Nemesis meets hubris – the Universe’s drip drip drip of retribution upon Donald Trump

Nemesis meets hubris – the Universe’s drip drip drip of retribution upon Donald Trump
Former US president Donald Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Erik S Lesser)

This Tuesday, 4 April 2023, represents the first real test of Donald Trump’s legal predicaments. Will the charges in a Manhattan court ring true or will they be seen as a bridge too far? Will his vast hubris fall prey to nemesis?

Thirty years ago, the Rand Corporation, the Pentagon-associated think tank, issued a study that described what they labelled the “hubris-nemesis complex”. 

This spoke to the dangers of an overwhelming belief in self (or country) and a parallel belief in a desire to punish one’s adversaries (essentially without limit). Rand’s paper was originally meant to describe the dangers baked into foreign policy choices based on an overweening belief in one’s national powers, but it is easy enough to see how this temptation works elsewhere as well. 

As Rand’s authors explained, “This complex involves a combination of hubris (a pretension toward an arrogant form of godliness) and nemesis (a vengeful desire to confront, defeat, humiliate, and punish an adversary, especially one that can be accused of hubris). The combination has strange dynamics that may lead to destructive, high-risk behaviour. Attempts to deter, compel, or negotiate with a leader who has a hubris-nemesis complex can be ineffectual or even disastrously counterproductive when those attempts are based on concepts better suited to dealing with more normal leaders.” 

It is not a big stretch to see Donald Trump’s current agonies in this light with his supreme hubris and a desire to punish his opponents to their extinction.

After years of evading the consequences (legal and otherwise) for his choices and behaviours in his personal and business life, a quartet of increasingly serious legal entanglements stemming from his personal and political behaviour – leading up to his election in 2016 and then flowing from provoking an insurrection after losing his re-election bid – are coming home to roost. The first of these is Trump’s upcoming arraignment and public reading of District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s charge sheet in a Manhattan criminal court on the afternoon of Tuesday 4 April. 

While it is understood Trump will not be arrested and brought to the court in handcuffs, or made to endure a perp walk, he will need to surrender to the police and the court, be photographed for his mug shot, fingerprinted, and, crucially, be present for the recital of what are now reported to be more than two dozen charges. The indignity of all this – this is a man who believed he bestrode the universe, after all – may well drive the former president to public apoplexy, once he has been charged and if he speaks to his true believers on the courtroom building’s front steps. And this is just the beginning for him.

Trump will be forced to appear before the arraigning judge along with various other accused criminals as they all hear the charges against them, as their attorneys plead for being released on their own recognisance, and as the prosecutors argue for punishing bail conditions or for the accused criminal perpetrator to be remanded for custody. For a man of Donald Trump’s self-regarding, protean stature, the whole show will be deeply humiliating. That Tuesday afternoon court appearance would be equivalent to the mother of all episodes of Law and Order. That television show has been a long-running police/courtroom procedural drama that has thrived for two decades of weekly programmes and several spinoffs.

Alternatively, we should not entirely discount the possibility that Trump will revel in the supposed public obloquy of this real life courtroom drama (something that is still only the precursor to the actual trial). He did, after all, announce preemptively that last week would be when he was arrested and his followers should be prepared to protest against this. 

On this coming Tuesday, 4 April, it is almost guaranteed there will be baying crowds roistering just outside the court building, demanding the former president be accorded the loyalty, reverence, obedience, and fealty he deserves. It will be a television freak show of massive proportions, covered by every US and foreign news network, even if the infamous buffalo horned shaman (the man who was part of the attack on the Capitol Building) is unlikely to be able to attend.

Trump – and especially his true-believing MAGAites – will likely see his courtroom agonies as proof the so-called deep state, the billionaires club (led by a reviled George Soros), all those other liberals and snooty elites (that never let him into the inner sanctums of New York City’s real top tier), the media (except for Truth Social, Breitbart, and Fox News – at least sometimes), and all those other enemies of the Trumpian narrative are out to get him and his doughty supporters. They know the truth, despite the machinations of that district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a man who has been insistent on charging their revered former president with those penny ante, made-up crimes.

The problem – and challenge – is that none of us yet knows precisely what the specific charges are, even if we know what they have evolved out of, and how much or what specifics they include. They trace back on through to a tawdry episode where Trump allegedly had a brief affair with a porn film star (stage name Stormy Daniels). Then, some years later, as Trump was in the midst of his 2016 presidential race, he caused to have one of his minions – his personal lawyer Michael Cohen – negotiate and front $130,000 worth of hush money to be paid to Daniels, a deal that would otherwise be known as a nondisclosure agreement with compensation in more normal business practice. 

