Trump's hush-money trial: The personal is truly political

Donald Trump embodies an especially malignant modern-day perversion of the old saw about politics and private life

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 6, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to supporters after speaking at a Get Out The Vote rally at the North Charleston Convention Center on February 14, 2024 in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to supporters after speaking at a Get Out The Vote rally at the North Charleston Convention Center on February 14, 2024 in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As a practical matter, Donald Trump’s hush-money trial is fundamentally about election interference and hiding information from the American people that could have influenced the outcome of the 2016 election. Legal experts generally agree that the testimony by witnesses for the prosecution — including David Pecker, former publisher of The National Enquirer, and Stormy Daniels’ former attorney Keith Davidson, as well as the bankers and assistants who had knowledge of Trump’s financial matters as they relate to the hush-money payments, have been very damaging to the ex-president's defense.  

To that point, a highlight (or low point, depending on one's point of view) of this trial came last Thursday when an audio recording of Trump speaking with his then-attorney Michael Cohen about buying the silence of Karen McDougal (one of Trump's alleged sexual partners) was played in court for the jurors. This evidence is critical to the prosecution's case because it establishes a pattern of behavior. 

In a dramatic moment on Friday, longtime Trump aide and confidante Hope Hicks testified for the prosecution. She explained how her former boss was pleased that the information about his alleged encounter with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels became public years before the 2020 election, when it would have potentially been much more damaging. Hicks began to cry as prosecutors questioned her, prompting Judge Juan Merchan to order a brief recess so she could compose herself. Hicks' testimony once again confirmed that the hush-money operation was fundamentally a political maneuver intended to keep damaging information from the American people.

Exasperated and frustrated in the pressure of the courtroom, Trump continues to show contempt for the court, the judge and the rule of law by repeatedly falling asleep, as well as by continually violating Merchan's gag order.

In his fundraising emails and other communications, Trump continues to amplify his lies that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” and “conspiracy” by Joe Biden, Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and anyone and everyone else who is trying to keep him from “Making America Great Again.”

Trump has also reportedly told members of his inner circle that he is upset with his attorneys for not defending him more “aggressively.” His combative strategy is likely to backfire. Last Tuesday, Judge Merchan fined Trump $9,000 for violating the gag order, warning the defendant that he risks being jailed if he continues to threaten or otherwise seek to intimidate and harass witnesses, jurors and others people involved in the case. On Thursday, prosecution requested that Merchan punish Trump again after his social-media comments about the jurors, David Pecker and Michael Cohen.

As “revealed” in a recent interview with Time magazine, Trump has real plans to be America’s first dictator. He is not being hyperbolic or just posturing. His public statements are consistent with the ways Trump has repeatedly shown that he is an obvious megalomaniac with a god complex, who believes that he is a type of prophet or messiah for the MAGA movement and American neofascism. In his speeches, campaigns ads and elsewhere, Trump has basically — and explicitly — said these things over and over again.

Donald Trump and his allies’ campaign to end America’s multiracial democracy has been emboldened by the right-wing justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, who now appear to be willing to grant Trump some amount of “presidential immunity.”

Any person with Trump’s personality and politics will inevitably feel enraged by the very idea that they could be held accountable by the courts and the rule of law, as if they were an ordinary citizen in a functioning democracy. As Trump’s hush-money trial continues, his behavior will in all probability get much worse and not better. If he is actually elected president again, he will, as promised, weaponize the Department of Justice and federal law enforcement to seek revenge and retribution on his “enemies,” including Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats and liberals. 

Ultimately, Trump’s criminal trials, his aspirations to become an American dictator and the antisocial, dangerous and destructive forces both swirling around him and being projected by him offer a study in how one man’s damaged personality can interact with mass politics in the worst ways possible.

We need your help to stay independent

Donald Trump’s niece Mary Trump is a trained psychologist. In a recent essay in her Substack newsletter, she connects her uncle’s pathological personality to the larger democracy crisis:

I’ve lost count of how many times he’s gotten away with the lies and fraud and alleged criminality and simply being a horrible human being. He’s a charlatan with nothing but snake oil to sell. His promises are empty, because he has nothing of substance to offer.

