ANDREW NEIL: US election looks to be contest between geriatric and unhinged know-nothing narcissist

Donald Trump got his way after all. For much of March he was claiming he was about to be arrested for allegedly paying hush money to a former adult-film star to keep her quiet in the last stages of his successful 2016 presidential election campaign. Days came and went. Nothing happened.

But Trump still used the prospect of arrest to rally support and raise funds for his 2024 presidential election bid, urging his fans to ‘protest’ and ‘take our nation back’, in echoes of his inflammatory rhetoric in the lead-up to the January 6, 2021 riots on Capitol Hill.

Some of his legal team advised him an indictment was unlikely. No matter. Just the possibility propelled Trump back to where he loves to be — in the headlines. Once again he was at the centre of a feeding frenzy across every conceivable news outlet in the American media.

Still nothing happened. Then it did. On Thursday it became clear that Trump was indeed going to be charged — on 34 different counts related to the hush money — and arrangements were under way to get the former president to court in New York to be arraigned (probably next Tuesday). Every news outlet went into overdrive.

Ironically, Trump was said to have been ‘caught off guard’ by the development. A Republican senator who spoke to him on Thursday evening said he was ‘upset’. He had come to think it would not happen, even as he publicly proclaimed it would.

U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a meeting of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board in the East Room at the White House on June 26, 2020

Face-off: President Joe Biden (left) and former President Donald Trump (right)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on March 21 this year

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on March 21 this year

That night he dined conspicuously with his wife Melania and her parents at his luxurious Mar-a-Lago redoubt in Palm Beach, Florida. It was briefed out that the first U.S. president ever to face a criminal prosecution was going to ‘milk it for all it’s worth’.

Of that we can be sure. Click now on the link to the Trump website and it takes you straight to a donations page where a somewhat deranged pitch about the ‘deep state’ and ‘never-ending witch hunts’ urges you to cough up the cash to save The Donald, starting at only $24 (£19.50) but rising to $3,300 and beyond. For only $36 you can buy a simple white cotton T-shirt bearing the words ‘I stand with Trump’.

Trump managed to raise $1.5 million in three days merely on the possibility he would be charged. Now it’s a reality, we can be sure the money is pouring in. For the blunt truth is that by charging Trump, the Manhattan district attorney, a Democrat, has reinvigorated the Republican contender’s election campaign beyond his wildest dreams.

Whatever awaits him in court, his base is now energised and so riled up that he must now be regarded as clear favourite to win the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential contest.

It is not a happy prospect for the Republicans, America or those many allies, including Britain, who depend on it to help keep us free and safe. At a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains unresolved, with war still raging in the east of the country, and China’s President Xi increasingly eyeing little Taiwan, China’s renegade province, as ripe for the taking, we require a wise head, clear thinking and strong leadership in the White House.

But the 2024 presidential election looks like offering the same unappetising choice as 2020 between Joe Biden, who will be 82 come polling day in November 2024 (and 86 by the end of a second term), and an unhinged, know-nothing narcissist who threatens to take a wrecking ball to Western foreign policy when the stakes couldn’t be higher.

These are dangerous times for the world’s democracies — which means we require the best and the brightest in Washington DC, not the oldest and stupidest.

It wasn’t so long ago that Trump’s campaign appeared to be floundering. He announced he was running for President for a fourth time last autumn and waited for the world’s media to rush to his Mar-a-Lago bolthole. But the media response was kind of ‘ho hum’. Trump found it hard to get the attention he always craves.

This disenchantment with him dates back to last November’s mid-term elections for the House and Senate, when the expected Republican ‘red wave’ failed to materialise, largely because Trump-backed candidates failed to deliver.

Party leaders started to disassociate from him. Even Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, once the broadcasting arm of the Trump White House, was turning on him.

Worst of all, much to Trump’s fury, his main rival for the Republican nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, started to get some traction in the polls.

