The President is Arrested
This time they were going to put him away for good. They had him on thirty-seven counts, thirty-one of which fell under the Espionage Act of 1917, a law that government officials have been known to take seriously in the past. Enacted by Congress after the United States entered World War I as part of a crackdown on socialists, pacifists, and other war resisters, the law was used to convict and execute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953. It was used to charge Daniel Ellsberg twenty years later for his role in making the Pentagon Papers public, and then in recent years to prosecute Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Reality Winner. Now in June of 2023, ex-president Donald Trump was about to be arrested and arraigned in Miami, just miles from where he had hoarded boxes of top secret government documents. A terrible law was bringing a terrible president to the thirteenth floor of the federal district court in Miami, a city Joan Didion had once written was ruled by “cognitive dissonance.” Didion later said that her book about Miami “is mainly about what I think is wrong with Washington.”
My boyfriend, a political reporter, was flying to Miami to cover the arraignment and had asked me somewhat jokingly if I wanted to go too. I had not paid much attention when they indicted Trump in New York, in March. I was paying attention now. Like everyone else I had seen the photos of the cardboard boxes in the Mar-a-Lago bathroom. I had also read in the indictment the damning and characteristic statements Trump had made about the boxes. Among them was: “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes, I really don’t, I don’t want you looking through my boxes.” Trump, in fact, had shown multiple acquaintances documents inside the boxes, while warning them that the information was classified and they, the acquaintances, should not get “too close.” His desire that they simultaneously look and not look appears as textbook reverse psychology—in other words, a hearty leveraging of cognitive dissonance.
If I went to Miami with my boyfriend I would witness the indictment of an ex-American president—or, rather, its live reaction, Trump having called his followers to rally there in his support. In Miami I would meet these supporters, who might voice their opinions about democracy, conspiracies, and the use of federal power in the country we all claimed. Probably none of them would mention the boxes or the contents of the boxes. But I would be privy to a historic event, insofar as events can happen twice in three months and still be called historic. It was my view they could.
We flew JFK to Miami-Dade and by the time we landed the Heat had already lost the NBA finals to the Nuggets in Denver, 94-89. From our taxi we could see glum fans streaming out onto the streets; they had gathered for a “road rally,” to watch the final game on a jumbotron at the Kaseya Center, the stadium that squatted on the waterfront three or four blocks from the courthouse. Nights in Miami stay blue—the sky, so soupy with humidity and neon, never gets dark enough for black. As we drove to the hotel, I could make out the mottled bulges of each cloud we passed, all of them from my vantage point a mere six feet above the horizon. The clouds remained massive and unmoving as we drove by; they had the look of stunned, dumb creatures. Occasionally, humidity lightning sent everything up in a white crackle, but there was no thunder, which felt sensible because there was no air.
Norman Mailer had described Miami’s weather as “vegetal,” a “sulphuric encounter.” He came to watch Nixon win the nomination at the 1968 Republican national convention, years before Didion had arrived to write about the violent imprint the city was pressing onto Cuban history. I was thinking about them, and other writers who’d found gatherings where people and politics existed in a more perfectly condensed relation, where one could trace like wrought iron the analogy between a singular event and the nation as a whole. There was Elizabeth Hardwick, traveling the South in the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, and much later John Jeremiah Sullivan, embedding himself with Tea Party Republicans in D.C. Mailer was prolific. A year before Miami and the Siege of Chicago, he had attended the 1967 anti-war March on the Pentagon, which he chronicled in The Armies of the Night, subtitled “History as a Novel/ The Novel as History.” Trumpism needed no similar embellishment. Many serious members of the literati had, in recent years, attempted to sniff out connections between Trump supporters and American life, but the outcome always remained curiously anthropological, analytically void. In 2016, George Saunders wrote a New Yorker article on Trump’s rallies that carried the perfectly New Yorker title, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?”
