This is not normal behaviour (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

August 7, 2023   6 mins

Donald Trump stops me sleeping, and I am not alone. The multiply indicted former president’s fans sneeringly call it “Trump Derangement Syndrome”. Psychologists, who since 2016 have seen a rise in people anxious about the state of the world, call it “Trump Anxiety Disorder”. As someone afflicted, I think its essence is disorientation: Trump and his supporters appear to be living in an alternate reality. The Trump phenomenon has not only intensified partisan polarisation, but also highlighted the existence of two different fact-worlds.

At least for me, the cause of Trump Anxiety Disorder is not so much Trump himself, but what his rise, and seeming untouchability, tells us about the impossibility of politics. He exposes our collective powerlessness when we cannot agree on what is true and what is not. This is why Trump’s indictment for conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, and conspiracy to deprive American citizens of their votes is bad news for sufferers: it is another test of whether there are consequences for saying that black is white, and just like the two impeachments, it might well fail.

On the first page of the indictment, Special Prosecutor Jack Smith succinctly sums up the case he wants to make: “Despite having lost [the 2020 election], the Defendant was determined to remain in power. So for more than two months following election day on November 3, 2020, the Defendant spread lies that there had been outcome-determinative fraud in the election and that he had actually won. These claims were false, and the Defendant knew that they were false.” But did he? Trump’s defenders argue that he sincerely believed there had been election rigging on a scale that altered the outcome. Of course, the indictment provides evidence that Trump was repeatedly told none of this was true by Justice Department officials, White House aides, Republican governors and even his own Vice President, who he accused — on Christmas Day, no less — of being “too honest”. But so what? Wasn’t he just Trump being Trump?

One of the problems here is the cognitive dissonance between the deadly serious charges laid against the former president and the manifest lunacy and incompetence of his carnival of co-conspirators, a cast of characters who could be from an Ealing Comedy. It includes Rudy Giuliani, the hair-dye-drizzled host of a press conference that was supposed to be in the Four Seasons Hotel but ended up in a garden supply centre instead, and the lawyer Sidney Powell, so bonkers that even Trump apparently called her “crazy”. With friends like these, Trump was just being what Trump has always been — narcissistic, reckless, gullible, mendacious, believing that the world was what he wanted it to be. He and his acolytes never wink and admit they’re playing a game, but their very outlandishness makes them harder to take seriously.

The indictment hedges against the defence that Trump was just being Trump by freely acknowledging that, like every American citizen, he had the right to lie. It focuses instead on what he did — trying to overturn the election by appointing fake electors and such like — not on what he thought. But, his defenders will argue, if the election really had been stolen, his efforts to prevent the ratification of Biden’s victory, even down to encouraging an armed crowd to go to the Capitol on January 6, were entirely reasonable. His lawyers will insist that their client was acting on the basis of “advice of counsel” from the constitutional lawyer John Eastman, presumed to be one of Trump’s as-yet-unnamed co-conspirators. Eastman apparently provided advice that Vice President Pence could delay the formal counting of the Electoral College votes on January 6. Assuming a trial does eventually take place, all it will take is for a single juror to think that, on balance, Trump was just “exploring options” and trying to make sure the election was “fair”, and he will be acquitted.

This leaves the United States in a horrible impasse. There is no outcome that will not intensify the stress on the American political system; the stakes have now been raised once again. “To support Trump is to support sedition and violence,” ran a typical piece in the liberal Atlantic. “We face in Trump a dedicated enemy of our Constitution, and if he returns to office, his next ‘administration’ will be a gang of felons, goons, and resentful mediocrities, all of whom will gladly serve Trump’s sociopathic needs while greedily dividing the spoils of power.” The Trumpites respond in kind. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who back in January 2021 blamed Trump for the violence at the Capitol, tweeted: “Today is indeed a dark day for the United States of America. It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him.”

As an author of books about the American Civil War, I find this language eerily familiar. Especially disconcerting is the way that each side mirrors the claims of the other, believing that their opponents pose an existential threat to the republic. In the 1850s, a majority of Northerners came to believe that Southern slaveholding politicians and their allies represented a grave threat to their system of government, while white Southerners feared that they were losing their country. In fact, the differences between the politics of the mid-19th century and today are profound, and the tendency of today’s liberals to compare themselves to anti-slavery campaigners is often self-serving. But what matters is how people think and speak.

There is no precedent for a president being indicted for these kinds of crimes. None has ever before tried to overturn an election, however ineptly. But in another sense, politics in the US has often, rhetorically, been on the precipice. And while the specifics of the Capitol riot of January 6 were entirely new, the resort to violence was definitely not. The January 6 rioters liked to think of themselves as part of a revolutionary tradition that went back to 1776: that violence against the government is legitimate and sanctioned by the Founding Fathers. They were not entirely wrong about that. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, a sentiment that was entirely characteristic of him.

Political violence has, in truth, been at least as quintessentially a part of the American political tradition as the supposedly miraculous peaceful transition of power: from the rural rebellions of the 1790s and the white suppression of black voters during Reconstruction to the long tradition of labour and civil rights resistance. When in the aftermath of the January 6th riot, Joe Biden issued a statement claiming: “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are,” he was only half right. It is true that the US has a long tradition of peaceful, ordered, rational politics, but Trump keeps me awake because he is the latest, and perhaps the most dangerous, reminder of America’s darker, and no less potent, political tradition.

In an important book published in 2020, the political scientists Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman identified four recurrent threats to American democracy: political polarisation, excessive executive power, conflict over who belongs in the political community, and high levels of economic inequality. What is new about the current state of the US, Mettler and Lieberman argue, is that for the first time all four of these threats are in play at the same time.

In the 1790s, there was intense political polarisation, with Jefferson’s and Adam’s supporters each convinced that the triumph of the other would mark the end of the brief experiment in republican government. In the Thirties, mass unemployment and widespread poverty raised profound questions about the viability of the American system. At various times, in the 1890s and again in the Sixties, conflict over who should be included in the political nation threatened to tear the country apart. And anxiety over excessive executive power — a tyrant in the White House — roiled politics in the eras of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.

But in all these previous moments of crisis, there were also steadying forces. In the Sixties and Seventies, for example, racial conflict and fears of an over-mighty presidency were contained because the two parties did not represent alternative sides in the conflict. Today, extreme partisan polarisation of a kind not seen since the 1790s makes the instability caused by the other three threats exponentially worse.

Mettler and Lieberman gamely end their book on a positive note by quoting Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg urging Americans in the middle of the Civil War to “be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced” and that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”. Fair play to them: it is always worth returning to Lincoln, for he made the case for democracy as an ongoing struggle better than anyone else has ever done. But at Gettysburg in 1863, there were still another two years of bloody war ahead, a war that was the ultimate example of the breakdown of normal politics. It is not an encouraging precedent.

Adam Smith is Professor of US Politics & Political History at Oxford University. His specialism is the American Civil War.