I need one more indictment to ensure my election!
—Donald Trump, August 3, 2023

Behold, in our swirling virtual age, with what sickening speed the unprecedented becomes the commonplace. See, for the first time, a president’s second impeachment! See an ex-president’s first-ever indictment! See his second, third, and fourth! See him judged a sexual abuser! See his golden businesses declared frauds! Pull up a chair and watch: here is the final melding of politics and popular culture foretold in the visage of JFK. We are living in the Age of Trump.

Trump’s politics are that of public display. His art form is his own behavior. What outrageous act will he next perform? What historical norm will he shatter? What shocking mendacity will emerge from that sneering mouth? Trump commands the true currency of our time: the public gaze. Millions of Americans worship him like a god. An equal number hate him with a fervency unequaled in our history. But no one can help looking at him.

Twice impeached, four times indicted, he stands on the verge of running away with his third successive Republican presidential nomination. He launched a coup d’état against a system of government that has survived a quarter-millennium, and he did it on national television. Now, after dominating our attention for nearly a decade and coming within a hair’s breadth of pulling the entire system down around him, he stands a fair chance both of being sentenced to prison and of regaining the White House.

Can we struggle through our Trump Fatigue to recognize this as the astonishing reality it is? It is a sign not only of Trump’s energy and cunning but of the vulnerability of our system that it has been unable to protect itself from him. He committed his grand public crime against the state nearly three years ago, and the state has managed to bring him to court only now, giving him the chance to use his trials to promote his victimhood and grievance and to champion them as his cause. Already his trials are his presidential campaign. In June he told a cheering crowd in Georgia:

For seven years we’ve been engaged in an epic struggle to rescue our country from the sinister forces within who hate it…. And on November 5, 2024, we’re going to stand up to the corrupt political establishment. We’re going to evict a totally corrupt president, Joe Biden, from the White House. And we’re going to finish the job that we started.
The Marxist left is once again using the same corrupt [Department of Justice] and the same corrupt FBI, and the attorney general and the local district attorneys to interfere…. They’re cheating. They’re crooked. They’re corrupt. These criminals cannot be rewarded. They must be defeated. You have to defeat them.

That the system is so determined to hobble him with phony indictments and other such “election interference” testifies to both the truth of what he says and the seriousness of the threat he poses—and that his voters pose. “Every time the radical-left Democrats, Marxist, communists, and fascists indict me, I consider it a great badge of courage,” he tells his crowds. “I’m being indicted for you, and I believe the you is more than 200 million people that love our country.” And even more explicitly, “They’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you. And I’m just standing in their way.”

If Trump has a genius, it is his ability to shape, often out of his own self-made follies and recklessness and crimes, a narrative that relentlessly reaffirms his grim story of an us-versus-them America. He is the strongman standing between the “sinister forces” and the millions of ordinary Americans who love their country. The audacity with which he shapes this narrative and the unerring accuracy with which he targets his followers’ resentments and insecurities are unmatched in our politics. Trump is the grand artist of grievance. He has replaced the Republican nostrums of balanced budgets and tax cuts and military strength with paranoia and bitterness and white-hot anger. A party that once wanted little more than to cut rich people’s taxes now wildly cheers gutting the FBI and the Department of Justice. This is Trump’s Republican Party, brimming with working- and middle-class supporters only he could attract. Trump built this new party and he is determined to use it, energized with the ignominy of his prosecutions, to vault himself back into the White House. Regaining power is his only strategy, his only plan; and his very freedom, perhaps his life, depend on it.

It is absurd, of course. How could a politician indicted on ninety-one felony counts in New York and Washington, Miami and Atlanta, dare to hope to be elected to the highest office in the land? Absurd—almost as absurd as the idea that a reality-show loudmouth and failed businessman with not a whit of government or military experience could have reached the White House in the first place. And indeed, once again the smart money says it’s impossible: Trump, with help from the Supreme Court justices he appointed who struck down Roe v. Wade, has lost the moderates in the suburbs and the independents, and not enough right-wing “base” voters exist to return him to office.


