Most Wednesday evenings, when I turn my hand to this column, it’s easy to focus on cutting-edge economic or political developments emerging on the West Coast. But today, I am preoccupied by other things. There are Trump’s cascading legal woes: the epic takedown by New York Attorney General Letitia James, and the investigation into his bizarre hoarding of highly classified documents at Mar-a-Lago—as well as his overt leaning into QAnon rhetoric and his none-too-subtle intimations that if he is indicted he will mobilize his armed base in response. Then there is Putin’s Hitlerian speech about mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people into an all-out national effort to “defend” the motherland, including illegally annexed Ukrainian lands taken in a war of blatant aggression. As I find my attention drawn temporarily away from the Western US, consider this a column from the Left Coast, rather than one about the Left Coast.
Let’s start with Trump. For years, this king of charlatans has gotten away with one alleged crime and seedy activity and dubious business practice after the next, always managing to skirt the legal repercussions of his actions. Now, in Letitia James, he has an adversary who seems determined to hold his feet to the legal fire. Even though her investigation is a civil one, and the penalties she is seeking for Trump’s serial mendaciousness are financial rather than carceral, she made it clear on Wednesday that she believes state and federal criminal law was broken by the Trump family, and she announced that she had forwarded the relevant details to federal prosecutors.
James explained, vividly, why fraud to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars is not somehow a “victimless” white-collar crime. She reminded viewers that ex-presidents are just as legally liable if they defraud banks and tax collectors as are ordinary citizens, mocking the author of The Art of the Deal for instead specializing in “the art of the steal.” There was something magnificent in the steely tone of outrage that James managed to project during her televised statement announcing the lawsuit.
I don’t know if this is the comeuppance that will finally puncture the Trumpian bubble, but I do know that with this added to Trump’s growing laundry list of legal travails, and his inability to present coherent, consistent, legal arguments as to why he should not face legal consequences for his odious actions, the net has dramatically tightened around the ex-president. By a more than two-to-one margin, Americans polled about Trump’s handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago think it’s a serious matter. By a large margin, too, Americans believe that the various investigations into Trump’s alleged wrongdoings should continue.
All of this drip-drip-drip is damaging the Trump brand. Earlier this week, an NBC poll found that Trump’s approval rating had declined to a mere 34 percent. For a man of The Donald’s insatiable ego, knowing that two-thirds of Americans disapprove of him, many of them with a passion, must feel like an almost unbearable burden.
And yet the further Trump falls, the more dangerous he becomes, the more willing he is to burn down the American house and to mobilize the millions who still adhere to his vicious cult to seek vengeance.
Trump’s back-against-the-wall persona is all too similar to that of Putin. Russia’s amoral apparatchik turned emperor has unleashed Europe’s most murderous war since 1945, acting on explicitly Napoleonic ambitions. He doesn’t manifest the slightest capacity for self-reflection or humility regarding his actions in Ukraine, and the consequences they have for peace in Europe or for the broader global economy.
The Ukrainians have, as had the Czechoslovaks in the late 1930s, the misfortune to reside next to a land-hungry despot who believes that he is on a God-given mission to seize land, either as Lebensraum for his people, or in pursuit of some vision of bringing everyone of a shared ethnic heritage under one imperial roof. If anyone had, somehow, previously given him the benefit of the doubt, if they labored under the illusion that ex-KGB agent Putin was simply righting the wrongs of the post–Cold War period, when Russia was needlessly humiliated, this week’s developments have surely put paid to that.
In announcing a partial national mobilization, Putin made it clear that he would sacrifice untold numbers of people to his charnel house “victory,” whatever that word means in the context of a clearly unwinnable war. In leaning into the idea of annexing large swaths of territory and then declaring that efforts to free them would be considered attacks on Mother Russia itself, Putin has created a narrative as historically vacuous, and at least potentially as dangerous, as that used to gird the creation of the Third Reich. In threatening nuclear attack on his opponents, most of whom are members of NATO, Putin has brought the world closer to the nuclear brink than it has been in decades.
There is to be seen, in the horizonless, banal sea that is Putinism, a savage implosion of one of the world’s truly great cultures. There is, in his unleashing of the security state, and in his willingness to terrorize domestic opponents—including by frog-marching anti-war protesters straight into the draft offices—a national collapse into a paranoiac, conspiracy-based, might-is-right miasma.
In America, we have the likes of Stephen Bannon and Alex Jones, who use their vile platforms to stoke hate and undermine democracy and pluralism. In Putin’s Russia, frothing-at-the-mouth commentators now openly call for the use of both tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield and strategic nuclear weapons as apocalyptic vengeance-deliverers against enemies in the US and Europe. There is a drumbeat-to-destruction from these nationalists, a constant demand for Putin to use hydrogen bombs against the UK, against air bases in Germany, against the Ukrainians, even against Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. There is a death-cult glee in these commentators’ longing to fight a nuclear war for the preservation of Russian greatness, and it is one that the Kremlin does nothing to dissociate itself from.
In such a world, it is sometimes difficult to focus on regional politics. But next week, dear readers, I promise that this column shall return to its Western stomping grounds.