Updated Tuesday, April 4, at 1:32 p.m. PT.
On Tuesday, April 4, former President Donald Trump surrendered at court in lower Manhattan for arraignment on criminal charges—the first time in U.S. history that a current or former president has faced criminal charges. Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. The former president pled not guilty.
The case has sparked lively discussion across the media about the political repercussions of this historic decision.
Over the last several weeks, there has been voluminous chatter and commentary about the arrest (Will an indictment hurt Trump? Will it bolster his cries of political martyrdom at the hands of the “deep state”?) and the circus-like spectacle it is expected to produce. More importantly, though, there is an undercurrent of concern and fear about the threat of retaliatory violence from Trump’s supporters.
This fear is well-founded. As the Manhattan grand jury process entered its final stages, Trump called on his supporters to protest. “WE JUST CAN’T ALLOW THIS ANYMORE,” Trump wrote. “THEY’RE KILLING OUR NATION AS WE SIT BACK & WATCH. WE MUST SAVE AMERICA! PROTEST, PROTEST, PROTEST!!!”
This and other recent Trump posts evoked memories of eerily similar language he used in his speech before the violent insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, when he used the words “fight” or “fighting” 30 times, and said, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Meanwhile, federal and local law enforcement officials have reported a “significant increase” in extremist threats of violence in New York City, and the New York Police Department prepared for potentially violent clashes by installing barricades outside the Criminal Courts Building in Manhattan.
None of this comes as a surprise to those who study and monitor far-right extremism. The threat of political violence—implied or enacted—is a characteristic feature of authoritarian right-wing movements, and Trump’s populism is no exception. In fact, almost from the beginning of his political career through Jan. 6 and beyond, Trump has both legitimated and encouraged violence by his supporters in the service of his ambitions.
Of course all of this is deeply worrying for anyone who cares about the stability of our democratic institutions. To the extent that violence in political rhetoric and practice is normalized, democracy itself is imperiled. In order for this not to happen, it is important that people in politics and public life denounce political violence and the people who promote it—or make excuses for it.
It is also crucial to understand the many ways in which violence is used by individuals and political movements to accomplish various goals. Political violence—like most forms of violence—is not a random occurrence that appears out of nowhere. It is committed for a reason and serves a specific purpose.
And although this is barely mentioned in mainstream punditry, it is also inextricably interconnected with matters of gender and power. In this country or any other, the vast majority of political violence is committed by men. Thus any serious discussion of violence in politics must include a deep examination of cultural beliefs and narratives about “manhood.”
Recent developments in Manhattan DA Bragg’s case against Trump provides a useful angle to begin that discussion.
On March 20, in what The New York Times describes as “a last-ditch effort to stave off” an indictment, Trump’s attorneys put forth a grand jury witness named Bob Costello in an attempt to discredit the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness, former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.
Since Cohen turned on Trump, he has become a regular fixture in liberal media spaces, where—despite his sordid past—his insights into Trump’s psyche and behavior “behind the curtain” are welcome contributions to the seemingly bottomless market for analysis and gossip about Trump.
By contrast, the right has long demeaned and sought to discredit Cohen for reasons well beyond his intimate knowledge of Trump’s alleged criminal behavior.
Cohen represents a threat to Trump and the entire MAGA universe because he gets Trump’s appeal on a visceral level—especially the grip the former president has on so many men. He understands why many of Trump’s followers would be willing to do anything to please or protect the former president, even commit violence for him, because he’d been one of them. He once told a reporter he’d be willing to “take a bullet” for Trump.
Any serious discussion of violence in politics must include a deep examination of cultural beliefs and narratives about ‘manhood.’
Liberal pundits have debated for years whether Trump’s hold on his die-hard followers is more akin to that of a cult leader or a crime boss. Cohen—who has repeatedly called Trump a “con man”—argues that it’s elements of both. In his 2020 memoir Disloyal, Cohen describes the New York milieu in which he came of age. In high school he spent a lot of time in a Brooklyn bar his uncle owned that was frequented by members of the Gambino and Lucchese crime families and other “wise guys,” whose behavior he watched closely and came to emulate. “They always had a specific kind of energy around them, a charisma that I found compelling.”
