Waiting for Trump to face justice, they’re cautiously not optimistic

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In liberal Richmond, Calif., Julie Freestone has spent much of her retirement making common cause with people who share her “ongoing sense of outrage” about Donald Trump. For years, she says, she’s wanted Trump to “go to prison for the rest of his life,” whether for his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election result or his role in fomenting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Yet after each investigation and impeachment, she’s watched Trump walk away without consequences. Now, the criminal case unveiled against Trump in New York has renewed her hope. Might Tuesday’s charges reverse the pattern?

“Would I be happier if he were indicted for inciting an insurrection?” Freestone said. “Absolutely. But I keep telling myself, Al Capone was convicted on tax charges. This is a democracy and people have to be held accountable.”

Across the country, in Manheim, Pa., after seven years of doing anything he could to stop Trump, Charles Roehm has nothing left in his outrage bank. Two years ago, in a letter to his local newspaper, Roehm called for Trump to be jailed. He cited Trump’s role in the violent Jan. 6 insurrection and spelled out a litany of other potential crimes and unethical behavior.

“Why does everyone else have to follow the law, but Trump is still allowed to be in public?” Roehm wrote. “Our laws must be followed by everyone, without exception!”

Despite Trump’s indictment, Roehm, a veteran of 21 years in the Army and a retired accountant who lives in a strongly Republican county, says he’s lost faith in the justice system and politicians of every stripe.

“This guy gets away with it over and over,” he said. “I have irregular heartbeat and my medications were working fairly well until this whole thing with Trump. I’m depressed all the time. I’m totally disgusted by a legal system that let him go again and again because of his power.”

That sense of frustration or resignation — a nagging belief that Trump inevitably escapes accountability, that Lucy will yet again pull the football away just before Charlie Brown kicks it — is pervasive among those who have railed against the former president for years.

In a divided land, in the early stages of a divisive ex-president’s third campaign for the White House, these are the people who have stayed mostly sputtering mad about Trump for a solid seven years. Now, in this strange and historic moment — Trump called it “SURREAL” — they see him facing felony charges related not to Jan. 6 or to classified documents (though those may yet come), but to his payment of hush money to an adult-film star and a Playboy model. That has many Americans who have repeatedly seen Trump escape accountability watching this latest eruption of the Trump Show and wondering if they should celebrate, throw up their hands in exasperation or just give up.

These are the people who were appalled by Trump well before he was elected president, the voters who thought the “Access Hollywood” videotape of Trump boasting about sexually aggressive behavior with women would tank his candidacy.

Through his term in office and beyond, they cheered on investigators, predicted Trump’s fall, groaned over his every rhetorical explosion, styled themselves as “The Resistance” and worried that his presidency would dismantle the American system they cherished.

But at every turn, as Trump seemed to shake off numerous federal and state investigations into his policy choices, campaign tactics, corporate finances and personal behavior, as well as two impeachments, they were left with ever-dwindling expectations that he might be found responsible for what they viewed as crimes and abuses.

Then came Tuesday and pictures of a silent Trump, moving through a courthouse hallway, sitting at the defendant’s table in an ordinary Manhattan courtroom, headed for trial, even potential imprisonment. Among hardcore anti-Trumpers, this struck not so much as the moment they’d been waiting for as perhaps the beginning of one more chapter that could end in frustration.

Online, old memes resurfaced: Trump behind bars, Trump in an orange prison jumpsuit, Trump looking scared. A new image featured a mock newspaper headline from the year 2147: “We got Trump this time.”

Any triumphalism seemed halfhearted, and was immediately countered by replies like one from someone on Twitter using the name Wait Your Serious: “Y’all keep acting like this is the same as all the other times because then it will be way more hilarious when the rug is pulled from beneath you.”

Trump’s history has given his followers and opponents alike a sense that almost whatever is thrown at him, he’ll figure out an escape route.

