"Trump is in the final stage of cult leadership": Fulton County arrest elevates his MAGA "martyrdom"

The "country is on the precipice of sustained violence we haven't seen in 150-160 years," says Republican Joe Walsh

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 24, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump with "TRUMP 2024" flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump with "TRUMP 2024" flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump continues to be at the center of America's political universe. His gravity and pull are that powerful.

Later today, Trump, the twice impeached four-time indicted ex-president traitor who attempted a coup on Jan. 6 and who is facing hundreds of years in prison for his political crime spree will surrender to law enforcement authorities in Fulton County, Georgia. Last night, Trump participated in an "interview" with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, where he was allowed an unrestricted platform to lie, spread other misinformation and distortions, and attack his "enemies" and other imagined foes.

The Republican Party's first 2024 presidential primary debate also aired last night. Trump was not there but his presence hung over the event.

In all, this week has been a spectacle of the worst sort. At CNN, Stephen Collinson accurately described it as, "No other GOP leader could confidently snub a prime-time television debate and turn his no-show into an argument for his inevitability. But Trump – as with his attempt to use criminal indictments to advance a political career that has always prospered amid perceptions that he's being unfairly treated – is changing all the rules of campaigning once again."

The American news media, political class, and general public will do their best (and will largely fail) to navigate these "historic" events with the goal of finding some sense of balance, normalcy, and clarity in unprecedented times. Unfortunately, it is those same bad habits and norms that helped to create the disaster that is the Age of Trump and ascendant American neofascism in the first place.

So, in an attempt to make sense of what comes next in this truly historic and unprecedented moment with Donald Trump and his criminal indictment(s) in Georgia, wishcasting and other forms of denial by the news media and political elites about the true depth of the country's democracy crisis, and what potentially comes next, I recently asked a range of experts for their thoughts and insights.

The interviews have been lightly edited for clarity

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and author of "Criminology on Trump."

As Trump is about to be booked in Atlanta, Georgia for orchestrating a criminal enterprise that spanned seven battleground states and involved at least 50 indictable people, and as the GOP is holding its first presidential debate in Milwaukee — whether Trump is present or not. I am feeling very optimistic about the looming legal and political demise of the former president who currently faces 91 criminal charges. I am also feeling optimistic about the likelihood of Boss Trump taking down the GOP with him in 2024 unless the party abandons him starting Wednesday night which seems unlikely even though his poll numbers after the fourth criminal indictment are now plummeting with the general electorate. Meanwhile, while his legal fees have become astronomical — $40 million and counting — his fundraising has been declining since its peak after his first criminal indictment in Manhattan on April 4.

The danger of Trump taking the other Republican candidates and the Republicans off the proverbial cliff with him has to do with how overly invested they are in Trump's lawlessness and corruption. In short, the Republicans and the GOP have become trapped by their endorsing the Big Lie, by their habitual shielding of Trump from the indefensible, and by their kowtowing to the MAGA base.

We need your help to stay independent

This Trumpian dilemma coupled with the former Racketeer-in-Chief's anti-democratic and authoritarian agenda will certainly be a losing formula up and down the ballots across America, the same as they were in the 2022 midterms only it will be much worse in 2024. Think of landslide elections like Barry Goldwater losing to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or President Jimmy Carter's loss to the former governor of California Ronald Reagan in 1980.

I am looking forward to each of these criminal trials especially because they are "slam dunks" for the prosecution regardless of what Trump or his attorneys and supporters have been saying up to now. Reality check: There are simply no legal defenses for Trump's criminal behavior other than trying to procedurally dissolve these cases by denying that they were crimes in the first place or to simply make motion after motion in the hopes of delaying these trials from beginning for as long as possible.

With respect to the January 6 and Georgia election fraud and conspiracy cases, neither one has anything to do with free speech or with the weaponization of the Justice Department (DOJ) by either President Joe Biden or Attorney General Merrick Garland. While both of these political talking points may continue to thrive in the Trumpian alternative universe, I believe that their powers of persuasion are already starting to fade or decline as a byproduct of the powerful RICO indictments in Georgia. No matter though, these arguments may have had or have value in the court of public opinion, they will have no value whatsoever in the federal or state criminal courts of law where Trump should ultimately be tried will also be convicted. 