Perhaps this will prove true. Or perhaps Trump will manage to persuade legions of nonvoters on the right to come to the polls to save their hero. Perhaps he will be able to seize on a hung jury or even an acquittal to energize even more supporters. Whatever the results, Trump will use—is already using—the election campaign to carry forward a “slow-motion coup” that began with his political career and that has succeeded in undermining the legitimacy of the political system for nearly half the population.1 If he loses, it can only be because of the election interference he daily denounces, and this “second steal” will stand for his supporters as the final proof that the system is irredeemably corrupt. And if he wins, he promises to transform the presidency and the government in ways that will make them unrecognizable. Whether the man finishes by sitting in the White House or a federal penitentiary, this destruction of faith in the country’s political institutions and in particular in its ways of transferring power will stand as Trumpism’s toxic legacy.


Already nearly half the country views America’s political institutions as illegitimate: for them the vast precincts of government, the huge bureaucracies in distant Washington, are controlled and dominated by the Deep State, the corrupt, dark underbelly of power, and it is the Deep State that exposes and reaffirms its dirty, cunning grip with every Trump indictment. The Deep State and the corruption it nourishes explain not only the war directed against Trump but also the American carnage he highlights: the heartland’s economic stagnation, outsourcing, unemployment, all those sicknesses that have plagued American capitalism and kept the wages of his voters virtually unchanged since the late 1970s. The Deep State also explains why Trump’s populist policy proposals, which offer puerile “solutions” to complicated problems—Build a wall and have Mexico pay for it! Repeal Obamacare and give good insurance to everyone!—never come to fruition. Its insidious obstructions are central to the Trumpian mythos.

Deep within this dark mythology, one comes across more than a grain of truth. Indeed, Trump’s claims about these sinister forces opposing him from within are confirmed by nearly every memoirist who tells tales about their time working in his administration. Writer after writer, whether they served as lofty cabinet secretaries or lowly staffers, rushes to confirm exactly what Trump charges: that his or her proudest achievement was brilliantly managing to prevent the unlikely president from doing the crazy things he wanted to do. There is here a strong element of the self-serving. For many writers, these successes are thought to wipe away at least in part the moral opprobrium that came from serving in the Trump administration. If they hadn’t served, after all, things—no matter how bad they looked—would have been immeasurably worse.

Every cult has its apostates, but with Trumpism the matter is more complicated. First, the supposed Deep State officials blocking Trump who tell their stories in most of these volumes—including Miles Taylor (better known, if one can so put it, as “Anonymous”2) in Blowback and the former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf’s interviewees in the tellingly titled American Resistance—belonged not to the Deep State at all but rather to the “shallow state.” Though Trump “often complained about the ‘deep state’ of career civil servants who, he asserted, were determined to undermine his presidency,” as the political scientist James P. Pfiffner points out, “it was his own presidential appointees who most visibly resisted his directives…to an extent unprecedented in the modern presidency.”3

The plotline here makes for an inherently satisfying story (evil leader has terrible and deeply illegal idea; heroic retainer strives and strives and finally prevents its execution), but at bottom the rationale was not overly complicated: Trump’s simple ideas to solve complicated problems tended to be outlandish, unworkable, and—where the limit was reached for more than one appointee—illegal. And his manifest inability to take in information meant that he raised these ideas and insisted on them again and again and again, with mounting stubbornness and petulance and anger. Taylor, then a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security, tells us that a few months after Trump’s election,


word came down from the White House…to stop providing the president with lengthy documents. If there was a staple in it, the briefing paper was probably too long and needed to be cut. Fifteen-page updates on complex issues were chopped down to one. Bold fonts. Simple words.
BIG pictures. Know your audience, they say, and the “audience of one” (as we called the president) had the temperament of a child, albeit a child with a finger lingering over the nuclear button.

How to explain that the border and its influx of undocumented immigrants is a bitingly complex problem, springing from global economic realities and the impositions of American and international law and the bitter bottlenecks of domestic politics, to someone who simply is unable to absorb it? Who seems able to listen only to himself? Taylor describes these encounters vividly:

The president went back to his greatest hits—“a big, big border wall!” “cut off the cash!” “screw the Mexicans!”—and we sat there listening to the diatribe that had begun to sound like a Broadway sing-a-long from hell. We left without any clear direction….
Two days later, on March 19, he did the song and dance for us again. The Oval Office meeting was supposed to be about combating opioid addiction…[but] Trump steered the briefing to his favorite subject. He ran through his list of cruelly imaginative immigration policies once more.

