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The man, the myth, the legend: Donald Trump

The legend is only growing.

Perhaps Donald Trump’s conviction in the Alvin Bragg case will hurt him enough with a segment of swing votes to make the difference in November, but there’s no doubt that, in the meantime, it has made him even more iconic for his admirers.

Trump has never been just a politician. He entered politics in 2015 as a celebrity associated with money and success, attained near-legendary status when he killed off the Clinton dynasty in 2016, and now is a kind of folk hero, with the Stormy Daniels trial only making him bigger.

Needless to say, this view of Trump is not universally shared — he remains unpopular with the broader public. And his folk-hero status doesn’t mean he’s going to win again. A more conventional Republican candidate, with less emotive appeal for good or ill, would certainly have a better chance to beat Joe Biden.

Winning would obviously be much better than losing, yet Trump is larger than mere electoral politics, in large part — although not entirely — because of his enemies. They’ve taken a politician who gets much of his oxygen from the enmity of the other side and ramped up to an unprecedented level their efforts to destroy him.

Every time he walks away from some trap — whether Russiagate or the Bragg trial — seemingly unscathed and breathing fiery defiance, it makes him bigger. Every time he memorably confronts a member of the establishment, whether Angela Merkel, Jens Stoltenberg, or Lesley Stahl, it makes him more iconic. Every time he’s in a fix, which happens a lot, and doesn’t blink or show the slightest self-doubt, it makes his supporters more attached to him.

His backers don’t just vote for Trump — they make memes about him, they create kitschy art lauding him, and they go to his rallies multiple times. They personally identify with him and ardently believe in him.

It’s rare for a politician to get adulation at sporting events; Rudy Giuliani was an exception after 9/11, but that it took the worst terror attack in U.S. history to consistently elicit applause at ballparks for an elected official speaks to how truly rare it is. Trump, though, routinely gets huge favorable reactions at college-football games and MMA fights. Yes, this happens on friendly cultural soil. Trump wouldn’t get as friendly a greeting at, say, a Seattle Storm WNBA game. It’s remarkable all the same.

The pejorative way to put the extraordinary connection of his supporters to Trump is to say they are members of a “cult.” The more precise explanation is that Trump is a folk hero. The attachment people feel to a folk hero isn’t always rational; it often involves a blend of fact and fiction; and the hero can be, and frequently is, deeply flawed.

Jim Jones and David Koresh were cult leaders; John Henry and Davy Crockett were folk heroes.

The closest comparison to Trump’s fervent appeal in recent American politics is Barack Obama. The Democrat was different from Trump in that he had elite cachet , but he elicited near-messianic devotion from his grassroots supporters, who also embraced kitschy art featuring him and showed up in massive numbers at rallies that centered on the greatest hits of his slogans and tropes.

Both Trump and Obama are supreme performers and profoundly represent the shared values of their devotees. It is probably no accident that Trump, who would achieve mythic status in Republican politics, arrayed himself in the harshest and most lurid terms against the figure who had already achieved such mythic status for the Democrats.

Still, the best analogue for Trump as political folk hero remains Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory benefited both from his outrages and from the reaction of his enemies to them in a dynamic that previewed what we’ve seen with Trump over the past decade. Jackson was also the outsider whose appeal ran deep in what we now think of as Jacksonian America, a slice of the country that has found a new representative and champion in Trump.

For Trump’s supporters, the Bragg verdict underlines everything they like about the former president — that he drives his adversaries so crazy they’ll go to extraordinary lengths to get him, and they haven’t yet; that he never backs down; that his antagonists are a corrupt elite whom they hold in contempt, just as he does.

If Trump is sentenced to confinement by Judge Juan Merchan, which isn’t difficult to imagine, and walks free pending appeal, the legend will be magnified yet again. More than ever, Trump will be the political bandit whose outlaw status says more about the lawlessness of his pursuers than of him.

At least, again, in the eyes of his supporters. The electoral difference between Jackson and Trump is that Jackson was an absolute juggernaut; he won a plurality in 1824, then after “the corrupt bargain” kept him out of office, won landslides in 1828 and 1832. Trump had lost the popular vote twice so far and is one for two in presidential elections going into November.

His boosters tend to think — perhaps overly focused on his folk-hero standing — that whatever doesn’t kill Trump only makes him stronger, but that’s not true. His rocky handling of Covid didn’t kill him in 2020; it just weakened him enough that he lost a narrow election.

It is certainly possible that the Bragg conviction might have the same effect in 2024. It’s difficult to take a folk hero down, though. Trump’s loss in 2020 and his reaction to it have made him a harder sell in 2024, but, at the same time, there’s no doubt that the rigged-election narrative played into his legend. A 2024 loss, with the politically motivated and legally outlandish trial having played a part, will do the same.

In other words, a defeated Trump may yet again not be diminished by his defeat because his phenomenon exists on a different plane than conventional politics. Did the Alamo hurt Davy Crockett’s reputation? What’s more, how much does it matter whether John Henry really did win a drilling contest against a machine before dying of exhaustion?

If it comes to that, don’t count Trump out in 2028.

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