming ego and the sheer delight of destruction for destruction’s sake, narcissism and nihilism in equal measure.

But however vile he may be, Mr. Trump would not represent such a profound threat were it not for the willingness of millions of Americans to support him. He is in this sense a symptom as much as a cause of the present crisis. The problem, I say again, is not Mr. Trump: The problem is that so many people are unable or unwilling to see him for what he is – or worse, that they do see him for what he is, and support him anyway. Or, still worse, that they support him because of what he is.

The problem, indeed, may have nothing to do with Mr. Trump. Some of his support may well attach to his strongman persona, however paper-thin it may be in reality: the sense, often voiced by his followers, that he “doesn’t back down,” that “he fights,” or that he “tells it like it is” – as if coarseness and brutality were the same as honesty.

But I think the bigger part of it has less to do with what Mr. Trump is than what he is not. It isn’t so much that “he fights” that matters as what they see him as fighting against, which is to say virtually every principle, precept, rule or value of American life, together with every institution or authority responsible for upholding those rules and values.

The section of the American public that has attached itself to Mr. Trump, it is often commented, is the section that has detached itself from reality, and that much is true: Mr. Trump’s supporters certainly believe he won the election in 2020, even if he does not. But more fundamentally, they have detached themselves from their fellow citizens.

So alienated have they become that they have ceased to trust any of the institutions of the “mainstream” – not the government, not the courts, not the universities or the professions or, needless to say, the media. It isn’t just because these institutions are often the bearers of facts they would prefer not to believe that they reject them. It is more a matter of identity.

The MAGA phenomenon is essentially a kind of secessionism. Its followers have, in effect, seceded from America. That may seem hard to square with their constant expressions of flag-waving ultrapatriotism. But their loyalty is not to America as it is, or even, notwithstanding the slogan, to America as it was, but rather to an America that exists only in their imaginations.

They will be content to remain a part of real-world America so long as they have some prospect of controlling it, democratically or otherwise. But once it becomes clear that they cannot, they will reject it. The secessionism that today is abstract and personal – a secession of the soul – will one day become more concrete and territorial.

That is the risk, at any rate. Mr. Trump may have been the spark that set this tinder ablaze, but it existed before him and it will remain long after he is gone. And while Mr. Trump is explicable enough, in psychological terms, his followers are more of a riddle.

Understanding how so many Americans could have become so alienated from the American project, so profoundly unconcerned with traditional American values as to support a man who represents the repudiation of all of them, is the challenge of our times. And not only Americans: It has echoes in this country, and in others, if not in the same numbers or intensity.

But for now there is a more immediate crisis. It is to keep America in one piece through the perilous months to come. The task of bringing Mr. Trump to justice will test the American legal and political system to the limits. What is at stake is not only the rule of law, and the notion that no one is above the law, but whether the American people are capable of holding fast to that idea in the face of the most determined efforts to subvert it, whether by stealth or by force.

And what will be determined, ultimately, is whether there is still such a thing as the American people.

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