“He’s been able to just run around and do and say whatever he wants,” said Michael Mackey, 28, who manages Wild West Comics and Games in Arlington, Tex. “People are just tired of it. They’re tired of him making us into a laughingstock.”

Sophia Downs, a 16-year-old junior at Albany High School in Albany, Calif., was initially excited by the news of Trump’s indictment: “I felt like, there’s cosmic justice and he’s finally getting what he deserves.”

But a darker feeling quickly took precedence: “As I could actually think about it, I’ve been wondering, will it actually change anything?” asked Downs, who is president of her school’s Feminist Club. “Will it prevent him from running again? I don’t know. I feel like everything has been so crazy the past few years, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s still able to run. That’s the cynical part of me that’s lived through the past couple of years.”

She said her peers share “a general sense of hopelessness” from coming of age in the Trump era: “There’s a constant conflict between feeling this is hopeless and terrible and being wary, but also the idea that we have to push on and be hopeful because giving up is always going to lose.”

Deep, almost existential worry stretches not only through young minds but through voters of all ages who have spent the past seven years rooting for the justice system to take on Trump.

“A lot of people, including me, over the last eight years, have thought, O.K., here it comes,” historian Jon Meacham told the New Yorker’s David Remnick. “Pick your cliché. It’s the silver bullet. It’s the stake through the heart. But what Trump has done … is he has suspended the ordinary rules of political gravity.”

Meacham has concluded that the populist fever of Trumpism will break only if he and politicians who model themselves on him keep losing elections. “It is a perennial battle between our worst instincts and the better angels of our nature, to use Lincoln’s phrase,” he said. “That’s the struggle we’re in now.”

One instinct among hardcore Trump opponents is to seek relief through humor, and so the resolutely anti-Trump late night TV comedians who have dined out on Trump-to-prison jokes for years took numerous victory laps.

Trump “was right,” Stephen Colbert said on his CBS show after breaking the news of the indictment to his studio audience. “We’re finally saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

The crowd burst into a roaring, 42-second ovation, and the comedian celebrated by dipping into a baseball helmet full of ice cream.

Glee was the order of the day over on NBC, too, where Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” aired a video concoction splicing together bits of Trump’s speeches to create a song: “I’m so indicted, and I just can’t hide it. I’m about to go to jail and I don’t like it.”

But glee seems like the wrong emotion to Freestone, the retired public health worker in northern California who has long wanted Trump to be imprisoned, but whose own family history persuades her to acknowledge how complex people’s political views can be. Freestone is the child of a Jewish immigration lawyer who worked on resettling concentration camp survivors after World War II and the wife of a German-born man whose father was a high-level Nazi official.

Her family’s history taught her about speaking up. “We understood that no one spoke up against Nazi Germany and millions of innocent people were killed,” she said, recalling her own activism from the civil rights and women’s rights movements through campaigns for climate policy reform and health-care improvements during the Trump administration.

“But I think that none of us was prepared for the kind of presidency that Donald Trump brought us, or that we visited upon ourselves by electing him.”

She finds it repugnant that Trump has managed to turn past investigations into his behavior into opportunities to make money and build on his followers’ grievances, but “I don’t think you can weigh that in a democracy where people have to be held accountable,” she said.

And she’s all too aware of Trump’s talent for delaying legal proceedings. “I’m 78 — I think I’ll be dead before anything is resolved, if it ever is,” she said. Still, “I just don’t think we can say, ‘Oh, well, he’s not going to get convicted anyway, so why bother?’ That’s not okay.”

Taking the long, philosophical view has been helpful to the Rev. Dale Weatherspoon, pastor of Easter Hill Methodist Church, a Black congregation in Freestone’s town with a legacy of political activism.

“When you have charges and investigations going on around you in multiple states, there must be something to it,” he said. “It can’t be a figment of everybody’s imagination.”

Yet just as some in his congregation are glad finally to see an indictment, Weatherspoon thinks about the many other Americans who “will continue to say this is still part of the big lie, that this isn’t true. So right now, I don’t see it bringing us together, but I think there’s a sense of hope that folks have done their due diligence and he needs to be held accountable.”

