As a personal rule, I do not usually write recaps or reviews of TV news programs. There is an entire machine for the 24/7 news machine to amplify itself and to which I do not need or want to contribute. But in that seemingly endless firehose of news content where one “crisis” flows into the cacophonous noise of the next, is it any wonder that a large percentage of Americans tell pollsters that they are exhausted by politics and current events? There are important moments that are lost and that matter in ways that even the hosts, producers and writers may not realize or understand.
A recent episode of MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” was one such example.
In an attempt to evade responsibility for his many crimes against democracy and society, Donald Trump and his attorneys are claiming that he is above the law. Per their arguments and fantasies, Trump can order his political opponents – and anyone else for that matter – murdered without being held accountable under the law. They also claim that Trump can sell pardons and engage in other corrupt acts without fear for being arrested or held responsible by the law. In their fascist and autocratic reasoning, somehow, to be held responsible under the law like any other person in American society would make it impossible for a president (meaning Donald Trump and his Republican fascist successors) to do their job.
These claims are not just legal maneuverings. Trump, as shown by his promises to be a dictator on “day one” of his presidency, channeling Hitlerian threats, claims that he is chosen by god and Jesus Christ to be a type of prophet of MAGA vengeance and restoration does believe these things. Public opinion polls have consistently shown, including a new one from the UMass Amherst, that a large majority of Republican and other Trump voters endorse Trump’s claims to dictator status and want him to take such power when/if he wins the 2024 election.
In his 8-minute-long monologue and act of public teaching, Lawrence O’Donnell described the verdict as a thundering endorsement of Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over Trump’s trial in Washington DC for crimes related to the Jan. 6 coup attempt and the larger plot to end democracy:
But the proof that Judge Chutkan bears no judicial prejudice against Donald Trump whatsoever came today, in the form of a court of appeals opinion in an order that affirmed every single word Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote in her 48-page opinion, in December [in response to] Donald trump’s claim of immunity for any crimes he committed while president. Judge Chutkan’s opinion said that the presidency, quote, “does not confer a lifelong get out of jail free pass.” There were many winners today, when the court of appeals opinion was issued. Special prosecutor Jack Smith and his brilliant legal team, the framers of the Constitution with Alexander Hamilton being specifically quoted in the opinion supporting criminal prosecutions. The American people who believe in the rule of law were very big winners today, and the people who believe in Donald Trump were once again, like Donald Trump himself, big losers today. But, the individual biggest winner of the day was judge Tanya Chutkan, whose work was studied line by line and word by word by Donald Trump’s lawyers, who tried to rip it apart in arguments to a three judge panel of the court of appeals, and each of those judges, including a conservative Republican appointed judge, who has hired law clerks who are members of the Federalist Society — unanimously agreed that Judge Chutkan was right in every word she wrote, every word.
Trump’s legal battles are also much greater than deciding if a corrupt ex-president will be held accountable for his crimes: these proceedings (and the 2024 election) are a national civics lesson and test of how enduring America’s multiracial pluralistic democracy will be and how much progress we have made towards being a true we the people democracy or if instead the country will collapse backward into a new Jim and Jane Crow plutocracy and system of fake democracy and competitive authoritarianism. Ultimately, the American democratic project is an experiment, an ongoing one, and will it endure or not?
In the literal personhood and symbolic power of Judge Chutkan (and the other black and brown members of law enforcement and the courts who are holding Trump and his MAGA cabalists responsible for their obvious crimes – including the Capitol police officers on Jan. 6 who saved the country from Trump’s MAGA attack force) – we see a black person, a black woman, an immigrant from Jamaica who not too long ago in American history would be written out of the polity as a type of anti-citizen and Other, the basis upon which and against and upon white (male) citizenship and white herrenvolk democracy and the racial state would be defined.
For those of us who believe in the American democratic experiment and its promise and potential, especially the children and heirs of the Black Freedom Struggle and civil rights movement and other rights revolutions and activism of the 1960s and 1970s, to see Judge Chutkan in this role is exhilarating even as the stakes involved for our safety and futures are terrifying.