Trump’s response was to sound ever more crazy in his desperation to capture attention. Significantly, he held the first rally of his 2024 campaign at Waco on the 30th anniversary of the infamous 51-day stand-off outside that Texan city between a violent religious cult and federal officers, which ended with 86 dead, including four members of the FBI.

The rally began — I kid you not — with a video of what’s being called the ‘J6 prison choir’ singing the national anthem. These are people convicted of being part of the rampaging mob that attacked the Capitol — home of both the Senate and the House of Representatives — on January 6, 2021, as a joint session of Congress was trying to perform that most important of all functions in a democracy, the peaceful transfer of power from one government to another.

For Trump, they are not violent rioters who attempted to thwart democracy but political prisoners and patriots who sought to overthrow a rigged election, a myth Trump continues to peddle as fervently now as he did when he lost in November 2020.

He praised the rioters, described those prosecuting them as ‘absolute human scum’ doing the will of his political enemies, and framed the 2024 election as, ominously, the ‘final battle’. These words alone make him unfit for re-election.

Trump doesn’t have to struggle to be heard or resort to hyperbole to be noticed any more. His impending indictment has seen to that. For most people criminal charges are a serious setback. For Trump they are an opportunity.

Since Thursday he has dominated every front page and every news channel in the land, his acolytes accusing the New York district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who has brought the charges against him, of a politically motivated indictment on a flimsy pretext in a hostile jurisdiction.

You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to see there’s some truth in that. Bragg is an activist liberal-Left Democratic lawyer who campaigned for his current post by boasting that he’d already sued Trump and his people 100 times in previous legal roles.

New York’s legal system, city and state, is pretty much a one-party monopoly, just about every judge and legal officer elected on a partisan, Democratic basis. Trump can’t be sure of a fair trial, especially since a New York jury is unlikely to be populated by many — if any — sympathisers.

Then there’s the basis of the charge. Trump is alleged (he has always denied it) to have had a one-night stand with Stormy Daniels, the stage name of a porn star, way back in 2006.

The matter surfaced during the 2016 campaign but Trump’s dodgy lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid her $130,000, widely regarded as a payoff to make it all go away. Trump reimbursed him in 11 payments, all designated as legal fees. Cohen subsequently spent time in jail for his role in this tawdry affair.

So far, however, we’re talking about a book-keeping misdemeanour. But Bragg is claiming it’s also a violation of federal election law, which is a felony, since the hush-money clearly helped Trump during the campaign.

Even some of those who believe Trump did have a fling with Daniels and paid her off to avoid embarrassment think the link somewhat tenuous. It’s a matter of federal election law, so why is a state district attorney getting involved? Federal prosecutors had already looked into it and decided not to proceed.

Trump will make the most of this in the weeks ahead. Those Democrats currently cheering Bragg on may come to regret it if Trump can use it to his advantage or the New York district attorney’s case starts to crumble.

It also overshadows the far stronger case against Trump in Georgia, where there is compelling evidence that he leaned on Republican officials to come up with more votes to swing the state in his favour in 2020 when it became clear that he was losing it to Biden.

Meanwhile, Republican grandees who were, at last, screwing up their courage to turn on him are now forced to rally behind him. DeSantis has called the charges the ‘weaponisation of the legal system to advance a political agenda’.

He has even said that, as Florida governor, he will not help New York State if it tries to extradite Trump from Mar-a-Lago (though extradition is unlikely, since Trump, relishing his day in court, seems ready to fly to New York for Tuesday’s appearance).

Trump is alleged (he has always denied it) to have had a one-night stand with Stormy Daniels (pictured), the stage name of a porn star, way back in 2006

Trump is alleged (he has always denied it) to have had a one-night stand with Stormy Daniels (pictured), the stage name of a porn star, way back in 2006

Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump gather outside his Mar-a-Lago resort after after he was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury

Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump gather outside his Mar-a-Lago resort after after he was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury

Trump’s former vice-president, Mike Pence, who had shown signs of finally finding his backbone, has described the charges as ‘outrageous’, moderate Republican (and Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations) Nikki Haley has called it an act of ‘revenge’ and nearly every other Republican luminary has said something similar. A man who was on the brink of being cast out into the wilderness is now being reluctantly embraced once again by the Republican establishment.