In the pandemic’s early years, a young kid named Andrew Callaghan seemed to have divined a remedy to such over-earnest attempts, one that involved following Americans around with a two-person camera crew and uploading the footage on a YouTube channel called “All Gas No Brakes.” It was the modern way to go gonzo, without the larding of commentary or pontification. I found Callaghan’s videos to be good and respectable for how they allowed Americans to self-represent their extreme conservatism as a kind of mental illness. But then Callaghan was Me-Too’d by multiple women with stories of his sexual misconduct, and he was dropped by his HBO producer.
Thus I understood that writing something coherent about Trumpland was futile but still the entire point of my trip, which is to say I was already in a Miami state of mind. A promising sign I was in tune with local frequencies, though I was also starting to worry about logistics. I had almost zero experience writing long-form political journalism and no idea if Trump supporters would talk to someone young and non-white like myself. I lacked the milky, happy-natured looks of an Andrew Callaghan; I could not bet on blending in with the crowd. At this point, I was deranged enough to feel that the Miami weather was my sole advantage. It was the type of climate where small, dark women excelled. Red-faced Americans hailing from drier heartlands only came to Miami to overheat, and suffer.
My boyfriend and I considered scoping out the hotel where Trump was rumored to be staying that night, but decided against it. Tomorrow we would have to wake up early to go to the courthouse. Back in New York, I had been sleeping in every day until noon.
The federal courthouse was a navy slab of glass that, from a frontal view, pulsed in a single undulation, like the end of a dark, flicking tail. It was impossible to fully see or appreciate its architecture the morning we arrived—the surrounding furor, the scrummaging Trump supporters about a hundred feet away, attracted all of one’s attention, and turned the courthouse itself into something of a mirage. This sense—of a structure shifting and glitching, oasis-like in the distance—was enforced by the fact that everyone wanted to enter the courthouse but nobody could. Caution tape and cops kept us at a distance, behind what felt like acres of beige pavement. Back at the hotel, a TV reporter had told me and my boyfriend that there were twenty public seats available inside. His news crew had paid a local kid to stay in line all night.
A narrow but well-shaded park followed three sides of the courthouse. It had no ruling mechanism of organization, and neither did the Trumpers. They milled around and shouted in groups, assembling in small fractals of hysteria. The only semblance of orderliness was a trellis of square, white canopies stretching along the park’s edge; these were tents for the media, who, when we arrived, seemed to easily outnumber the protesters. In their make-up and formal wear, the TV reporters had the ghastly look of holograms, out of place and insubstantial. Above us there was the low stuttering of ever-present helicopters; I had the sensation of being among an extremely militarized fairground.
What can I tell you of the protesters? They were as expected, though they didn’t show up in the numbers the police had planned for—up to fifty thousand, by some reports. The crowd never seemed to amount to more than a couple thousand, but they were insistent and rowdy. One man had brought a severed pig’s head, a real one, on a stick. Another was wearing an Uncle Sam outfit and a jumbo-sized necklace of gold plastic coins. I spotted baseball caps and flags and superhero costumes, plus someone toting a cardboard cut-out of Trump giving his signature two thumbs-up (fists close to the body, level with the hips like gun holsters). All of it was dollar-store regalia, meant to be silly, meant to be laughed at. A pick-up truck was stationed by the park, and on its bed somebody had erected a wooden sign swarming with tiny, assiduous, hand-painted words. The text, as far as I could tell, recounted a conspiracy whereby a group of John Deere lawyers had attempted to steal $120,000 from, and then kill, the owner of a landscaping business, presumably also the owner of the truck. It was unclear whether this was Trump-related, or if the person was simply taking advantage of media presence in order to assert his own personal conspiracy alongside the larger, more popular one at play. FBI THIS ARE CRIMINAL MATTERS, the signage said. At the end of the paragraph: SEE ALSO THE OTHER SIDE.
