Shortly before the 2016 election, when reports surfaced that Donald Trump had used legal loopholes to avoid paying his taxes, Rudy Giuliani called him a “genius” for working these dodges so successfully. Trump himself boasted about stiffing his contractors out of wages and contractually agreed-upon fees.
Trump is about to metamorphose from the world’s most powerful human to a financially challenged pariah, a traitor who betrayed in the starkest way possible his oath of office, a coup plotter ostracized by erstwhile political allies, business partners, lenders, and media moguls. He might retain the allegiance of a fanatical portion of the GOP base, maybe even a large portion of that base, but he will no longer command a coalition capable of winning power. Moreover, he is likely going to be chased these coming years from one criminal trial and one civil damages lawsuit to the next.
In short, Trump has, with one calamitous speech urging a mob to commit treason, conjured up a circle of Dantean hell reserved exclusively for him and his closest confreres.
While Trump seems, in part, oblivious to what is happening—in brief statements on Tuesday, he continued to deny responsibility for the deadly events of January 6—in the deep recesses of his reptilian brain he appears, belatedly, to have realized the magnitude of the catastrophe that he has unleashed against himself. Stewing in the White House, banished from social media, shunned by erstwhile friends and enablers, his dominance over national politics shredded, America’s carnage-whisperer is deflecting blame away from himself by instead turning on his closest allies. Among those bearing the brunt of Trump’s rage is Giuliani, who has been billing Trump a fortune for his dubious legal counsel in the months surrounding the election, and whom the disgraced soon-to-be-ex-president has now told aides not to pay for his services.
What goes around comes around, I guess. Or, to put it another way, there’s precious little honor among thieves. Or, to put it still another way, Giuliani is such a miserable, toadying, soul-corroded ruin of a man that it’s hard not to laugh at Trump’s attempts to cheat him.
Trump has always wanted deliverables, has always fashioned himself as a transactional rather than idealistic politician. In recent months, those deliverables primarily involved overturning the results of a national election, subverting the constitutional process following that election, and securing the backing of the military in assaulting the notion of a peaceful transfer of power. But none of those deliverables have happened: Giuliani hasn’t delivered for him, and so, in Trump’s view, must be punished. The lower courts haven’t; the Supreme Court, even with his three hand-picked justices, hasn’t; Mike Pence hasn’t (which is why Trump set a mob on the vice president, some of whom called for his hanging); and Congress, even after it was ransacked, hasn’t.
Instead, all that Trump has left to stoke his ego and nurture his fantasies of unlimited power is the mob, with some of its pelt-wearing, antler-touting, nativist miscreants resembling an 18th century cast out of the gin-soaked, anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in London in 1780. Charles Dickens wrote about that mob in his marvelous novel Barnaby Rudge, describing the frenzied rioters as impressionable fools primed by nativist, anti-Catholic propaganda to join in a purported “defense of religion, life, and liberty,” having fallen prey to hate speech “urging all men to join together blindfold in resistance of they knew not what, they knew not why”—as a result of which “the mania spread indeed, and the body, still increasing every day, grew forty thousand strong.”
The mob that marched on the British Parliament in 1780 to protest a law easing discrimination against Catholics was unleashed by the mad aristocrat Lord Gordon, and for courage imbibed copious amounts of gin. It was conspiracist to the core, believing there to be a papist plot to undermine the British way of life, and folding into its dire world view a suspicion of the Bank of England and other key institutions of state. Today’s mob, storming the US Congress, was unleashed by the equally mad Donald Trump, intoxicated not on gin but on hallucinatory MAGA and QAnon dreams. It has at its heart revanchist visions of racial purity and Trumpian dominance enforced at the barrel of a gun.
Lord Gordon’s riot was eventually broken up, but only after much blood had been shed; most estimates suggest at least 300 victims. Gordon himself was tried for treason. Although he was acquitted—not because he hadn’t incited the mob but because it was unprovable that his intent had been treasonous—he subsequently fell into a destructive cycle of demagogy and dubious financial schemes. A few years after the trial, the vicious, ne’er-do-well aristocrat was once again arrested, and this time convicted. A few years later, Gordon died in Newgate Prison, a lonely, bankrupted, humbled man, whom prison authorities had refused to release at the end of his official sentence because no one was willing to vouch that he had reformed his ways.
British institutions survived the Gordon mob’s assault, as American institutions will survive the Trumpian mob’s fever dream of violent upheaval and race war. But Gordon himself did not survive the wave of revulsion against him that his actions unleashed. When demagogues fall, they tend to fall hard. That’s a lesson that Donald J. Trump is now learning the hard way. Perhaps he should have read some Dickens before he delivered his insurrectionary speech on January 6.