Republican politics has seen in Trump a triumph of the personality cult

Trump was the big winner at the Milwaukee debate even though he wasn't there

Republican presidential candidates (L-R), Vivek Ramaswamy, former U. N.  Ambassador Nikki Haley and US Senator  Tim Scott (R-SC) participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News on August 23, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Getty Images / AFP
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When Donald Trump burst on the American political scene, surprisingly seizing the Republican nomination and the White House in 2016, until his unsurprising defeat by Joe Biden in 2020, US politics was reduced to a single, inescapable and usually nightmarish tragicomedy: The Trump Show aka Presidential Apprentice. Since that defeat, he has lost exclusivity but not a disproportionate share of the limelight. In the Biden era, what Americans have been routinely viewing is a split screen effect, with Mr Trump's latest antics and travails on one side and whatever else may be happening on the other.

Last week provided an excellent example of how that works (badly) in practice. The Republican presidential primary campaigns began in earnest with the first national debate, featuring eight hopefuls but not the former president. Instead, Mr Trump sought to upstage the debate with a simultaneous interview with the bigoted former star at Fox News Tucker Carlson. Mr Trump's plan didn't exactly work since the debate got a lot more coverage and attention than his attempted counter programming. But the split screen moment prevailed in a manner much less advantageous to the former president.

Although he wasn't there, Mr Trump was clearly the big winner at the Milwaukee debate. None of the other candidates had a breakout moment, and he was subject to very little criticism, so his position as the head of the party and clear front-runner went effectively uncontested.

Reinforcing his alienation from irony, Trump claimed he never knew what a “mugshot” was until his own was taken

Things went particularly badly for his highest-polling rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and his bitterest critic in the group, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley solidified her popularity with those who timidly yearn for the pre-Trump era, while political novice Vivek Ramaswamy continued to build his popularity with the hard-core Trump base by taking the most extreme positions on many of their preferred bugbears. The other four were essentially also-rans, at least on that night.

The tone, tenor and much of the substance of the conversation again underscored just how extreme the Republican Party has become compared to almost all other mainstream conservative parties in Western countries. But the low point, without a doubt, was when the moderators asked which of the candidates would support Mr Trump if he were both the Republican nominee and simultaneously a convicted criminal.

Only former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and Mr Christie declined, and neither of them is likely to qualify for the next Republican debate because of their low poll numbers. The rest of the Republican field, apparently, would have no problem backing Mr Trump for another four years in the White House even as a convicted felon. It's the ultimate triumph of Republican politics as a pitiable personality cult, largely devoid of substance, integrity and even self-respect.

But if the debacle in Milwaukee was one side of the interminable contemporary American split screen, the other side didn't feature Mr Biden, or Mr Trump's interview, but instead his arraignment in Atlanta, complete, for the first time, with a mugshot. As his Republican rivals impotently debased themselves under a large banner reading "democracy" – while demonstrating little respect for its guiding principles – Mr Trump's visage scowled forth from the notorious Fulton County Jail.

The image-obsessed Mr Trump may well have been preparing in front of countless mirrors for the pose for months, although he may not have hit upon the optimal affect. As his rally performances and even official portraits demonstrate, he has long confused glowering and grimacing with looking "tough". He has reportedly told aides he believes he has succeeded in looking "like Churchill". It's another example of how easily he deceives himself.

Mr Biden, on the other hand, is apparently in on the unintended joke. When asked about the degraded spectacle, he chuckled "handsome guy". Mr Trump does not possess a detectable sense of humour and especially has no appreciation for sarcasm, above all when aimed at himself. Otherwise, he certainly would have lashed back.

Reinforcing his alienation from irony, Mr Trump claimed, with a straight face, that he never knew what a “mugshot” was until his own was taken. Yet there is little doubt that the accumulation of serious criminal charges against him, coupled with his brief visit to the infamous jail on Rice Street, are starting to fray his nerves. Even though he was whisked there by a huge police motorcade and quickly processed and released in about 20 minutes, the great complainer whined about his "terrible experience". It's clearly all starting to get to him.

The fact that the Fox News hosts at the Milwaukee debate asked the other eight declared Republican candidates if they would support him as the nominee despite a major criminal conviction is arguably even more significant than the fact that six of them, including all of the other serious contenders, said they certainly would. The question itself suggests that the Republican Party, its media allies and the US conservative constituency more broadly, all now must contend with the very real possibility that Mr Trump might be tried and convicted of serious criminal offences before the 2024 presidential election.

For the Party, it would mean that the candidate who, at this stage at least, is unstoppably popular with its base is also almost certainly unelectable with the general public in almost any plausible scenario in the next 15 months. For Mr Trump personally, it means that there's a very real prospect that he could end up serving time in prison.

That prospect is also a headache for state and federal prison authorities, since, as a former president, Mr Trump is entitled to round-the-clock Secret Service protection for the rest of his life. Arguably it's easier to protect someone in a fortified cell rather than travelling around the country or in the world, but the logistics would be tricky for both the Secret Service and whichever prison is involved.

Mr Trump is the king of courtroom appeals and delays, and actual incarceration often waits upon lengthy appeals processes and other potential manoeuvres that play into his preferred legal strategy. He may well even hope he can drag such proceedings out beyond his lifetime, though both his parents were impressively long-lived.

Nonetheless, the enduring image from last week's US political split screen, his scowling mugshot, leaves little doubt he's getting extremely nervous.

Published: August 28, 2023, 3:11 PM