I am especially looking forward to these trials as they converge with Trump's campaigns during the GOP primaries like Super Tuesday in March and in the runup to the general election as well. Although Trump could probably stop campaigning altogether and still win the GOP nomination he won't have to. Instead of taking to the expensive campaign trail week after week, he will simply transfer what passes for political campaigning, or more accurately, his staged and unhinged tirades of doom, gloom, and bada-bing bada-boom to the courthouse steps each and every day of those first two federal criminal trials that will probably not be televised.

I am looking most forward to the RICO trial and to Trump's Court TV reality show because it will be televised, and its star defendant Donald Trump won't say one word because he will never take the stand. More importantly, the trial of Trump's criminal enterprise will be a most illuminating and entertaining criminal trial. If it materializes, this trial will captivate viewers and audiences like never before and that includes the 9-month-long criminal trial of OJ. Simpson. Watched literally by the whole world, this fairly complex yet easily understood criminal trial will witness the prosecution methodologically taking us through those 161 acts that furthered the conspiracy of their criminal enterprise. When Trump leaves the Fulton County criminal trial daily for perhaps as long as nine months he will uncharacteristically no longer be talking about his innocence or his persecution. Instead, with his tail tucked firmly between his legs Trump will be demonstrating that he is quite capable of keeping his gaslighting mouth shut when it better serves his interests or when his talking will only make a fool of himself even to his sycophantic MAGA base.

Regardless of the facts or the law, people often interpret events like January 6 as they want to see them as opposed to how they actually were. So, while I agree that there are a lot of Republicans, and many more Democrats, as well as people in the news media, the political class, and so on who want to turn the page on Trump, I think it is important to ascertain the different reasons or motives as to why they want to move on.

In the case of Republicans who want to move on from Trump, most of these folks like the other candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination who don't have a chance of defeating Trump for the nomination want to do so only because they know Trump will be defeated once again and that he has become a terrible election liability for the party. In other words, their distancing themselves from Trump has nothing to do with Trump's ideology of authoritarianism or his assault on democracy and the rule of law.

With respect to the right-wing political class and Fox News or Newsmax, they fully understand the big picture and what is at stake in the 2024 election but that so far has been okay with them. On the other hand, the true-believing MAGA folks for the most part are rather clueless about politics, crime, and the administration of justice. As for most of the other Republicans at large with the exception of the Never Trumpers, these folks are either deeply confused or they have simply drank the "Kool Aid" or succumbed to Trumpian disinformation, gaslighting, and/or propagandistic brainwashing.  

Donald Sherman serves as Executive Vice President and Chief Counsel of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Nobody goes into government ethics work unless they trend towards optimism, but this is an especially important and optimistic time. After more than seven years of egregious and unprecedented ethics abuses in the campaign, in government, and in his post-presidency, Donald Trump is finally facing real accountability that can't be undermined by his sycophants in Congress and other parts of the government.

The only way that our nation can move forward and repair our democracy in the wake of the January 6 insurrection is for there to be accountability. More than 1,000 participants in the mob have been charged by DOJ for their role in the insurrection, and now Donald Trump is finally facing charges. The complex and damning indictment brought in Georgia by Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, makes clear that you can't reach into states to try to overturn their election. With the Georgia grand jury's indictment of Trump, we also have the potential for a conviction that can't be pardoned by Trump, or some other Republican president. Not even Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, can pardon Trump under Georgia law. Several elements of the Georgia indictment are especially important for accountability including that being charged with his co-conspirators increases the likelihood of cooperation and that if this matter eventually goes to trial, there are likely to be cameras in the courtroom.

"The Constitution makes clear that insurrectionists like Trump should not and do not get a second chance to violate their oaths."

These cases also strengthen the public case made by CREW, and scholars across the ideological spectrum that Trump is legally disqualified from serving in office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Last year, CREW brought and won the first successful case in more than 150 years to remove an official from office for violating the Disqualification Clause – which bars a state or federal officer who takes an oath to defend the Constitution from engaging in insurrection or rebellion against the United States. Although a criminal conviction of any kind is not necessary to enforce Section 3 of the 14th Amendment against Trump, it certainly bolsters the public and legal case for his disqualification. As conservative academics William Baude and Michael Pauslen wrote: "On the basis of the public record, former President Donald J. Trump is constitutionally disqualified from again being President (or holding any other covered office) because of his role in the attempted overthrow of the 2020 election and the events leading to the January 6 attack."

