If you’ve read the newspaper recently or watched any cable TV news that isn’t on Fox or Newsmax, you must know the extent of legal jeopardy in which Donald Trump now finds himself.

I mean, after his third indictment in four months, it’s looking ever more likely that the former guy could actually someday go to prison, where he would finally be held to account and might even be forced to change his dietary regimen from Mar-a-Lago cheeseburgers to, uh, jailhouse cheeseburgers. 

But while an ex-president going to prison would be unprecedented and might well make it more difficult for Trump to return to the White House — although not necessarily to the presidency, which he could presumably handle from inside a prison cell if elected again, as he might very well be — that’s not the most critical question facing America.

The real question is: Who is in greater trouble, Donald Trump or the rest of us?

I’d say it’s a close call. At this stage, I’m leaning toward the rest of us, those who have to live with the idea that their country could possibly elect not just a twice-impeached, thrice-indicted carny-barking demagogue, but also a convicted felon, as president. 

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And not just any convicted felon, but one charged with undermining American democracy itself, which you’d think might be a disqualifier for the job. 

Of course, he has been undermining democracy for years, and yet he’s been elected once and received 73 million votes in the election he lost. This year, he’s running away with the GOP primary while employing his full range of ugly rhetoric, even calling special counsel Jack Smith a “crackhead,” and suggesting that it might have been him — if it wasn’t the Bidens — who left the cocaine at the White House.

But it’s not the outlandish Trump that’s most concerning. If he’s elected again, it would mean that his long-running campaign to sow distrust in an unending list of American norms and institutions would have scored a huge and possibly enduring victory. 

I don’t expect Trump’s base — something like 4 in 10 Republicans —  to ever abandon him. But another 40% of Republicans — those somewhere in the middle of the right-leaning party — say they don’t consider themselves Trumpist, and yet a majority of those say they may vote for him.

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign is built on twin premises — relitigating the Big Lie of the 2020 election while delaying his trials until he could possibly return to office. If he is nominated, as it appears he will be, and somehow wins, I don’t think he would try to crown himself instead of taking the oath, although he might. But he definitely would appoint a servile attorney general willing to toss out all the cases. And if that failed, he’d try to pardon himself in the federal cases anyway, in what would be one more unfunny chapter in the Trump clown show.

And the stage seems to grow by the day. It’s one thing, as Trump has said so often, to promise to drain the so-called Washington swamp. But now Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s putative leading rival in the GOP primary, is running against Trump by raising the ante, promising to “start slitting the throats” of Washington bureaucrats, which is even harsher than his plan to shoot unconvicted border-crossing drug dealers “stone cold dead.” 

Trying to out-Trump Trump is at least a strategy. Thinking you can do it by trying to out-Stalin Stalin is something different. 

And that’s what should worry us. It’s bad enough that 69% of Republicans still say they believe, against all evidence, that Biden’s 2020 victory wasn’t legitimate. It’s bad enough that more than half of Republicans say they favor Trump in the GOP primary or, crazier still, that 71% say Trump hasn’t “committed serious federal crimes.”

Then there’s this: According to the latest New York Times/Siena poll, Trump and Biden are tied. You don’t have to imagine it. Just read the numbers.

No wonder Trump and his lawyers believe that he can beat the charge that he conspired to overturn the election. His lawyers insist Trump actually believed that he had won, despite all those, including just about every lawyer in the White House, who repeatedly told him he hadn’t. If a majority of Republicans can believe it, why couldn’t Trump? (There are a lot of reasons why, but consider that a rhetorical question.)

By now, we understand Trump’s hold on many of the red-hatted MAGA cultists. He tells them at every turn that he is the victim of the Biden crime family, of fake news, of crooked judges, of crackhead prosecutors, of commie socialists, of RINOs, and the list goes on.

And then he says that if they can come after him, a former president, they can come after anyone — including you. For eight years now, we’ve heard the cheers from those who believe they’ve been overlooked, passed by, marginalized and in need of someone to give the finger to any and all perceived enemies. We’ve heard the cheers as Trump gives permission to embrace prejudice and bigotry as he invites white nationalists to dine with him.

Once Trump said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote. He’s taken that concept another step. Every time he’s indicted, his poll numbers go up. In fact, as he headed to the New York courtroom the other day, he wrote this on his social media site: “I just need one more indictment to ensure my election.”

As you probably know, that fourth indictment is probably coming soon from Georgia for Trump’s effort to bully officials to find him 11,000 votes he needed to win but never received. 

As Nate Cohn wrote in the New York Times recently, the MAGA base doesn’t support Trump in spite of his flaws, or even, as I’d say, because of his flaws, but because they don’t believe he has any flaws. And because they don’t believe Trump has flaws, Trump’s many Washington enablers, including many in the field running against him, are afraid to say otherwise.

So, we know about Trump. What if it’s not just Trump? What if all that distrust and disaffection is not just about a cult, but has become systemic? What if a Republican Party that has lost its way to Trump gives way to a Trumpism without Trump? That’s what the distrust numbers seem to say. After all, Trump didn’t just come from nowhere. There was a Nixon. There was a Buchanan. There was a Gingrich.

But for now, there’s Trump and, if you believe the early polls, no one else. Special counsel Smith has produced a lean indictment on Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, one suited for a quick trial. The trial judge seems inclined to go along with that.

If that happens, Trump could be convicted before the election in November. Would Trump voters have second thoughts? Could he still win? If he could, if the nightmare came true, here’s where we’d be. Trump would be the Convict in Chief and the rest of us the ones deeply in trouble.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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