Aaron S. Bayley
On the evening of Friday, June 17, 1994, just days away from high school graduation, I was hanging out with some friends in a hotel room, where, for reasons I forget, one of them was living. At one point, someone turned on the TV, where a news network showed a white Ford Bronco cruising down a California freeway. "Wouldn't it be funny if that was O.J. Simpson?" one of my friends asked rhetorically, before changing the channel.
When I got home around 9pm, I walked through the front door, and there was my entire family—mom, dad, and sister—glued to the television as the same Ford Bronco continued cruising down the freeway. Turns out it was O.J. Simpson, and he was being pursued by police as the primary suspect in the murder of his ex-wife and her friend just days before. "The Juice" was not driving the vehicle; he was in the back seat, reportedly holding a gun to his own head. Nearly 100 million people tuned in to watch the ubiquitous chase. In the ensuing months, the O.J. Simpson trial would captivate Americans and set a new bar for sensationalist media coverage. That bar is about to be raised significantly.
On Thursday of this week, disgraced, twice-impeached former president Donald J. Trump is expected to surrender to authorities at Fulton County jail in Atlanta, Georgia, on charges that he and eighteen co-defendants engaged in an attempt to subvert the 2020 presidential election in that state. The indictment is his fourth. In March, Trump was indicted by a New York grand jury involving a hush money payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to cover up an affair. In June, Florida prosecutors indicted Trump on charges of illegally hoarding classified documents at his estate in Mar-a-Lago. The third indictment, brought earlier this month by Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith, levies four charges against Trump, including conspiracy to defraud the United States. In total, Trump faces 91 felony counts. The Florida and Washington indictments were brought by the federal government, whereas the New York and Georgia indictments were brought by state prosecutors. Cameras are banned in federal courts but not at the state level. Which means that whatever occurs in the Fulton County courtroom will almost surely be televised.
The Trump trial will trump the O.J. Simpson trial in terms of significance. Simpson was a celebrity athlete-turned-actor, a record-setting running back with the Buffalo Bills who went on to star in various television and film roles in the 1980s, including The Naked Gun trilogy. Trump was a real estate developer from New York who went on to star in the hugely successful reality TV show, The Apprentice (whose theme song was "For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays), before becoming the 45th American President in 2016. If people didn't know Trump as a Manhattan mogul in the '80s and '90s, The Apprentice made him a household name. And once he won the election, he was omnipresent. But it was as President of the United States of America where Donald J. Trump became Icarus.
The themes surrounding the Simpson trial—celebrity, race, spousal abuse, murder—highlighted people's frustration with the American criminal justice system. The trial was a watershed and cultural moment in American history that turned defendant Simpson, victim Nicole Brown Simpson, prosecutor Marcia Clark, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, witness Brian "Kato" Kaelin, and Judge Lance Ito into household names, if not outright celebrities. Importantly, it demonstrated that regular people could witness the same events in the courtroom and interpret them differently based on their lived experience. Black Americans rejoiced when "The Juice" was acquitted, not so much because they believed in his innocence, but because the American legal system has a history of systemic discrimination against blacks. As an affluent black American, Simpson had the resources to beat the system.
As culturally significant as the Simpson trial was, the fate of democracy did not hang in the balance. And its defendant was not the most famous man in the world.
From the moment Donald Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower and announced his candidacy in 2015, he has been a polarizing figure in not only American politics but American popular culture. Those familiar with Trump's modus operandi—his shameless self-promotion, his flaky, non-committal values, his snake oil salesman shtick—saw him as a harmless joke with no chance of winning the presidency. But those who embraced his celebrity—mostly, but not exclusively, white men with only a high school education—did so with gusto once he defeated Hillary Clinton and won the election. As leader of the free world, Trump proved clueless and inept, surrounding himself with a team of incompetent blowhards, many of whom he would later dismiss. He showed no inclination to read intelligence briefings, was incapable of cogent geopolitical analysis, and regularly embarrassed himself on the world stage. But with each misstep reported on by the mainstream media, he became more popular among his base. The Trump sycophants were so enamoured by their realty TV president that they simply shrugged at or denied his inaptitude and childlike behaviour. The MAGA cult grew louder and more emboldened with each attack on their god; for his part, Trump accepted the role, using his rallies to work the crowds into a frenzy, culminating in the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The fact that Trump loathed his supporters and called them "stupid" in private was lost on them. The fact that Trump was more interested in igniting culture wars than in crafting policies that could actually improve the lives of low income and middle-class Americans didn't seem to bother them. (Policy is boring; trolling on social media is fun.) It was as if Trump, the symbol, the cartoon villain, gave license to right-wing fascism and all the perverse ideologies and behaviours that lay dormant for years. For his supporters, the Trump presidency was just a big, dumb, coming-out, tailgate party. For him, it was an extension of his fragile ego.
But Trump's biggest mistake was thinking that he could fly too close to the sun without it melting his wings. The mainstream media that Trump loves to berate—especially the "failing New York Times" was responsible for his meteoric rise to fame and fortune. And now it will gleefully chronicle his descent as he unravels and comes crashing down to earth.
The American voting public deserves to see the legal system at work, from Trump's arraignment all the way to the final verdict. Whatever their political beliefs, everyone from hard-left progressives to MAGA cult members should be able to watch the trial unfold live, to witness the interaction between the presiding judge, witnesses, defense attorneys, and prosecutors, and the interrogation of defendants. As the trial plays out, as we hear testimony from unsavoury characters like Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows (Trump's former Chief of Staff who is trying desperately to avoid arrest), Sidney Powell and perhaps Trump himself, we will know whether the investigation was a witch hunt or something more substantial. Most critical thinkers already know the answer.
Trump loves hyperbole, so he'll be happy to know that his trial will be the most important trial in American history. Moments will become memes; witnesses and prosecutors will go viral with each savage retort; left-wing and right-wing news networks will feature round-the-clock coverage. The mass media is a machine that will usurp the role of the nation's moral compass, even as it serves to profit considerably. Social media and the late night comedians will belittle Trump mercilessly. There are reports that he is not in good health; whether that is true or not, one thing is certain: Trump is desperate and terrified. Soon we will know his real weight and see his mugshot. He will not be able to escape the all-scrutinizing eye.
At this writing, it's being reported that Trump's co-defendants are already turning on each other. Forget O.J. Simpson; the Trump trial might have more in common with the Manson trial. It will be both a ratings bonanza and a bloodbath, a passion play featuring the right-wing's most persecuted martyr. Donald J. Trump thinks he's God. Which is just as well, because he's about to be crucified.