For Trump, his MAGA people, neofascists, authoritarian populists and the larger “conservative” movement and white right and those others who are in that orbit, this is all so disturbing and enraging. For them, it is an impossibly wrong thing (both as expressed consciously, i.e. “we believe in traditional values,” and in the subconscious and semi-quiet thoughts that serve as the real root of their resentment and rage at “political correctness” and “those people” “who don’t know their place” and whatever other myriad forms frustrated white entitlement and privilege may take) to see a white man like Trump (who in their minds is somehow a stand-in for people like them) being held accountable by those who they deem to not be “real Americans” and “patriots.” Because what does MAGA “Make American Great Again!” really mean if not “What America White Again!”?
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Lawrence O’Donnell spoke to this in the following way:
Donald Trump has many bad days ahead of him, as criminal defendant Trump. None will be more painful than the days he spends in Winston Chutkan’s daughter’s courtroom. Winston Chutkan told the New York Times that when he won a scholarship to go to high school in Jamaica, quote, “I wore shoes and experienced indoor plumbing for the first time in my life.” Winston Chutkan worked very hard, did very well in high school. He went on to become an orthopedic surgeon, one of Jamaica’s most prominent physicians.
When his daughter Tanya arrived in Washington from Jamaica at age 17 to attend George Washington University, she fell in love with the city, and has lived here ever since, except for her for three years as a distinguished student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was an editor of the law review. Tanya’s younger sister and brother both followed in their father’s footsteps and became physicians.
Tanya Chutkan served as a public defender in Washington D.C., where she married another public defender and had two children. She then became a highly compensated member of a large Washington law firm. President Obama appointed Tanya Chutkan to a federal judgeship in 2014. Her appointment was confirmed by the United States Senate, 95 to nothing. She told her sister then, “I have never been so excited to receive a pay cut.”
Tanya Chutkan knows that Donald Trump thinks her blood is poison, and that her children’s blood is poison. Donald Trump says that immigrants like Tanya Chutkan are poisoning the blood of America, a phrase that Donald trump has lifted directly from Adolf Hitler…..
O’Donnell’s public teaching on his Tuesday show also signaled to what political scientists and other experts know from public opinion data, focus groups, and other research about the values and beliefs that are driving Trumpism and the larger neofascist movement and global right in its campaign against multiracial pluralistic democracy. These factors include hostile sexism, racism and white supremacy (of course), racial resentment, nativism, social dominance behavior, and a type of collective anxiety about social change in the form of death anxieties (what social psychologists have termed “terror management theory”, the dark triad of personal types, and collective narcissism and other forms of mass pathology.
Here O’Donnell takes these concepts and personalizes them by describing Trump’s mind and emotions, which for the corrupt ex-president must be like a real-life horror movie he cannot escape:
So, the day is going to come when Donald Trump stands trial, in Judge Chutkan’s courtroom, where every day he will be looking up at a judge, who he has publicly and personally insulted by calling her a racist and hurling other insults at her.
And he will be looking up at a judge who he has accused, along with every other immigrant who Donald Trump didn’t marry, of poisoning the blood of America. And every day Donald Trump sits in that courtroom, looking up at Judge Chutkan, he will be looking at her with raging hatred that he will not be allowed to express in that courtroom. And he will be looking at her in abject fear, which he will admit to no one….
Four weeks ago, Donald Trump sat in the court of appeals hearing room, looking up at the three women judges who heard this case. Judge Karen Henderson, Judge Florence Pan, and Judge Michelle Childs. There was no legal reason for him to be in the room. Donald Trump is of course profoundly stupid, but still not stupid enough to think that his eyes or his hair or his makeup or his red necktie would intimidate those judges. And surely, the dark, twisted coils of Donald Trump’s brain were still able to process the obvious fact that these three women had complete control over him, in this proceeding.
America’s mainstream news media has largely failed in the Age of Trump and beyond in its responsibilities and obligations to engage in sustained pro-democracy journalism that educates, informs, and empowers citizens by holding the powerful responsible and then telling the public not just what is important and how they should think about it but then what to do about it.
Lawrence O’Donnell’s commentary on Tuesday was a bright exception to that pattern of failure (as was his conversation several days ago with historian David Blight about Trump being disqualified from office per the Constitution). As the 2024 election approaches the American people need more of this type of news coverage-public civics education and teaching. But given how the news media and larger attention economy has trained the American people to spectacle and distraction, do enough of them even have the capacity to understand and the attention span necessary to process it? The answer to that question and what it reveals about America’s civic culture and democracy (and what it demands of them) will weigh heavily on Election Day and then what comes next.