Some Republican lawmakers are calling a Manhattan grand jury’s decision to indict Donald Trump a politically motivated witch hunt. But, really, the move is a measure of accountability that could return legitimacy to a justice system that unfairly punishes Black people.
“The question,” explained Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, “is whether [Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case] provides the terrain to pursue Trump’s other bad acts, or whether this is just a moment with a little bit of drama and then a lot of wrangling for a settlement.”
Chatelain is among the observers who say that, even though Bragg’s investigation is generally considered the weakest and least significant of the cases against the former president, the probe could still be consequential if it powers other efforts seeking to demonstrate that Trump isn’t exempt from the rules.
On Tuesday, Trump is expected to turn himself over to the authorities at the Manhattan district attorney’s office and then be arraigned in the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building. The charges against him remain unknown, but multiple sources say that he faces more than 30 counts related to business fraud.
Echoing his messages from the days just before the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Trump has exhorted his acolytes to protest the investigation, and he’s warned of “death & destruction.” New York City law enforcement are bracing for the possibility of a wave of Trumpists, but so far only minimal rallies supporting the former president have occurred.
To discuss what this historic moment reveals about Trump, the Republican Party, and accountability, Capital B spoke with Chatelain, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2021 book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: Could you break down the significance of Bragg’s case against Trump?
Marcia Chatelain: The case could expose the extent to which Trump doesn’t have the loyalty he had before. I don’t think that his supporters will be as up in arms about this as they were about Jan. 6. The temperature around him has cooled a bit.
There seems to be a kind of race among prosecutors to be the one to finally get this guy, whether in New York or Georgia or elsewhere. So, I think that the case is probably going to inspire others who want to get him to think about what that work requires politically and structurally.
And as information is released, this case has the potential to be a great humiliation for Trump. I think that possibly what people are looking for is an opportunity to humiliate him — even if they can’t fully prosecute him.
What are your thoughts on the way some GOP members are trying to portray Bragg, to vilify him?
This is the only way they can respond to something that’s too big to ignore.
The idea that it’s a witch hunt when a member of your political party is made to answer for his behavior is an old tactic from the playbook — because there’s nothing else. They have very little to defend Trump on. They’re organizing around him because when you build an entire political movement on grievance and on the suggestion that someone’s an outsider when he’s really an insider, this is what you have to do.
So, their response kind of writes itself, because regardless of what happens, all they have to do is plug into the faux sense of alienation, the faux sense of injustice that fuels the entire machinery that makes Trump possible. You don’t actually have to go into the substance of the issue. You just have to cry foul, and that becomes the mode through which everyone communicates.
Are we seeing any kind of irony here? Trump wants to support the justice system only when he isn’t being investigated.
No, because nothing’s principled. Whatever’s happening at a particular moment is what’s happening. Shape-shifting, lying, obscuring the truth — that’s how you do it.
It’d be shocking if anyone said, “You know what, I made a mistake and I desire accountability.” That would be the headline, because essentially the GOP is whatever its members imagine that white America needs it to be at any given moment.
What’s interesting is that all of the panic around discourses on prison abolition and even the discourses on something as conservative as the idea of police accountability — members of the GOP have found a way to make those the most unbelievable and unthinkable frameworks. But it’s not because they believe in a particular mode about criminal justice. There always has to be a pliable system that allows people to maneuver it and negotiate it as needed at that moment.
The same people who will extol the virtue of the idea of “Blue Lives Matter” will be the same ones who suggest that there are vast conspiracies to entrap and hurt Trump. For them, that’s the most consistent part of their framing of their engagement with civil society. It’s about opportunism. It’s about feeding whatever racist impulse needs to be fed.
So, trying to ascribe any kind of logic or order to such chaotic thinking is really, really difficult, because none of it is based on a sound approach toward living in a society with others. It’s about finding a place for your grievance and your racism and your sexism and your homophobia and your inability to take responsibility for your behavior. All of that has to be served. And that’s what we’re witnessing.
Could you talk about the relationship between Trump and the media?
The Kerner Commission came out with its report in 1968 and said that part of the problem of racial hostilities and racism in the U.S. is that newsrooms aren’t diverse — they’re telling only a very limited story about the nation and are responsible for propagating ideas that lead to real-life consequences. We often say that this was the moment where there was a concerted effort toward newsroom diversity and community and local reporting and just trying to do better.
We see how insufficient that move in 1968 was. Trump was good television because he was ridiculous. But even if we imagine journalism in the U.S. to be a bastion of liberal bias, the types of people who are at the heads of news organizations, I think, were attracted to Trump because he was reciting some of their own personal views and positions on race and could do the dirty work they couldn’t do.
Even if they believed his rhetoric to be morally bankrupt and wrong, I think that it resonated with them because his rhetoric was the rhetoric of some of their family members and of some of the communities they were reared in and of some of their colleagues.
So, I think that the reason why there seemed to have been a real desire to give Trump a platform wasn’t because someone thought that it was just funny or entertaining or weird that this guy was running for president. I think that he was able to be a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy for some of the basest ideas about race and immigration and change and gender.
If people are really honest and they do some soul-searching, they’re going to see that they highlighted Trump on their news shows and they had his people be interviewed because there was a strange solidarity. Some people think now that maybe they should’ve pulled the plug on this guy sooner. But it’s like asking someone to divorce their problematic family: Lots of people don’t do it because it’s familiar to them, and they’re bonded to it.