The candidate then arranged to repay Cohen in what could conceivably be seen as a campaign expense (a reputational enhancement), except for the fact it was not, and in dragging the publisher of The National Enquirer into the mess as well. And there lies the nub of all this. Michael Cohen went to prison for several years for lying about all this, and in that case Trump was effectively identified as accused number one in court documents, but not in Cohen’s trial. That was pursuant to federal Department of Justice policy not to charge an incumbent president for a crime. (The Constitution sets out a mechanism for dealing with presidential crimes and that, of course, is impeachment and conviction for “high crimes and misdemeanours” by the Congress. Trump went through that mill twice, but escaped conviction based on votes on a virtually party-line basis.)

But in fact, Bragg’s office is not charging Trump over the payoff to a woman so that she would not sell her tale to one of the supermarket checkout tabloid “scandal sheets”. Rather, the charges reportedly emanate from the warping of legal accounting practices and – crucially – the non-truthful manipulation of the reporting of money flows as campaign expenses which were really for personal gain (or removing the chance for yet more personal ignominy) that comes as the core. (There is a precedent of sorts for this in the prosecution of 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards for his own fast and loose use of funds, although Edwards ultimately was not found guilty after a mistrial was declared. In the international sphere, putting a president or former president on trial and even sending one to jail is not unknown. The French, the South Koreans, and the Israelis have done such things and that list does not include places where a battalion of troops does the deed at bayonet point.)

Regardless of the veracity of the events as reported (or any of the other two dozen plus specific charges that will be revealed), some of Bragg’s critics have been arguing he has been constructing a novel theory of the crime that brings together that much earlier event (the affair) and the hush money paid, with a relatively low-level federal law violation in campaign financing. By that logic, the prosecution belongs to the feds, not Bragg, a city prosecutor. 

Trump’s supporters have, however, refined (or hallucinated) on that argument, even before the specific charges have been read out, in order to claim this whole thing is just one more effort to humble and humiliate Trump and is politically motivated to destroy his candidacy for next year’s presidential nomination. And on that basis, inevitably, this is because Bragg is some kind of – undefined – agent of the deep state and a puppet for the conveniently evil George Soros, a key target of MAGAites. Never mind the inconvenient fact that Soros and Bragg have never met and that Soros’ contributions to an independent political action committee only made relatively modest contributions to Bragg’s own election campaign to become district attorney. (In many states, these positions are elected officials.) Somehow it is all a sinister plot by the deep state and its allies, at least in the mind of the MAGAite.

Among those who have long opposed Trump’s trampling of conventions, laws, and civilised behaviour, there is also some disgruntlement with this set of charges going first, given the roster of cases heading to the courts with Trump’s name on them. To those critics, their argument effectively has been that it would have been preferable to have the strongest, least complicated case be the opening act in Trump’s legal travails. For them, that case would have been either the outrageously transparent effort by Trump to get Georgia state officials to pervert the state’s vote reporting in order to hand Trump a win in Georgia and thus bring him that much closer to a win in the 2020 election. There are, after all, recordings of Trump speaking to the state’s top elections official by phone and literally begging him to “find” thousands of votes somewhere to put Trump over the top. 

Then there are all those recordings of Trump’s incitements to the crowd to seize the Capitol Building, as well as multiple efforts to subvert the electoral result by other means. These are issues now under investigation by the Justice Department’s special counsel, Jack Smith. Besides Trump’s incitement of an insurrection on 6 January 2021, there is also the illegal possession of hundreds of classified government documents in various hidey-holes in Mar-a-Lago and a multi-year struggle by the government to identify them and then to claw them back to the government’s archives. Beyond that are those still-pending investigations into aspects of Trump’s tax returns, and even the claim by a second woman of a sexual assault by Trump. 

All eyes will be on the events of Tuesday as the first in a likely series of trials that will bedevil Trump’s effort to gain the nomination for the presidency in 2024. Even as Republicans have largely closed ranks behind him so far, such positions may actually grow stronger – if the trials fizzle out. On the other hand, if he is found guilty in one or more trial, there may be defections from his cause if a Republican challenger can make a plausible case to voters in primaries that it is time to draw an end to the chaos, sturm und drang, and confusion that was the first Trump era. 

As far as Democrats are concerned, at least in public, so far at least, they are adhering to a decision by President Joe Biden to be schtum about Trump’s self-inflicted travails, and let him stew in a mess that is largely of his own making. The Democrats’ best arguments must be, first, that everyone is equal before the law and the law must take its course, and that, second, they, the Biden administration, are taking care of the government and the country’s important business, rather than getting agitated over one man’s ugly, self-created mare’s nest of a legal predicament. 

Don’t forget to watch the show on Tuesday.  DM


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