Between meetings, Taylor and administration colleagues compare notes about the “pretty crazy shit” Trump had just spouted, speculating darkly on the president’s mental health. But he always manages to top the last performance, as in this phone call Taylor sat in on with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen:

“Kiiiirstjen,” he said in his distinctive New York accent. “I can’t believe what I am seeing at the border.” The president…wanted to talk about creative options….
He had an idea: “a big, deep moat.”
She muted the line. “Did he just say what I think he said?”
“I want you to figure out how deep you can dig it, okay Kirstjen?” Trump proposed filling the moat with “snakes and alligators” to eat people alive if they fell into it. “How much would this cost, honey?”
She unmuted. “We’ll look into it, Mr. President.” He kept pressing the point until she assured him again we’d get back to the White House.
He wasn’t joking, and we weren’t laughing anymore. The call derailed the morning as DHS cobbled together a back-of-the-envelope estimate for digging a border-long ditch and filling it with snakes and alligators.

Informing the commander in chief that “a two-thousand-mile reptile-filled moat would cost tens of billions of dollars” staved off the idea for another day at least, but Nielsen’s fate, like that of so many of her colleagues, was already sealed. Like them, she had been doomed by her allegiance to reality: “He was sick of her saying no. No, you can’t seal the border. No, you can’t deport anybody you want. No, you can’t gas and electrocute migrants. The insubordination was intolerable.”

Nielsen was soon gone. Appointees who did not do what Trump wanted—who drew the line, say, at outright illegality—came and went, as the president, clinging to his idées fixes, fired and hired, fired and hired. Firing and hiring were good, after all: tweeting each new defenestration provoked outrage in the press and thereby allowed him to dominate the news cycle, even as it dramatized him to his followers as a leader heroically battling the Deep State. And all the while the true believers in the White House were leading a high-profile search for true loyalists, men and women who would do Trump’s bidding no matter what. Why not build a moat filled with alligators and snakes at the border? True, there might be good reasons—“operational” obstacles in building such a vast structure and in feeding thousands of reptiles, and (dare one say it?) laws against decreeing a grisly blanket death penalty for all migrants—but he had to be told them again and again. And he never did learn. He didn’t want to.


He never will, of course. But in a system of government built on dispersed power that can function only through compromise—in which a policy progresses through the bureaucracy by officials “working” a problem, not dictating a solution—Trump’s authoritarian strain was repeatedly frustrated. He knew instinctively how to dominate the news cycle. But for all his self-promotion as a genius in “the art of the deal,” his inability to focus or to lead meant that he never figured out how to convert that attention into power within the government that would help him put his policies, however ill-judged, into effect.

Instead he fought against the obstacles that the institutions and the laws represented. By all evidence, if he were to return to office, Trump would impose historic changes that would in effect make the government adapt to him, not the other way around. “Together, we are going to finish what we started,” he declared to a cheering crowd in Waco, Texas, last spring.

With you at my side, we will totally obliterate the Deep State, we will banish the warmongers from our government, we will drive out the globalists, and we will cast out the Communists and Marxists, we will throw off the corrupt political class, we will beat the Democrats, we will rout the fake news media, we will stand up to the RINOs, and we will defeat Joe Biden and every single Democrat.4

An ambitious program, but what will it mean in practice? It’s clear that many of these changes would be aimed at destroying the Deep State, though to confront that task he would have to take a quite different approach to the shallow state. Taylor predicts the specifics of these policies and lays them out with admirable concision:

The next Trump will install only devout loyalists in top positions, while purging dissenters from the executive branch.
A future MAGA cabinet will be led by unapologetically un-confirmable figures and Trump look-alikes.
In addition to the cabinet, the second layer down in government will be packed with a “rising generation of assassins.”
In the name of countering the Deep State, MAGA forces plan to take a hammer to the government’s career civil service.

This plan was foreshadowed in Trump’s last year in office, when he ordered John McEntee—his former “body man,” whom he raised to be his director of the Office of Presidential Personnel—to lead an increasingly ruthless purge of the administration. Anyone who showed any independence was forced out; replacements were hired for their loyalty, not their talent or experience. Many senior officials were hired in an “acting” capacity, letting the administration bypass Senate confirmation. “I sort of like ‘acting,’” Trump said. “It gives me more flexibility.” In other words, he could hire whom he liked, however unqualified. And he did indeed sign an executive order that would have made it possible to purge the civil service. (Biden rescinded it.)