A lot of the pundit class went from claiming that Donald Trump was an "existential threat" to our democracy to writing him off or telling us to move on. Funnily enough, we saw similar rhetoric in 2016 as well. CREW is a non-partisan organization, so Trump's electoral prospects are inconsequential to the need for accountability, but it is important to note that the last time that Trump was on a ballot, he was rejected by the voters and responded by inciting a violent insurrection to overturn our election and steal the presidency from the American people. The Constitution makes clear that insurrectionists like Trump should not and do not get a second chance to violate their oaths. I understand that people are exhausted by Trump and want to reject him at the ballot box. However, his actions make him ineligible to be on the ballot in the first place. Just like the American public can't elect George W. Bush or Barack Obama in 2024 because of the 22nd Amendment, Trump is also ineligible to serve as president pursuant to the Constitution.

Existential threats don't disappear in a single election cycle. If the Constitution is not enforced against Donald Trump and other insurrectionists, then our democracy will remain at risk of this kind of attack for the foreseeable future. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment was built precisely for this moment in history, and that's what is at stake. If our country finds itself in a similar place, 50 or 100 years from now, there will need to be a public record of accountability and legal precedent addressing Trump's egregious conduct. The multiple indictments filed over the summer are a great start. Litigation CREW plans to bring to enforce the Disqualification Clause against Trump is another necessary step. Thankfully the drafters of the 14th Amendment had the foresight to ratify this tool for a future insurrection that they could not entirely predict. We cannot afford to leave any tools of accountability on the table, lest we expose ourselves to an even greater threat to democracy than Trump.

Brynn Tannehill is a journalist and author of "American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy."

This is every 20th Century historian's worst nightmare come to life. Demagogue unsuccessfully tries to overthrow the government, goes to jail for it, and then goes on to be elected supreme leader on the backs of promises to eradicate communists, degenerates, and his political enemies while restoring power to the herrenvolk.

"I think that only the people who are deep down in the weeds, who have read things like the Mandate for Leadership understand the hellscape that awaits us if Trump is elected again"

The worst part is, the polls say things are tied, they have consistently underestimated his strength in elections, and the electoral college gives him a 3.5-4 point advantage (i.e. Biden needs to win the popular vote by 3.5-4 points to have a 50-50 shot of winning the Electoral College). It's bad for most people with a sense of history, and even worse for me, since I'm considered to be one of the people who need to be eradicated according to the conservative Project 2025 "Mandate for Leadership", which is effectively the GOP playbook for ending democracy and civil rights in the US. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

There are a lot of people who are saying "Trump can't win," when fundamentally, NOTHING has changed since 2016 or 2020, except that President Biden has gotten less popular. The indictments don't move the needle much. The vast majority of Republicans will still vote for him no matter what. It even feeds into the persecution and lost cause narratives popular with his white evangelical base. If you look at conservative media, they're speculating that it might make him more popular and help "Get Out the Vote" (GOTV) by the base. The sad part is, they might be right: it's a plausible theory. Independents are swinging a little away from Trump, but they're not happy with Biden either. If they sit out the election, and Democrats don't bother voting the way they did in 2016, we're very much headed for a repeat there.

I think that only the people who are deep down in the weeds, who have read things like the Mandate for Leadership understand the hellscape that awaits us if Trump is elected again. This is going to be orders of magnitude worse than his first term, especially with a fully weaponized Department of Justice and federal bureaucracy via Schedule F.

Rich Logis, a former member of the Republican Party and right-wing pundit, is the founder of Perfect Our Union, an organization dedicated to healing political traumatization, building diverse pro-democracy alliances and perfecting our union.

Trump is in the final stage of cult leadership: martyrdom.

He hasn't been defrauded and persecuted, he tells his supporters—YOU have been cheated and persecuted. This leitmotif has been present since 2015, but Trump has significantly ramped up the rhetoric, recently. Some of his primary opponents are now mustering up faux courage, saying that, yes, Trump did lose; these opponents have always believed Trump lost, however, and I will continue to posit that candidates such as Pence, Scott and DeSantis are angling for the nomination via a brokered convention. They, and those running the GOP, know that every indictment strengthens Trump's standing amongst those who matter most to Republican candidates: their primary voters, who are, overwhelmingly, MAGA devotees.

Even having said all this, however, the lower the voter turnout next year, the more likely it could result in a Trump/MAGA victory. The time to begin emphasizing the importance of registering to vote, and turnout, is now. We must leave nothing to chance: Voters of differing political beliefs must form unlikely, but necessary, alliances, to ensure that Republicans suffer electoral losses, next year, up and down the ballot; such alliances have been formed many times in our history, and our current epoch—one in which threats to democracy and democratic institutions are real and prevalent—demands another such alliance.

