In John Barth’s short story “The Remobilization of Jacob Horner,” published in Esquire in 1958, a physician explains to the lead character, who suffers from paralysis, that “In life, there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, is a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” This is the corollary to the old saw that “no man is a hero to his valet.”
Donald Trump has built a comforting, heroic worldview on premises the rest of us might consider horrifying. What makes him a hero in his own mind is bleak for those who consider democracy sacred and a strongman an American blasphemy.
This is how Trump’s brain works: Representative Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican, lost her congressional seat in 2022, the one held by her father, for telling the truth about the January 6 insurrection. Her drubbing makes Trump feel validated in his sense of self. Senator James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican, is rebuked back home for working on a bipartisan border deal that Trump calls a “gift” to President Joe Biden. In Trump’s worldview, now that the deal seems to be dead, he feels validated.
As he cruises to his third Republican nomination for president of the United States, Trump sees confirmation of his greatness everywhere. Sure, there are the 91 felony counts with which to contend and the financial threats to his tarnished brand. But there is also the validation of supporters who refill his campaign coffers in the belief that he alone can fix America. And there is the prospect of returning to the White House where he can be “your retribution.”
Yes, that’s Trump’s worldview.
But there is also another. Two hundred thirteen rioters from the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol have pled guilty to felony charges. Rudolph Giuliani, Time’s 2001 “Person of the Year,” must pay $146 million for libeling a Black mother and daughter who served as Georgia election workers and who “America’s Mayor” falsely accused of stealing votes.
While Trump tells himself that he’s the hero of his own story, the American legal system is working, perhaps too slowly to keep him from returning to office, but it is working. The second highest court in the land, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, has rebuffed his preposterous claim of presidential immunity for January 6.
Journalist E. Jean Carroll sued the former president for raping her in a department store dressing room. The civil lawsuit and the jury verdict cost the former president $5 million. Unable to appeal quietly or just accept his losses, Trump libeled Carroll, which put another $83 million on his tab.
Any day now, Trump faces punishment in a New York State fraud case of falsifying his assets and liabilities. That could run the bill up to $370 million. It could also get him banned from business in the Empire State, where he was once seen as synonymous with success.
Whatever his grandiose sense of self, Trump is not above the law. He is now facing its consequences right out there on Fifth Avenue in front of his eponymous tower. That’s where he bragged he could shoot someone and get elected president. In some sense, he was right. His supporters see each crime as verifying his greatness and confirming his victimhood at the hands of the Deep State, evil women, or the villain du jour.
Trump may have reached high noon on that notorious claim of his. Once the Supreme Court rules on his claim of presidential immunity, he must defend himself against leading the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. That could mean a jail term. While the Court, where he nominated a third of the judges, probably won’t countenance Colorado and other states kicking him off the ballot for the insurrection, giving an ex-president blanket immunity may go too far even for the Roberts Court.
The intriguing aspect of Trump’s rap card is the leading role being played by women.
For a man who notoriously bragged he could grab women by their private parts because they let you do that when you’re a star, Trump’s future now lies in their hands. First came E. Jean Carroll for assault, and then again for defamation. We await the decision in that fraud case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James and in the Fulton County, Georgia, trial prosecuted by the beleaguered but still-standing district attorney, Fani Willis. This is the case where Trump asked the secretary of state to find him the votes to win.
When the January 6 case resumes, Federal District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan will be foremost in Trump’s mind.
Another woman who gets under Trump’s wrinkly skin is Cassidy Hutchinson, the aide-de-camp to Trump’s last White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, who has damning testimony to deliver against Trump in the January 6 trial. The young woman, the first in her family to attend college, was present when Trump refused to act as the Capitol was under siege. Her poise and clarity at the House January 6 Committee hearings were mesmerizing, as was her book, Enough. The government couldn’t ask for a better witness than Hutchinson. To Trump, she’s one more traitor of the female persuasion.
The other woman who is unsettling Trump is former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, his appointee to be United Nations ambassador. He lampoons his lone remaining challenger for the 2024 Republican nomination with a festoonery of nicknames like “birdbrain” but can’t seem to rid himself of his one-time diplomat. For Trump, it’s more betrayal, which is what he now also sees from, of all people, Kayleigh McEnany, his former press secretary, whom he bashed as a RINO last month for lavishing insufficient praise on his New Hampshire primary win.
Haley is picking up influential old-school conservative columnists like The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, The Washington Post’s George F. Will, and The New York Times’s Bret Stephens. It’s entirely possible that with backing from equally big-name donors, Haley could be in this race for weeks more, irritating the Mar-a-Lago narcissist and, perhaps, winning a primary somewhere but not getting anywhere near the delegates needed to threaten Trump’s nomination.
But she does threaten his ego like the powerful and principled Carroll, Cheney, and Hutchinson.
In Trump’s world, of course, only Trump is the hero. But he’s not a happy warrior. (Have you ever seen Trump really laugh?) As his niece and familial tormentor, Mary Trump, a psychologist, titled her book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. The women are making it harder and harder for Trump to stick to his heroic narrative. Whether the furies can take him down is another question.
Author: Chris Matthews