They all fear his grip on a huge chunk of the party’s base and don’t want those supporters turning on them. The criminal charges against Trump, which nearly all Republicans are describing as politically motivated, have tightened his hold on that base and make life all the more perilous for anybody who speaks out against him.

DeSantis, Trump’s only real challenger for the party nomination, knows he needs some of the Trump base to win. His poll ratings were already slipping before Trump’s indictment became public. Several months ago he had a good chance of the nomination. That chance has slipped, badly.

As things currently stand, in my judgment Trump must now be regarded as favourite to lead the Republicans, for the third time, into a presidential election campaign. But of course, we don’t know what will happen in the months ahead.

It will take some time before Trump’s case goes to trial. It may not even start before the 2024 campaign is in full swing. Some lawyers are saying it may not go to court this side of the next presidential election in November 2024.

Then there are the other cases against Trump, from the one in Georgia (in my view the most serious) to his handling of classified documents. To say American politics is moving into uncharted territory seems an understatement.

However, winning the Republican nomination is one thing. Winning a general election is another. The legal action against Trump might rally his base (especially its more cultish elements) but that is not enough to beat Biden. Independent and moderate voters, whom Trump requires for victory, could be just as easily put off by an ex-President facing criminal charges as his base is enthused by them.

It’s hard not to despair of another Biden-Trump run-off. True, on the big foreign policy issues (bar the cut-and-run from Afghanistan) Biden has been solid and staunch — solid in standing up to China’s aggressive ‘wolf diplomacy’, staunch in supporting Ukraine against Russia’s appalling aggression.

Biden will argue that he has beaten Trump before and can do so again. But he already seems older than his years and that will surely show even more as he ploughs well into his 80s. His vice-president will become a major issue: many Americans will rightly look for a reasonable insurance policy should Biden not be able to see out a full second four-year term.

And there he has a problem. Kamala Harris is widely regarded as an embarrassing disaster as vice-president. Few people, even among Democratic diehards, would relish seeing her in the Oval Office.

But Biden’s hands are tied. If his VP was a useless white male, he could probably ditch him. But the first woman to be VP and the first from an ethnic background, too? I don’t think so. Biden is lumbered with her, however much of a liability she will be in his bid for re-election.

Trump can be counted on to exploit that. Assuming, of course, that he can stay out of jail. He has embarked on a high-wire act in which he will rally support by claiming to be a victim of a ‘deep state’ vendetta while risking the danger that he might actually go down on one of the criminal investigations he faces — which would be, to put it mildly, something of a career setback for him.

It is for that reason, I’m told, that Trump’s mood currently swings between bravado and anxiety. But next week, when the legal circus comes to town, only the bravado will be on display. Trump is expected to be arraigned in person at the Criminal Courts Building in Lower Manhattan, with the world’s Press gathered outside in an unprecedented jamboree of pontificators and bloviators.

Trump will have his mugshot taken. He may even be brought into court in handcuffs, before his lawyer asks the judge if they can be removed. It is unlikely he will be forced to do the ‘perp walk’, America’s way of humiliating those charged by parading them in front of the media, a custom made famous in countless films and TV shows. Perhaps Trump will volunteer to do it regardless, knowing the pictures would drive his supporters into a frenzy.

The mugshot will not be released. So it will almost certainly be leaked. It will become, curiously, the iconic image of Trump’s re-election campaign, visual evidence for his supporters that he is the victim of evil forces desperate to destroy him.

Criminal charges. A police mugshot. Bread and circuses for the media and masses. A geriatric incumbent and a rabble-rousing challenger, potentially a criminal. All in the greatest democracy in the world, on which so many still depend for their security, including our islands. They must be licking their lips in Moscow and Beijing.