He compared their constant joking and pulling pranks on each other to how he and his colleagues acted in the Trump Organization: “like gangsters, but in suits and ties.” At the same time, he wrote, “[Those men] demanded and commanded respect. They were gangsters, and the sense of fear that people felt around them—that I felt around them—was very powerful.”
Cohen said that when he worked for Trump in business and politics, he modeled himself in part after the Brooklyn mobster tough guy from the 1980s. That famous archetype also influenced Trump, who “drank from the same mob-infused waters of New York City mafia machismo.”
Trump’s own comments reinforce this. In 2018, when Cohen made incriminating statements about his former boss during the trial in which he was convicted for the same “hush money” caper for which Trump faces possible charges, Trump called him a “rat.”
Cohen’s memoir provides many more kernels of insight into the source of Trump’s charisma and magnetism. He wrote that his:
“Insatiable desire to please Trump to gain power for myself, the fatal flaw that led to my ruination, was a Faustian bargain: I would do anything to accumulate, wield, maintain, exert, exploit power. In this way, Donald Trump and I were the most alike; in this naked lust for power, the President and I were soul mates. I was so vulnerable to his magnetic force because he offered an intoxicating cocktail of power, strength, celebrity, and a complete disregard for the rules and realities that govern our lives. To Trump, life was a game, and all that mattered was winning.”
Cohen described a scene where he was riding in a limousine with a business partner of Trump and “a fistfight broke out between us.” He said that “the fact that I was willing to literally fight and punch a guy in the face on behalf of Mr. Trump should give you a sense of the lengths that I was willing to go to please the Boss.” Despite the toll it was taking on his wife and kids, Cohen said he couldn’t quit working for Trump, “not for the money, but because by then I was obsessed with him … I was the canary in the coal mine for the millions of Americans who are still mesmerized by the power of Trump.”
In his book, Cohen also predicted correctly that if Trump lost the 2020 election, there would “never be a peaceful transfer of power.”
One of the keys to Trump’s rise to the height of cultural influence and political power was his ability to convey to his mostly white supporters that he understood and shared their anger and resentment over the loss of “their” country—hence, “Make America Great Again.”
He has been especially effective in signaling to white men that he shares not only their racial resentments, but also their frustration and anger at feminists for challenging men’s authority in both the public and private spheres.
Trump channels these race and gender-based animosities at the same time as he displays an eagerness to glorify violence, and a reluctance to criticize it when done by his supporters. Recall that during a presidential debate, he declined to denounce the violent Proud Boys, instead telling them to “stand back and stand by.”
In a country with a long and ugly history of white racist violence toward people of color, this all makes for an extraordinarily volatile and dangerous political situation.
If Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg chooses to arrest and criminally charge Trump, the optics of a Black man being the first prosecutor to indict a former president (who is white) will inevitably expose him and his family to serious threats of harm.
Which brings us to back to the New York City case currently dominating news coverage. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is Black. In a classic example of Trumpian projection, Trump has called the Black DA a “racist,” and Trump’s defenders have gone into attack mode against the prosecutor. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul said that charging Trump in this case is a “disgusting abuse of power” and that Bragg should be “put in jail.”
The optics of a Black man being the first prosecutor to indict a former president (who is white) will inevitably expose him and his family to serious threats of harm.
Bragg is prepared for the blowback and has already said that “we do not tolerate attempts to intimidate our office or threaten the rule of law in New York. Our law enforcement partners will ensure that any specific or credible threats against the office will be fully investigated.”
Some commentators have noted that as criminal indictments of Trump are being considered in multiple jurisdictions, Bragg could be the first prosecutor to “cross the Rubicon” (pass the point of no return) and thus establish a precedent for upholding the rule of law by holding the powerful to account.
That this is happening in New York City—the incredibly diverse metropolis where Donald Trump was born, grew up and made himself famous—adds yet further layers to a tense and consequential drama that continues to unfold.
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