My boyfriend entered the park in one direction; I went the other. He was on more legitimate business, doing this for his job, and I didn’t want to interfere. I was also realizing there would be no problem getting others to talk to me. It wasn’t just that people were showing no hostility to the media, mainstream or otherwise. It was the boozy atmosphere of performance, the knee-jerk and hyperbolic desire for visibility, that overran the park. Everybody was already filming each other or themselves, and aside from that, they were the most racially diverse group of Trump fans I had ever seen. Cubans, sure, but also Asian and Black supporters, the latter of whom were wearing “Blacks for Trump” shirts and distributing some seriously anti-Semitic literature (“WHITE GENTILES ARE DIFFERENT FROM WHITE CANAANITES SEE GODS2.COM“). These people knew they operated as the spectacle inside the spectacle—Americans of color, voting for Trump! A specific if statistically unimportant angle for the news media, thus likely to be covered and ferried into national discourse for much parsing and fretting. I joined a circle of reporters listening to a Latino man expound that he loved Trump “because he says America is great.” Everywhere in the park this same manic choreography was being repeated: whenever a person began yelling with particular vigor or personality, reporters would minnow over, circle, and joust around with microphones. At this point it seemed I wouldn’t have to interview anyone or even ask a question. All that was required was to sidle over to the nearest group and start filming on my phone.
I watched a man say the words, “Wake up America!” into a microphone. I watched a Ron DeSantis supporter face-off with a Trump supporter, both of them in a clearly physical state reeling between agitation and delight. “DeSantis can’t even beat Trump in his own damn state, pussy!” Then I watched a young guy in a polo shirt go back and forth with Forgiato Blow, a pro-Trumper and white rapper, famous around these parts for a song he had released urging Americans to boycott Target. It was called “Boycott Target,” and the lyrics went like this: “Why they pushing agenda? / Promotin’ sexual genders?” Another bystander told me, with much reverence, that it had been shadow-banned on iTunes. Blow was at the moment accusing his counterpart of being “out here trolling.” He huffed away, training reporters behind him, and I caught the other guy shoot his cameraman, who had given him a thumbs up, an unmistakable look. It was a look that said content had been made.
“Are you guys YouTubers?” I asked. They were; they had come to Miami to do some comedy around the indictment. “An All Gas No Brakes kind of thing,” one of them said. We chatted about how Andrew Callaghan had been cancelled, and then they went away.
I was beginning to feel faint of heart and mind. I had underestimated the Miami sun, the brilliant, yellow force with which it blared through and enflamed the humidity. The metal of my iPhone was hot and painful in my palm, and single drops of sweat were sliding down my back; I could feel each trickle with disconcerting precision. It was scary how willing everyone was to be laughed at, how easily they refused the human prerogative of being taken seriously. Even the two or three counterprotesters present had shown up in absurd get-ups; there was a man in a black-and-white prisoner costume, who, hours later, I would watch on CNN run in front of Trump’s motorcade and get arrested. Meanwhile, a woman in rainbow devil horns had been walking around for hours, shouting something like “Trump is dead,” or “Trump’s a dick,” without pause. I was being forced to consider that, even if the pro-Trumpers were religiously deranged for coming out in feels-like-102-degree weather to roil around the park for hours, with little hope or prospect of witnessing the actual court proceedings they so decried, many of them at least sensed—perhaps rationally—that there was something in the way of personal gain to be had here, outside. The counterprotesters—outnumbered, politically unorganized, and shouting just as crazily—were starting to seem more deranged and religious than the protesters. I did not like this thought, and so went quickly to find my boyfriend. It was time for an intermission.
After thirty minutes inside the heartless air-conditioning of a nearby McDonald’s, plus a coffee frappé and strawberry smoothie from the McCafé, we returned to the courthouse. By this time the number of protesters had grown to over a thousand, and the scene had the aura of the last, desultory hours of a tailgate party: people were less active, shifting around, staking out spots in the shade. I met a woman in reflective sunglasses that made it impossible to see her eyes, who told me over and over again she was Colombian; when I mentioned I had flown in from New York, she rattled off a long and nonsensical story about visiting the city with her family and getting accosted by a CD-seller outside the Aladdin show on Broadway. A Chinese man, tracing circles with his hand, then described how the poor and the rich had unified in a conspiracy against the middle class. It felt like he was going through the motions, explaining this to me, and I was going through the motions, pretending to listen.
