It’s been easy to forget about Trump, but rightwing America has yet to shake him off

No one showed up, relatively speaking, to the rally in Washington DC last weekend, an event organised in support of the 6 January “martyrs”. Riot fences went up; the national guard was on standby. The gathering, styled “Justice for J6” by organisers, was intended, they said, to draw attention to the plight of those who, after storming the Capitol building earlier this year, had been arrested but “not been charged with violence, not been accused of assaulting a police officer or destroying property”. The idea of “peacefully” tailgating on a violent insurrection is a conceptual stretch, but in any case, only about 200 demonstrators turned up. They were easily outnumbered by journalists and police.

These numbers might have been more reassuring had they not been accompanied online by support from the man widely blamed for inciting them. In a statement on his website, Donald Trump – who is still banned from Twitter – referred to the 6 January rioters as “being persecuted so unfairly” for protesting at “the Rigged Presidential Election”. (The page has since been removed.) It was one of a flurry of statements made last week by the former president, now entirely unrestrained by the dignities of office, and in frank support of the people who stormed the US Capitol. “The Big Lie is the Presidential Election 2020,” he went on, before pivoting to blame the “Fake News Media” for destroying “our Country, both inside and out”.

There was a time – millennia ago in political years – when Trump’s wacky syntax and random capitalisation might have been cause for, if not for amusement, exactly, then at least some degree of dismissal. Since the inauguration of President Biden in January, it has been relatively easy to convince oneself that his predecessor has gone away. Sealed up in Mar-a-Lago with various family members, Trump has remained largely absent from public life, surfacing on the 20th anniversary of September 11 this month to commentate on a novelty pay-per-view boxing match with Don Jr in Florida, but otherwise, for those not seeking him out, gone.

The discovery that he has not in fact gone, but is still lurking on the internet disseminating conspiracy theories about the election, brings on the sick feeling you get two-thirds of the way into a horror movie, when a sense of calm is introduced prior to the biggest jump scare. Unlike the first time around, there is no possibility of laughing Trump off or assuming his idiocies won’t find a sympathetic audience. At the rally last week, two Republican congressional candidates addressed the group. A recent CNN poll found that 78% of Republicans didn’t believe that Biden legitimately won the presidency. Rightwing America, and therefore America as a whole, has yet to shake this guy off.

And so a conversation is starting to take shape, in which the possibility – strengthening daily towards probability – that Trump will stand in the 2024 presidential election is being discussed with real alarm. Yet again, with Trump, there is a sense of surprise about the man that somehow persisted for the duration of his four years in office. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I think I assumed when Trump lost that he might in large part be relieved to be out of a job he was so unqualified to do. But that assumes the workings of a more or less regular psychology, on the basis of which he would never have become president in the first place.

Instead, he is creeping back into the spotlight unchastened. On Tuesday, Trump filed a lawsuit against the New York Times and Mary Trump, his niece, for leaking details of his tax returns. (His niece, knowing better than anyone how to hurt him, perhaps, released a statement in which she said “I think he is a loser, and he is going to throw anything against the wall he can. It’s desperation. As is always the case with Donald, he’ll try and change the subject.”) Meanwhile, a court date has been set in late August or early September 2022 for a hearing in the tax fraud trial of Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of Trump’s family business.

These stains and public disputes would be enough to finish any other politician, but it has never been so with Trump. I have heard, this week, gloomy assessments from those on the left that the combination of Biden’s handling of troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, the lingering disaster of the pandemic, and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wearing that dress to the Met Ball – “liberal hypocrisy” – will usher in a return of the man so many of us hoped never to hear from again. It doesn’t matter how credible the charge, or whether Trump caused the very problem he seeks to pin on opponents. He has a successful playbook, and given, among other things, his extremely poor impulse control, it seems highly possible he’ll use it again.

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