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Former President Donald Trump exits his vehicle before he boards his plane at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, on Aug. 3.Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

For Donald Trump – emboldened and defiant rather than humbled and chastened by his historic arrest and arraignment in a Washington courtroom Thursday – his multiple indictments are shaped by a factor every real-estate tycoon understands: location, location, location.

His first arraignment was in New York City, for paying hush money to a porn star – maybe not such an astonishing practice in America’s Babylon. The second was in Miami, for illegal possession of government documents – casually brushed off with the defence that others have done it. This week’s was in Washington, the seat of the most powerful country on the globe – impossible to ignore because the American capital was named for a man of unassailable rectitude known, in beloved folklore if not in actual fact, for saying that he could not tell a lie.

The nature of the wrongdoing at the heart of Mr. Trump’s latest arraignment – the total counts of indictment now have reached 78, with more likely to come – are far more serious than the earlier charges.

“The other ones were felonies and carry possible prison sentences but they are sort of ordinary crimes that anybody could engage in,” Gabriel Chen, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, said in an interview. “Here he is accused of trying to interfere with the most fundamental idea of our government, the sanctity of the vote. This is the essence of freedom for Americans.”

Thursday’s ritual was, by now, familiar, almost a pentimento, played out in pantomime: the grave visage on the airport tarmac, the motorcade of armoured black Suburban vans to a courthouse, the not-guilty plea, the release of Mr. Trump on his own recognizance, the entire spectacle both a well-worn tragedy and a formidable wedge of public opinion.

Trump has been indicted over bid to overturn 2020 election. Here’s what to know

But there was something especially poignant, even sombre and sorrowful, about the way the third Trump indictment in four months unfolded.

The courthouse sits a mere half-kilometre from the tumult of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot – and from where the 45th president swore in front of millions to protect the Constitution and faithfully execute the laws of the land. The former president was back in the capital as a criminal defendant.

Here was a man entrusted with the most sacred office in American life – for four years burdened with the duty to be a trustee of the founding, cherished institutions created in the nation’s revolutionary past – accused of defrauding the country he was elected to lead.

As Thursday’s events transpired, it was impossible – regardless of on which side of the yawning fracture in the country’s troubled civic life Americans fall – to avoid the thought that this was a national catastrophe, a calamitous occasion, finally, to employ the phrase “American carnage” that Mr. Trump spoke of, somewhat inscrutably, in his 2017 inaugural address.

For the many millions of Mr. Trump’s opponents, his day in court was just retribution for the days of chaos that marked his administration and justifiable payment for the day of insurrection that followed his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. But for the many millions of his ardent, adamantine supporters his day in court was, as his campaign put it, “the latest corrupt chapter in the continued pathetic attempt by the Biden Crime Family and their weaponized Department of Justice to interfere with the 2024 Presidential Election.”

Mr. Trump’s opponents regard that characterization as risible. His supporters – 37 per cent of likely Republican primary voters, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll taken last week – regard it with unshakable certitude. The pollsters asked members of the Trump base whether they thought he had committed crimes. Zero per cent – not a single one – said he had.

At the same time, a majority of those surveyed said they believe Mr. Trump committed serious federal crimes and believe he threatened American democracy with his actions after the 2020 election.

As the legal charges pile up, the presidential campaign continues apace, perhaps with little change in Mr. Trump’s domination of the competition for the Republican nomination. “I NEED ONE MORE INDICTMENT TO ENSURE MY ELECTION!” Mr. Trump wrote on his Truth Social media platform.

“Trump’s not going to implode,” Chris Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, the site of the first presidential primary, said in an interview. “You can’t wait for him to blow up. The indictments are not going to get him out of the race.”

For both sides of the gaping American divide, the setting of Thursday’s court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya only served to reinforce the implications of the four counts in special counsel Jack Smith’s indictment, even as they served to infuriate the former president and his acolytes.

It is an eternal characteristic of the American capital, now that the horse stables and rutted roads are in the distant past, that, in the words of the New York Herald written just weeks before the onset of the Civil War, Washington was comprised of “respectable people, who cool themselves during the hot weather by the delightful remembrance that they are of gentle blood.”

While in office in what historians will call Trump’s Washington, the president declared war on those of gentle blood, on their conventions and their convictions, and on their smug assurance that presidents come and go but the permanent establishment of the capital remains, invulnerable to criticism or change.

He is not the first to do so, for he was following the well-trod path of Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan – but this indictment is based on the notion that he is the first to assault the eternal values of the country Washington is entrusted to lead. It is all the more serious a charge because he, by oath, agreed to be entrusted with being the steward of those values.

If history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, the third indictment stands as a refutation of the soothing remark of Gerald Ford on the sober day, 49 years ago next week, when he became president after the Watergate-related resignation of Richard Nixon, that America’s national nightmare was over. It is not.

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