This week, Donald Trump delivered his version of a sad tiny desk performance, hunched over the defendant’s table in a New York courtroom, diminished and watching the illusion of power and grandeur he has sold voters thin and run like oil in a hot pan.
He insisted on appearing in person at his civil fraud trial, apparently believing that he would continue to perform his perverse magic of converting that which would have ended other political careers into a political win for himself.
His hubris seemed to consume him, convincing him that in matters of optics, he’s not only invincible but unmatched.
He has done it before: In August, he scowled in his mug shot – a precursor to his Fulton County, Georgia, criminal trial – summoning the allure of an outlaw, using the photo to raise millions of dollars, according to his campaign.
But I think his attempts at cosplaying some sort of roguish flintiness will wind up being missteps. Courtrooms don’t allow for political-rally stagecraft. There’s no place to plant primed supporters behind him to ensure that every camera angle captures excited admirers. He’s not the center of attention, the impresario of the event; no, he must sit silently in lighting not intended to flatter and in chairs not intended to impress.
Courtrooms humble the people in them. They equalize. They democratize. In the courtroom, Trump is just another defendant – and in it, he looks small. The phantasm of indomitability, the idea of him being wily and slick, surrenders to the flame like tissues in a campfire.
The image was not of a defiant would-be king, but of a man stewing and defeated.
The judge in the case even issued a limited gag order after Trump posted a picture of and a comment about the judge’s clerk on Truth Social.
Meanwhile, there’s the historic ouster of the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, by members of his own party for the unforgivable sin of seeking a bipartisan solution to keep the government open.
In Greek mythology exists the story of the Gigantomachy, a battle between the Olympian gods and giants. According to prophesy, the gods could emerge victorious only if assisted by a mortal. Hercules came to the rescue.
But in Republicans’ version of this drama, McCarthy could have emerged victorious over his party’s anarchists only if Democrats had come to his aid. None did.
He was felled by a revolt led not by a giant but by the smallest of men, not in stature but in principles: the charmless Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.
Anyone who thought that Democrats were going to save McCarthy should have thought again. Ultimately, McCarthy succumbed to the result of his own craven pursuit of power: The rule that Gaetz used to initiate the vote to strip McCarthy of the speaker’s gavel was the rule McCarthy agreed to in order to get his hands on the gavel in the first place.
Republicans are engaged in an intense session of self-flagellation. Does it also hurt the country? Yes. But in one way it might help: America needs to clearly see who the culprits are in today’s political chaos, and the damage they cause, so that voters can correct course.
And the events of this week should give voters pause. The tableau that emerges from the troubles of Trump and McCarthy is one in which the GOP’s leaders are chastened and cowed, one in which their power is stripped and their efforts rebuked.
This is just one week among many leading up to the 2024 elections, but it is weeks like this that leave a mark, because the images that emerge from them are indelible.
All the inflamed consternation about Joe Biden’s age and Hunter Biden’s legal troubles will, in the end, have to be weighed against something far more consequential: Republicans – obsessed with blind obeisance, a lust for vengeance and a contempt for accountability – who no longer have the desire or capacity to actually lead.
Their impulses to disrupt and destroy keep winning out, foreshadowing even more of a national disaster if their power grows as a result.
How Republican primary voters respond to this Republican maelstrom of incompetence is one thing. How general election voters will respond to it is quite another.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.