Donald Trump is afraid of going to prison. Ordinarily that might seem like a silly statement: Trump is probably the most corrupt president in American history, and some of his closest bag men open the door each morning to see if the sky looks like indictments. But this is America, where the man who drafted memos arguing that torture is legal teaches law at U.C. Berkeley, and Henry "Two Genocides" Kissinger advised the Bush administration but summered with the Clintons.
And yet this might be the second time Donald Trump has gotten something right. (Here is the first.)
You would not get the impression that he's in real legal peril from the 24-hour news telenovela he's created: Between segments on incompetency, Trump is regularly portrayed as the swaggering caudillo, impervious to comeuppance, deadly to challengers. The word "counterpuncher" has been deployed so many times to describe him that it's natural to assume he starred as the eponymous hero of a late-80s action movie by that name.
It's not hard to see how this thinking takes hold; given the facts, it seems almost unavoidable. Trump fails upward and at his worst fails sideways. He has proven that clownish malignancy sustained over 40 years is no obstacle to enjoying the most luxurious things in life.
He has been involved in over 1,300 lawsuits in the last 18 years, including one over a fraudulent university that was still ongoing during the campaign. Over a dozen women have accused him of sexual assault or misconduct, including an ex-wife who once used the word "rape." His businesses have repeatedly declared bankruptcy, including on a casino. He has told an average of 6.5 lies per day since taking office, for a total of over 3,001. You could add another 50 items here without wandering into the realm of the trivial, and the Trump train is still going, despite the rails being left at least a dozen voting districts back. (All of which he won by the way; you should see the electoral map. It's very beautiful.)
But it's not Trump who is most beholden to his legacy of succeeding — or at least not utterly failing — despite his own best efforts. It's the press that daily invokes the idea of Trump as a dangerous animal who, when cornered, fights back twice as hard and is thus impossible to beat. (This framing always comes heavy with allusions to Roy Cohn and Richard Nixon.)
It would take a mind of fervid imagination to have the faintest expectation of seeing a one of the most powerful American politicians go to jail.
This is a normal framing in Washington D.C., not because it's been true of Trump, but also because it would take a mind of fervid imagination to have the faintest expectation of seeing a one of the most powerful American politicians go to jail.
And part of that thinking simply amounts to noticing that both American parties are already horribly corrupted by money and have, until recently, shown zero interest in policing that flow of campaign cash, in addition to the existing lack of interest in punishing basically anyone in power for any crime that actually happened from Iran-Contra to the present day.
In a world without consequences, then, Donald Trump really shouldn't be a bravura counterpuncher — not if you proceed from the idea that there is no consequence for him to actually fear.
Trump should be and is afraid. He has no real friends in Washington that didn't ride in on his coattails (and possibly commit a crime to do so). He has no party, save a GOP that let him loose like a bull in a china shop so they could sneak in the back and rob the safe. He has been a Democrat and he has been a Republican and he has alienated the ruling castes of both. He is not one of them, and no part of Trumpworld, post-tax-cuts, is essential to the preservation of their class' domination of politics.
Meanwhile, for the first time in a long time, both parties have unambiguous incentives to make a show of strident anti-corruption. The Democrats — having dropped the ball on the opportunity to seek restorative justice for any of the plunder of the subprime mortgage market or even to do something as simple as sending Dick Cheney or the other architects of the Bush-era torture policy to The Hague — have a historically unsympathetic antagonist. And Republicans no longer really have the Clinton campaign to point to (though Trump tries) and need to maintain the illusion to their values-voter base that Trump is different from them (other than in his abject tastelessness).
They can't, of course, make that case easily: Ted Cruz lies just as unashamedly but with bigger words. Marco Rubio doesn't pay his bills, is the kept pet of a billionaire and doles out sinecures to his family. Scott Walker tries not to hold elections when Republicans can lose them, is comically beholden to the Koch Brothers and once seriously entertained building a Canadian border wall. Chris Christie has Bridgegate. Jeb Bush liked Betsy DeVos before Trump did and already works with people who fudge charter school data. When Rand Paul inherited Papa Ron's liberty movement, he inherited a lot of white nationalists with it. Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Tom Price, Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Sessions were all Republicans in good standing until Trump gave the press a reason to look under the rocks.
The moment Trump looks like he's finished with some part of his fan base, his intraparty constituency plummets to zero.
The moment Trump looks like he's finished with some part of his fan base, his intraparty constituency plummets to zero. The Democrats will finally have a gimme with which to practice the arcane art of exercising state power to enforce the morals of a community. At the same time, the rump of Republicans who survive 2018 and those seeking to unseat Democrats in borderline seats in 2020 will have good reason to depict Trump as a uniquely toxic aberration that must be burned away to cleanse the rest of the party. There is no greater non-verbal distinction between the GOP and Trump than incarcerating him.
A cornered animal becomes more fierce because it knows it's in a position where it has likelier than not come to its end. Trump isn't lashing out because he can't stop counterpunching and masterfully changing the narrative. Unlike the rest of us, he's had a tickle at the back of his brain, an anticipation of what is possible in a world where we have not savvily and cynically foreclosed on the idea of the nation choosing, at its founders intended, to bring parts of itself to justice. It is not silly to demand that we realize a dream so unlikely that it clearly daily haunts the dumbest chief executive in American history: After a long list of extraordinarily deserving, very very beautiful, very very talented runners-up — from Jefferson Davis, to Warren Harding, to Richard Nixon, to Ronald Reagan, to George W. Bush — Donald Trump can become the first president from the United States to die in prison.
Jeb Lund is a freelance writer and former political columnist and reporter for Rolling Stone and The Guardian. He has a podcast called This Week In Atrocity.