I lurked near a conversation between a reporter and a man wearing a baseball cap with the words MAKE MEMES BASED AGAIN. They were talking about the definition of based. When the reporter left, the man repeated the definition to me. “Basically: be sincere, don’t lie. If you have something tough to say that you think should be said then say it.” He wouldn’t tell me his real name but handed me a business card: DONALD J. PEPE, PRESIDENT. Thinking about the twenty public seats, I asked him if he was going to try and get inside the courthouse; Trump was supposedly arriving soon. “Nobody—nobody—is ever thinking about going into that courthouse, to be one hundred percent clear. And honestly, this question really makes me question your intentions,” he said, before angrily walking away. I hadn’t meant to imply January 6-style machinations, though it was incidentally weird that, among the courthouse patrons, January 6 had attained the status of taboo rather than heroic memory. This called into question all the day’s professions of devotion, militancy, and derangement.
I was fumbling with the recording app on my phone when, from the hot peripheral clamor of the crowd, I saw Donald J. Pepe reappear. I knew, immediately and surreally, that he had come back for me, to film me. His iPhone was already recording, and I only had to glance over my shoulder to see it craning into view with me on it; my body looked foreshortened and strange inside the screen. “The first person to ask me today if I was going into the courthouse was this lady,” Donald was announcing, both to his phone and to the people around him.
“Oh my god,” I said. I was already reflexively turning around, though I knew that would not stop the filming. Seeing myself on camera felt embarrassing in a secondhand way, as if I had just walked in on myself going to the bathroom. “That girl in the green bag asked me if I was going to go into the courthouse,” Donald said again. Other Trump supporters were circling, sensing the palpitating beginnings of a skirmish. A brunette woman my age materialized to my left, looking stern: “Who do you work for?” When I told her I was writing for a small magazine called The Baffler, and had asked my question in an innocuous way, not a January 6 way, she seemed deflated but friendlier. “I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that,” she said. She was a pretty woman, but when she smiled each front tooth was rimmed with a brownish perimeter of rot. “You have to be careful how you word things.”
It felt insane, in this environment, to be told to be careful with my words. Donald J. Pepe had now moved farther afield, with the odd but in retrospect savvy intention of placing himself, and not me, at the center of the growing nimbus of onlookers. I was on some level aware that everything was ridiculous, but on a human basis very pissed that a bunch of people were in a group talking shit about me instead of to me. “Can I speak to you for a second?” I shouted past the crowd, to Donald; I was not a nonconfrontational person. Everyone’s phones swung in my direction, and the circle bulged open to reassemble around me. Donald was suddenly in my face, hopping mad in his button-down and red cap. “This is round two!” he screamed. “Don’t even try!”
I cannot remember what I said in my defense, though I remember I couldn’t be heard over Donald’s shouting. I remember another onlooker yelling, about me, “Don’t pay attention to the stupidity!” and I remember wishing others would take him at his word. The brunette woman, whatever her sympathies, was now also recording me on her phone. All of this was adding up to a kind of digital vertigo, a feeling of being confronted by a cast of characters I’d just been watching on TV.
It turned out to be as easy as walking away. I pushed out of the crowd, and no one tried to follow. I kept going, slouching the five blocks toward the hotel, wondering about the possibility of me becoming a story on Fox News that night. There had been a lot of footage, and it was probably manipulatable. Who would believe I had asked the question out of journalistic stupidity rather than nefarious intent? OUTSIDE AGITATOR EXPOSED AT MIAMI COURTHOUSE. I had a real fear of the prospect of headlines. Two women at the public college where I worked back in New York had recently been subject to spectacular right-wing media pile-ons for expressing anti-conservative sentiments in public; they had both individually made the front-page of the New York Post, which had tried to destroy their lives.
