Most recent ex-president arrested for fourth time: What the hell country is this?

Republicans can't escape an accused felon — who keeps nudging his supporters toward violence. How did we get here?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 25, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump pauses for cheers from the crowd before speaking as the keynote speaker at the 56th Annual Silver Elephant Dinner hosted by the South Carolina Republican Party on August 5, 2023 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump pauses for cheers from the crowd before speaking as the keynote speaker at the 56th Annual Silver Elephant Dinner hosted by the South Carolina Republican Party on August 5, 2023 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

Once in a while, as I peruse the morning headlines, I can't help but ask myself: What would I have thought if I'd seen these stories 10 years ago? I'm always shaken by what it looks like from that perspective. It's not as if shocking events hadn't taken place in the decade before that. The 9/11 attacks came as a total shock and the financial crisis of 2008 was as close as I'd ever come to experiencing cataclysmic economic dislocation. But those, at least, were on par with historical world events like Pearl Harbor and the Great Depression, so there was a sense that they were not entirely unprecedented.

On Thursday I read headlines that former President Donald Trump was turning himself in to be arrested for the fourth time, two of those arrests stemming from his attempt to overturn the election in 2020, another for stealing classified documents and yet another for illegally paying hush money to a porn star with whom he'd had an affair. Other headlines tell me that the first Republican presidential primary debate was held without the frontrunner in attendance — that frontrunner being Donald Trump, the man with the four felony indictments. Today that seems like just another day in American politics. In 2013, I would have laughed at the sheer absurdity of the entire premise. But ever since Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, nothing has ever been normal in American politics — and it's getting weirder every day.

Wednesday night's GOP debate looked, on the surface, like relatively normal political spectacle. Eight candidates qualified for the stage, some familiar faces along with others who are new to national politics. The production was standard issue campaign-season material. But the fact is that Donald Trump leads this entire pack by north of 40 points, so he didn't consider it necessary to show up. Although the candidates on stage largely acted as if he didn't exist, Trump hung over the event like a giant orange specter, and must have laughed uproariously as all but two of the other contenders pledged to vote for him even if he is convicted on any of the criminal charges he now faces. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis yelled and grimaced throughout the debate, presumably because he'd been coached to be aggressive and to "smile" as much as possible, lot and that was as close as he was able to come. As usual, DeSantis said chilling things about invading Mexico and summarily executing people "stone cold dead" along the border. Then he told the most bizarre abortion anecdote I've ever heard:

I know a lady in Florida named Penny. She survived multiple abortion attempts. She was left discarded in a pan. Fortunately, her grandmother saved her and brought her to a different hospital.

At first I thought DeSantis was claiming that a woman named Penny had been forced to have an abortion and then was left "in a pan," which made no sense. Then I realized that this Penny was actually supposed to be an aborted fetus who made it to another hospital and somehow lived to tell the tale. Jezebel reports that this is an oft-repeated but unverifiable story told by a woman from Michigan (not Florida) named Penny Hopper, who claims she was born alive in 1955 after a botched 23-week abortion and whose legend has fueled "a whole string of so-called 'Born Alive' bills in state legislatures and Congress."

But DeSantis didn't leave much of an impression anyway. He was upstaged by the newcomer, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who understands that the Republican base loves anyone who owns the libs with a bit of style. Trump may not have been there in the flesh but Ramaswamy channeled him effectively enough, getting the rest of the pack to gasp like anxious old ladies at every outrageous thing he said. The MAGA base won't make him president, of course. He's just a bit too ... exotic. But they liked his performance a lot.

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As I perused all those crazy headlines on Thursday morning, I noticed something curious. There was almost no mention of Trump's "counterprogramming" initiative, his interview with Tucker Carlson on the platform formerly called Twitter, now X. It was set up as a big slap in the face to Fox News by Trump, Carlson and Elon Musk. The idea was that people would be more excited to see the two political stars together than a bunch of wannabes who haven't got a chance. Maybe they were, but that's an unproven premise. 

Trump claims that his interview broke all records and that more than 100 million people watched it. He posted a right-wing article on Truth Social claiming that his chat with Carlson was the most watched interview ever, "beating Oprah and Michael Jackson." That was a lie, of course. It clocked more than 180 million views on X, which only describes how many times it showed up in someone's feed — including multiple views by the same users — and says nothing about how many people actually watched it. Engagement numbers offer a somewhat more useful clue. Yahoo News reports:

As of this writing, Carlson's interview with Trump has been reposted (formerly "retweeted") 171,800 times, quote-posted (formerly "quote-tweeted") 14,500 times, liked 578,100 times, bookmarked 46,500 times, and has been replied to around 47,000 times. Not especially low numbers. It's undeniable that Trump has a lot of supporters, many of whom swarm on Twitter.

Well, those aren't especially high numbers either. Many celebrities generate much bigger numbers than that when they promote a new album or movie. Fox News reports that the Republican debate garnered 12.8 million viewers, which is perfectly respectable considering that the frontrunner wasn't even there.

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Did Trump say anything particularly notable in his interview with Carlson? Not by his standards. The former Fox News superstar kept pushing the ex-president to endorse political violence, asking if he thought the U.S. was moving toward civil war. When Carlson asked whether "the left" might try to kill Trump, the latter described his opponents as "savage animals" and turned to the subject of Jan. 6, 2021: 

[P]eople in that crowd said it was the most beautiful day they've ever experienced. There was love in that crowd, there was love and unity. I have never seen such spirit and such passion and such love, and I've also never seen simultaneously, and from the same people, such hatred of what they've done to our country.

I assume "they" in that last sentence refers to the "savage animals" of the left. And yes, he's right: His supporters really do hate them. That much is obvious by the violence being perpetrated by Trump's followers against perceived foes on a regular basis.

As Trump rhetoric goes, that's nothing. He's said much worse things than that many times over. But once again I have to refer back to myself in 2013, when I would have been stunned to see those two men casually discussing possible civil war and heightened political violence the way Republicans once talked about tort reform or capital gains taxes. Like a lot of Americans, I've grown numb to that now. I don't even want to think about what I might see if I could look 10 years further down the road from here. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donald Trump Elections History Indictment Republicans Ron Desantis Vivek Ramaswamy