The divide between shallow-state independents and Trump loyalists is well illustrated in Rothkopf’s account of the discussion over responses to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations after George Floyd’s murder:

Trump met with his team, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, [political adviser] Stephen Miller, and others in the Oval Office to discuss how to respond to the protests. Leonnig and Rucker5 report Stephen Miller said: “Mr. President, you have to show strength. They’re burning the country down.” Milley responded: “Stephen, shut the fuck up. They’re not burning the fucking country down.” Trump nonetheless pushed for military intervention. Milley argued it was not needed. In a subsequent meeting, Miller asserted the demonstrations were an insurrection warranting the use of troops…. Again, Milley pushed back. He and Esper were deeply unsettled by Trump’s appetite to deploy troops to suppress citizens who were simply exercising their First Amendment rights.
On the morning of June 1, the president again reconvened his advisors…. Trump argued that the riots were making the United States look weak to foreign countries. He again raised the issue of deploying troops, maybe even the 82nd Airborne Division, to quiet the unrest in Washington. Defense Secretary Esper argued that this was a job for the police, for local law enforcement. Trump was furious at the pushback…. Milley raised the issue of the constitutional right to protest. Trump fulminated…. Esper, eager to do anything to keep active-duty forces off the streets, offered to see if he could encourage governors to mobilize the National Guard…. At a moment of crisis, over and over again through the Trump years, this was what managing Trump looked like: absorbing his blows, laying out the facts, side-stepping his most extreme and often illegal suggestions, and searching for ways to give him the semblance of a win, since that seemed to be the only way to placate him.

Donald Trump with Mark Milley and during a press briefing in which Trump discussed his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria

Ron Sachs/CNP/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Donald Trump with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and other senior military leaders during a press briefing in which Trump discussed his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, leaving US-allied Kurdish forces vulnerable, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2019

The 82nd Airborne was kept off the streets of Washington, but such “managing” of Trump had its limits. In the days after the election, Trump fired Esper and replaced him with a relative unknown, Christopher Miller, a retired special forces colonel, who had been running the National Counterterrorism Center. At the same time he installed staunch loyalists in several other top positions at the Pentagon, including the defense secretary’s chief of staff. This abrupt turnover of senior national security officials after losing—and contesting—an election was unprecedented. To many, including former secretaries of defense, it looked suspiciously like preparations for a military coup.6 Critically, though, Trump did not dare to replace General Milley, who enjoyed widespread allegiance and respect and whom he himself had promoted. In The Divider, their elegant account of Trump’s four years in office, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser describe Milley’s reception of the Trump loyalists at the Pentagon:

After Esper’s firing, Milley called [Kash Patel, Miller’s chief of staff, and Ezra Cohen, acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence] separately to his office to deliver stern lectures. Whatever machinations they were up to, he told each of them, “life looks really shitty from behind bars. And whether you want to realize it or not, there’s going to be a president at exactly 1200 hours on the twentieth and his name is Joe Biden. And if you guys do anything that’s illegal, I don’t mind having you in prison.”
He ended with a warning: They were being watched. “Don’t do it, don’t even try to do it. I can smell it. I can see it. And so can a lot of other people,” Milley told them. “And by the way, the military will have no part of this shit.”

Whether Milley’s self-described lecture had any effect on the loyalists’ actions on January 6 is unknown. He told Baker and Glasser that during the last weeks of the administration he feared either an external crisis—such as the president ordering an attack on Iran—that would be used to justify seizing power at home or “a manufactured internal crisis to justify ordering the military into the streets of America to prevent the transfer of power.” To some at the Pentagon, the sacking of the Capitol by Trump’s partisans and the calls for the military to intervene must have looked perilously close to just such a manufactured crisis. Might the fear of accidentally being drawn into a “Reichstag moment” have accounted for some or all of the three-hour-and-nineteen-minute delay in deploying the National Guard to the Capitol that afternoon? Milley claimed to Baker and Glasser that he had “roared into the defense secretary’s office one flight up from his at 2:30 PM and began rattling off actions to be taken” and that he advised him to “immediately deploy the D.C. National Guard.”

Still, even if this is true, Miller by his own account didn’t order the National Guard to the Capitol until 3:00 PM—ninety minutes after they were requested—and they didn’t arrive until nearly 5:30. It remains unclear, even after extensive reporting and reams of congressional testimony, what exactly accounted for the delay in the Pentagon approving the National Guard’s deployment. We know that at least two senior officers reportedly expressed worries about “the optics” of deploying soldiers to the Capitol, and that at least one made mention of “peaceful protesters.”7 It is also unclear what Trump’s loyalists, apart from Miller, were doing during this time. Miller’s delay might be explained in part by what he told Congress were “concerns and hysteria” about “politicizing and inappropriately using the military,” including the article by the former secretaries of defense. “Hysteria” or not, Miller did make plain that these “concerns…nonetheless factored into my decisions regarding the appropriate and limited use of our Armed Forces” in responding to the insurrection at the Capitol. Whether he worried about “optics” or really did fear the military might be “inappropriately used” he leaves unsaid.