And his antisocial behavior is directly tied to his psychopathology — because he believes himself to be above the law and cannot fathom that he would ever be held to the same standard as us mere mortals.

The fraudulent financial statements he used to secure loans and build his real estate empire concealed the dark truth that his wealth was a mirage.

The 34 felony charges relate to his falsifying business records as a result of payments to suppress an embarrassing fling with a porn actor from voters at a crucial point before the 2016 election.

His inability to concede loss after the 2020 election — indeed, his inability to believe that he could lose at all — was behind the buildup to the January 6th insurrection, the calls to the Georgia attorney general to “find” votes in order to change that state’s results, and the fake elector scheme in multiple states, including Michigan and Arizona.

His theft of government documents reflects his continuing attempt to assert his sense of impunity, which, in all but one of his criminal cases, remains unchallenged.

She continues: 

His narcissism knows no bounds. He gazes into the mirror, sees a god, and expects us all to bow down. His ego is like a black hole, sucking in praise, adoration, and any semblance of humility. He surrounds himself with sycophants, those who nod and clap like trained seals. 

His self-love is a theatrical spectacle, a masquerade of grandeur. He revels in the spotlight, basking in the adoration of crowds.

Yet, this dance is a diversion — a sad waltz to distract from the void within. His mirror reflects an image he desperately wants to believe: the infallible titan, impervious to doubt.

But beneath the bravado lies a wounded child — the boy who yearned for approval, who hungered for his father’s love but never got it. His narcissism is a bandage, covering old scars.

His insecurity whispers: “You’re not enough. You’ll never be.”

And he’s right.

In a conversation with MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Mary Trump offered these suggestions about how to leverage her uncle's personality defects and bad character in order to defeat him in the 2024 election:   

He needs to be relentlessly mocked at every turn....We see in the courtroom he's not handling the circumstances well. He's not handling the confinement or the fact that he has no power in this space and that's why....So it would be so much better if he were just forced to wallow in the consequences of his actions,....We see him looking like he's falling asleep. Whether or not he's falling asleep — he's complaining about the temperature. It's something I don't see being paid attention to, but it's important. Donald Trump is there — trapped in that courtroom because of what he did. There are a lot of other people trapped in that courtroom because of what he did. He doesn't seem to care that they're also cold and tired and don't want to be there."

Mary Trump advised that pro-democracy Americans should "hammer away on his weakness and his frailty, and I mean that psychologically."

Nicole Wallace is also keenly aware of the existential danger that Donald Trump and his MAGA people and the larger anti-democracy movement pose to American democracy, freedom of the press, and to her personal safety and future. On last Monday's episode of her MSNBC show "Deadline: White House," Wallace shared her thoughts about what will likely happen if Donald Trump wins the 2024 election and follows through on his threats to become a de facto dictator:

[A]t this exact time next year, depending what happens in November seven months from now, we can’t say for certain that there would even be a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, or even a free press, or even a White House Press Corps....While our democracy wouldn’t exactly fall apart immediately without it, the real threat looms larger. A candidate with outward disdain, not just for a free press, but for all our freedoms and for the rule of law itself.

As I follow Donald Trump’s hush-money trial, I keep returning to the concept that sick societies produce sick leaders and how this is especially true in ailing democracies such as the United States in the Age of Trump. But I have also been meditating on how “the personal is political.” As originally deployed, that concept and slogan was popularized by liberal and left political thinkers, activists, and organizers as a way of explaining how questions of power and politics are not abstract, but instead are lived experiences that have a profoundly disproportionate impact on marginalized communities and people(s) deemed to be the other. By comparison, Donald Trump embodies a malignant version (and perversion) of how the personal is political. In that way, Donald Trump’s personal problems are a great political and societal problem for the United States and its democracy and people. Unfortunately, because those problems are so great they will persist even if Donald Trump is found guilty in his multiple criminal trials, defeated at the polls in the 2024 election, and disappears from public life. The Trumpocene is our collective malady.

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 Crime Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Election Law Mary Trump Trump Trial