Right on cue, after yet another Trump indictment, America's national centrist and center-left press continued rolling out their achingly yearning op-eds and columns wishing, hoping, and praying for a Republican to save the GOP. At this point, I've accepted that the press will remain in its well-meaning, but delusional, enchantment of making the GOP great again; it is now self-parody. If our national press devoted less time to a seemingly mythological Republican savior who will never come, and more to highlighting those who left behind the politically traumatic world of MAGA/Trump, I suspect they'd be more bearish on the prospects of repairing the irreparable GOP. I just wish our media recognized that; but, since they don't, the onus falls on we the people to disabuse Americans, of all political beliefs, that the GOP will finally move on from Trump.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Some cautious optimism: Yes, the GOP is irredeemable. But just as I had my own Road to Damascus epiphany, renouncing my support for MAGA/Trump, let's pay close attention to those in our lives who remain in the thrall of MAGA abuse and trauma; I anticipate that some may start to doubt their allegiance to Trump. There is, very much, an abuser/abused dynamic with MAGA supporters and Trump. Those who might question their past political choices and votes need to see and hear the stories of those who severed from MAGA; the regretful, understandably, will be ambivalent about publicizing the errors of their ways. They will have fewer qualms, though, if they see living examples of former MAGA/Trump/DeSantis/GOP voters.

MAGA voters are undeserving of being dehumanized, and had some valid motivations for supporting Trump, even though, yes, Trump exploited those concerns and fears. We must, as a nation, build a broad consensus that electing Trump was one of the most egregious mistakes in our history. Admitting when we're wrong is an unnatural act, but it is possible—and liberating. When I look back at my MAGA time, I remain stunned at the level of political trauma I put upon myself; my hope is that others will begin to recognize their own trauma, which has been, to some extent, self-inflicted.

Joe Walsh was a Republican congressman and a leading Tea Party conservative. He is now a prominent conservative voice against Donald Trump and the host of the podcast "White Flag with Joe Walsh."

I'll be blunt. The vast majority of Americans have no clue where this country is at right now. Way too many in the media, commentary, and political world cling to this notion that this is just kind of an extreme political time, that it's a game that's gotten a little crazy, but that we're still playing in the general boundaries of normal society and politics. Bull**it!

This country is on the precipice of sustained violence we haven't seen in 150-160 years, we are on the verge of complete institutional breakdown, we're on a path that, if continued, will lead to democracy's end here.

I have a different perspective than virtually everyone in the political commentariat. I come from the populist Republican Party base, I left that base, and I still engage with that base every day. That base is the animating force of one of our two major political parties. Trump radicalized that base. By radicalized, I mean - they no longer believe in basic truths, they've given up on democracy, they eagerly embrace authoritarianism, and they don't want to simply defeat their political opponents, they want their political opponents destroyed & killed.

This is the stuff I hear from them. Every day for the past 5-6 years. How are we doing? I just described the status of one of our two major political parties. It's now fully anti-democracy. This isn't tenable.

So, with all that as context, where are we with Trump? How am I feeling? As concerned and frightened as ever. The media treats this like some game. I was actually on CNN a couple of weeks ago and two reporters on the panel with me talked about the GOP race for president as if it was actually some kind of contest. Still a contest? Bull**it. It never was. The guy leading the anti-democracy cult was always going to be the nominee. It's no contest. Barring death or a jail cell, Trump will be the nominee, and he has a better than 50/50 shot at getting elected. You heard me right. Assuming Trump is the nominee, he'd be the odds-on favorite against Biden. I know everyone says he can never win a general election. Again, bull**it! Large swaths of independents are privately dying for an excuse to vote for him again. An underappreciated segment of Americans wants that entertaining buffoon in the White House. They'll never say that publicly.

Trump has moved beyond cult leader. He's a full-on martyr with his base. I hear it every day. Each new indictment has strengthened his support among "non MAGA" Republicans & conservatives who've told me it really seems like they're piling on him now and he's being unfairly targeted by the justice system. That's a powerful narrative.

The chatter about violence that I hear now is greater than what I heard before January 6th. We're in for 14-15 months of danger this country just doesn't understand. And danger the media refuses to discuss.

So yes, I'm feeling pretty damned despondent. And angry. We're only a few years into this storm and so many people still don't understand the gravity of the approaching storm. We've entered a revolutionary period in America. A revolution that will determine whether this great democracy stays united or not. And having most of the country in denial about where we are scares me even more.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Debates Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Election Indictments Jan. 6 Law Republican Party