What we do know is that the president, watching the siege of the Capitol in the private White House dining room, never reached for the telephone to call Miller or Milley. And yet, after the Secret Service’s refusal to take him to the Capitol, where he had planned to speak to Congress and probably Vice President Pence directly, and after Pence’s refusal to send the slates of electors back to the states, Trump’s only option to hold power was to invoke the Insurrection Act and send the military into the Capitol and into the streets to “restore order.” Why did he make no move to do it? Likely at least in part because he had learned in those previous discussions of the Black Lives Matter protests that certain critical “shallow state” officers, notably the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, would almost certainly oppose calling out the military. If so, that particular exercise in “managing Trump” turns out to have been the most consequential of all. Judging by the candidate’s dark vow on the campaign trail last March to “clean out all the corrupt actors in our national security and intelligence apparatus, and there are plenty of them,” Trump is determined to face no such obstacles should he regain the White House.


One needn’t sign on to the melodrama or even the accuracy of Rothkopf’s subtitle—“How the Deep State Saved the Nation”—to be impressed with the officers’ dedication to the law and the resourcefulness of many officials, whether shallow state or deep, confronted by the Trumpian onslaught on norms and laws. Of course, the Trump administration more often than not was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, with the president only the most vivid example. Much of the time they had little idea what they were doing. Taylor argues with missionary fervor that it will be different in a second Trump administration, or indeed any near-term Republican White House, which he believes must be dyed-in-the-wool MAGA, given Trump’s wholesale transformation of the party. “MAGA forces are purging internal opposition with striking efficiency,” he notes. “The takeover of the GOP apparatus is largely complete.”

Whether this guarantees that if Trump somehow fails to gain the nomination a MAGA candidate would triumph in his stead seems less certain. True, Trump owns “the base.” But he is such a singular figure that it is impossible to know who might gain the allegiance of his followers, or whether anyone could. “The conditions are right,” writes Taylor, “for the Next Trump to emerge.” Perhaps, but if so, where is he? And no matter who might take his place at the top of the ticket, it seems even harder to imagine Trump lending his support or even standing aside.

Still, whether it is Trump or a successor, the picture Taylor offers of a second MAGA term is plausible and horrendous. The justice system and investigative agencies will be corrupted. The president will prosecute his rivals and “weaponize the nation’s domestic security apparatus to wage political warfare.” The administration will ignore and, when necessary, obstruct congressional oversight (as Trump’s first administration increasingly did). When noncompliant judges rule against it, it will ignore those rulings and accelerate its program to pack the judiciary with ideologically sympathetic replacements. It will abandon Ukraine, embrace Putin, and doom the Western alliance. It will transform the immigration system, choking off the inflows from “shithole countries.” And so on.8

It is striking how closely parts of this program resemble the litany of charges Republicans in the House of Representatives daily unleash against the Biden administration. These are the politicians who have created a special committee to investigate “the weaponization of government.” No doubt the lure of projection is very strong. But in truth many of these charges spring from long-standing grievances against the “administrative state” that Trump, however artfully he has exploited them, did not create. Post-Watergate Republicans strongly benefit from the energy of perpetual opposition. Even when they hold power, they are convinced, not entirely without reason, that the country’s major institutions—not only the “permanent government” but most of the news media and the culture industry—continue to wage war ruthlessly against them. We can expect that a second Trump administration, the program for which is currently being painstakingly prepared at the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks, will seek not to destroy the government but rather to neuter it a bit and then wield it as a weapon, as its cadres fervently believe the Democrats have done so fruitfully for the past half-century.

Taylor paints a picture of Trump (or a successor) installing a sort of “soft totalitarianism” without firing a shot. Anyone who doubts it could happen need only cast eyes on Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, currently enjoying adulation on Fox News and other media of the right. Perhaps the most persuasive sign that Taylor’s vision could soon come to be is not the polls, which, very early in the cycle, show Biden and Trump roughly tied, but the sheer fraying of belief in the country demonstrated so luridly on January 6. Biden has given conciliatory speeches, reached across the aisle to pass landmark legislation. But next to Trump, he appears a vanishingly small figure on the public stage—and for Trump supporters a pathetic and corrupt one they largely ignore.