Back in the hotel room, I opened my computer to check Donald J. Pepe’s socials. They had reassuringly low follower counts and, from what I could make out, most of his posts were about crypto. It turned out I was not worth posting, not even on Twitter. I had been kicking myself for providing a political enemy with some narrative momentum, but I could see now how wrongheaded that thinking was. That was an old school concern, borne within the fossilized paradigms of print and traditional media. Today had not been about narrative. It had been about waiting in the heat for something to happen and then pressing record when it did, because something happening was better than nothing happening, and you had to throw a lot of shit at the wall to see what stuck. It had and hadn’t helped that, at the courthouse, something was happening every five minutes.
Still, I felt sorry for myself. I had lost control and slipped into the focus of somebody else’s account, an obvious mistake which, whatever the conceptual and political futility of one’s project, was the nuclear error no writer should make. I doubted Mailer had ever blundered so, despite his many faults. The newspapers had reported his arrest at the March on the Pentagon in 1967, but, as The Armies of the Night made clear, he had been arrested on purpose, to help the story and, as he admitted at the time, to bolster his reputation.
My boyfriend was busy that night filing his piece, one in which he, too, would describe the fever of the day by citing the Didion quote. In an attempt to make myself feel better, I rode the hotel’s key-card-operated elevator to the hotel pool, though I was too tired to swim. I just stood in the too-shallow deep end, dunking my head in and out of the water, as construction noises from surrounding buildings jangled the air around me.
There was no universal narrative. Was there a lesson? Had I gleaned anything insightful or exemplary, anything with even the limpest relation to politics in the twenty-first century? I could say, obviously, that the camera was now the ruling principle of political life, but that was something Mailer had already gleaned in 1968, when he had accidentally missed Nixon’s nomination and been forced to watch the moment on television instead. It seemed to me, in my current state bobbing helplessly inside the pool, that the more appropriate and American metaphor was not the camera, but the one-way mirror: that surface allowing for reflection on one side and unseen observation on the other, through which one could be watched without having to ever know one’s watchers. Everywhere today I had seen Americans performing before their one-way mirrors; I had seen myself, mirrored, in the obscure partitions of their sunglass lenses and phone screens. As much as these individuals sought their likes and views, what they desired, truly and impressively desired, was an audience they would never have to espy or hear from.
America may be a performative society, but the performances differ in kind. When one performs for the one-way mirror, for people whose existence is only a matter of speculation and whose reaction to provocation is irrelevant, the performance turns vague just as it simultaneously thickens in compulsive value. There is no end goal, no import to the performance’s conceptual or aesthetic virtue, no desire for anything to be accomplished via the specificities of intent or method. What counts is only to keep performing, to be held in the abstracted space of being witnessed but never touched. A person can adopt a political ideology to sustain and justify their performance, but that ideology is only ever the rattling axle on which the wheels continue to turn. Hence why the ideology is so often badly applied and understood, being a means to a means with no end. Some people—and this is the other category, the one that includes most writers—perform because they care too much what others think, and in turn try to make their performances great or interesting. Others perform because they do not care, and never wish to.
This was not a cynical viewpoint; it was a depressive one. The possibly more realist theory, which I knew but could only sincerely reconsider once I had left Miami, was that Trumpism endowed Trumpers with a niche, self-contained world, where increments of prestige and profit could be negotiated among like-minded people just as they are in a church, or a workplace, or a community. In this version, the ideology stood a chance of developing into a vision for society, and one would then be able to accurately describe Trump supporters as political actors. It was the more intelligible alternative, and yet in the surprisingly cool water of the pool, under a gray sky slitted with construction cranes, I could only focus on the dreadful possibility that I had just met a bunch of people who might once again change history without having any real sense of its direction. As if by design, their behavior made it impossible to tell whether America would give Trump another four years.
There could and would be no prognosis. I got out of the pool, dried off, and went downstairs. Fervently I hoped they would put the man in jail. I knew, of course, that that alone could not stop him from winning.