The news, after all these years of talk about Trump’s norm-breaking and rogue behavior, leaves the pastor more weary than delighted.

“I think we’re tired. We’re tired of seeing this in the news,” he said. “I think there’s gonna be a lot of people that aren’t going to be happy until there’s a sentence. I mean, as a person of color, we got a lot of people that are in jail for a whole lot less, that have not harmed others.”

But there are, he said, also far more important problems than Trump’s fate: “Every day, when there is so much going on, whether it be a global warming … homelessness … people that are hungry. … What are we teaching our children about how to live a moral, ethical life?”

Stephanie Whitney never had any illusions about Trump being able to serve as an honest leader. Growing up in the New York City area, she said, she’d always been “aware of Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization’s dealings and how he got away with stuff.”

Now 54 and living near Charlottesville, Whitney, a former human resources officer, said she has been frustrated for years by “Trump’s ability to avoid accountability. There’s a reason they call him ‘Teflon Don.’ I’d be lying if I said I’m not worried he’ll get away with this one, too. I’ve lost hope that his supporters will have the courage to vote with the evidence, but I have to be cautiously optimistic about the system. We kind of have to be, don’t we? I mean, what’s the alternative?”

But if the system is rigged in favor of people like Trump, Michael Jackson says, then it makes sense that he would keep getting away with behaviors that land others in big trouble.

Every time Jackson, a retired aircraft repairman, saw Trump’s actions rattling his community, he thought it must be the last straw — the end of Trump. Especially after watching Trump’s fiery Jan. 6, 2021, speech to his supporters ahead of the attack on the Capitol, Jackson believed Trump would be held to account.

“There are a lot of other things, but that’s the worst one,” he said, “because people were killed. He attacked our democracy. That’s like being a traitor.”

Jackson, 69, lives in DeSoto, Tex., a mostly Black suburb of Dallas that voted 86 percent for Joe Biden in 2020, and he has come to believe that Trump has been able to dodge so many allegations of wrongdoing so far for one simple reason: “A lot of rich White guys get away with a lot of things,” said Jackson, who is Black.

But despite his belief that Trump’s seeming invincibility stems from the country’s deep-seated racism — “Trump was a rebuttal to the first Black president,” Jackson said — he believes the New York indictment and the investigations in Georgia and Washington over his efforts to overturn the election and retain classified documents will finally end Trump’s success in politics.

“I think it’s just too much baggage that he’s carrying,” he said.

Maybe not, said Margaret Marks, a 72-year-old retired union organizer in Albany, Calif., who has learned through her strained relationships with Trump-boosting relatives in Spokane, Wash., that no amount of evidence or reasoning will move some people from supporting the ex-president.

Year after year, controversy after controversy, she saw that her belief that Trump was undermining American democracy — and her relatives’ belief that he was the answer to the nation’s ills — “changed my family,” Marks said. “I really don’t have contact with them anymore. … I probably won’t ever go up there again now, which is sad.”

Despite Trump’s continued popularity among most Republicans, Marks has no regrets about her activism against him.

“People are going to be looking back in 20 years and saying, ‘What did you do to fight this outrageous behavior?’” Marks said. “I don’t want to have to say, ‘Nothing.’”

Depressed after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016, Marks said she “was in bed for about a week, like immobilized. … It galvanized me to do more in my own city.”

She got involved with tenant protection groups in San Francisco’s East Bay area and now works with a social services organization called Albany Thrives Together, providing showers and laundry services and handing out lunches.

That bolstered her sense of purpose through what she called the misery of the Trump years, but she still wants to see Trump brought to justice, even if the New York case wins him more publicity, sympathy and campaign contributions.

“We have to go by the rule of law,” Marks said. “That’s even more important to me, even if it does give him more money. I want to see him held responsible.”

Fisher reported from Washington and Alexander from northern California. Jack Douglas in DeSoto, Tex., contributed to this report.

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