For them, the Steal and what has come after, including the arrests and Trump’s indictments, prove only that things were worse than they thought, and that the vaunted self-correcting mechanisms of our constitutional republic, atrophied by corruption, have ceased to function. This is what the January 6 rioters believed: If we couldn’t make urgently needed changes to corrupt Washington by elections, what option was left but insurrection? One Trumper standing in front of me in the crowd at the Ellipse that day beseeched the president with his sign: “Lead Us Across the Rubicon!” For him as for his fellows, only a new Caesar could hope to confront the myriad corruptions of our present-day Rome.9

This desperation with democracy, this hopelessness about achieving change through nonviolent means, this frustrated conviction that the whole rotten system must be swept away, rings loudly with the echoes of history. A century ago in Italy and Germany, a large part of the population believed that the entire rickety apparatus of representative government, stinking with corruption, had to be destroyed. For the tens of millions of Americans who believe this today, the indictments of Donald Trump only add to the unbearable stench. They do not see the prosecutions as a sign that no one is above the law or that justice will triumph. They see them as proof that the system is rigged and not only against their leader but against them. And if they ever begin to forget this, Trump will be there—everywhere—to remind them.


As we approach the 2024 elections, the double-sided title of Luke Mogelson’s remarkable account of the year 2020, from the Black Lives Matter demonstrations to the January 6 insurrection, sounds a warning: The Storm Is Here. In his hands, January 6 seems somehow predetermined, a natural outgrowth of all that happened during that dreadful and remarkable year. Mogelson reports from the streets of Lansing, Minneapolis, and Portland, where we get to know Proud Boys, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, QAnon—activists of the right and left who appear and reappear in the accelerating political phantasmagoria. In part because of this thorough immersion in the violent politics of those months, Mogelson’s account of January 6, in which he takes us into the Capitol and the Senate chamber, is unmatched for its clarity and vigor.

The insurrection, naturally, is the climax of his story. But will it be the climax of ours? My eye was drawn to an interview in the book’s final pages, when Mogelson travels to a small town in Georgia to interview Chester Doles, a former KKK wizard who has decided to run for county commissioner because, he says, “I want to be in a position to be able to do something when this shit pops off. Because I do think it’s gonna pop off. I really do. Whether we want it or not.” Mogelson goes on:

He envisioned a scenario in which some inevitable government affront would provoke a response, as Ruby Ridge and Waco had triggered the Oklahoma City bombing—except this time, a cascade of rebellion and reprisal would follow. “Timothy McVeigh was trying to spark a chain reaction of resistance,” he said. “But the climate wasn’t ready yet.” The climate was changing. The lockdowns, the riots, Antifa, the election: “We’ll have to be pushed into a corner, but we’re definitely getting pushed there now.”…When I asked whether Trump running for president in 2024—and losing—might set in motion something…he nodded. “That would be a breaking point. I think that America would balkanize.” Doles paused, and then added, “But probably only after blood runs knee-high in the streets.”

The image is apocalyptic, and it matches imagery evoked, a bit less vividly, by none other than Donald Trump, when he threatened last March, before his New York indictment, that “potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country.” None of that came to pass. Perhaps the arrests and convictions of hundreds of insurrectionists have quieted the fervor, or at least stanched the enthusiasm. Or perhaps the fever has broken.

It seems unlikely. Trump’s campaign rhetoric so often flirts with incitements to violence that most of those comments scarcely even make the news. We are long accustomed to him denouncing his opponents or his judges or members of the news media as traitors. He must come up with something truly striking and original—for example, calling for the chairman of the joint chiefs to be executed for treason—to make us take notice. But those who hang on his every word, including those conspiracy-obsessed who are certain “the storm” will soon break, know what he’s saying, and echo it.

Does Trump really long for blood to run in the streets? This remains unclear, likely even to him. What is clear is that the right bloodcurdling threat is sure to dominate the news cycle—will make us look. Mogelson, who has reported from Iraq and Syria, remarks that every civil war he

covered had been premised on real grievances, real oppression, real violation…. Were large-scale violence to erupt in the US, it would be something different: a war fueled not by injury but by delusion.

And how surprising would that be? In the Age of Trump, when the public gaze is doggedly, relentlessly drawn back to him, delusions have become our daily bread.

—October 5, 2023