Donald Trump Finally Gets His O.J. Moment

Trump’s trial in Georgia will be televised. The parallels to the O.J. Simpson case – including the perils – are clear.

“This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers!” Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, proclaims in the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film “Network.”

Beale’s character may be fictional, but his message isn’t wrong. Just look at the Kennedy-Nixon debates; Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech; Ronald Reagan’s rise as the first actor and TV star to become president; George H.W. Bush checking his watch; George W. Bush’s declaration of Mission Accomplished; Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech; and, of course, there’s Donald Trump.

No political figure has owed so much to television as Trump. He mastered the medium in his rise to national fame in the 1980s, pitching himself as a post-cultural revolution update to the self-made man myth. (Never mind the $400 million he inherited from his father.) After a string of bankruptcies and divorces in the 1990s, he rebooted as a reality TV star playing the archetypal boss ― no-nonsense, loyal to those who listen to him and in total control ― on NBC’s “The Apprentice.” And then another reboot in the 2010s, first as an anti-Obama heel on Fox News and next as a reactionary right-wing pol who would descend, godlike, from the tube to stand as an avenging angel for a supposed Real America that increasingly saw itself as besieged by economic and cultural change.

Ever since his 2015 ride down the Trump Tower escalator, Trump ran his campaign and then his presidency as a television spectacle ― and the TV bosses obliged by carrying it all live.

It began with press secretary Sean Spicer’s lies about Trump’s inauguration crowd, making the daily press briefing into a must-watch absurdity. He teased policies and plans with “stay tuned” announcements that often left the audience hanging. His dalliance with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un played as a will-they-or-won’t-they script. When the coronavirus hit, he bragged about the ratings his news briefings received. Then came his plot to steal the 2020 election, orchestrated in televised press conferences, state legislative hearings and, ultimately, a speech on the Ellipse and a march on the U.S. Capitol that became the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Former President Donald Trump was indicted by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis along with 18 accomplices for his plot to steal the 2020 Georgia election on Monday.
Former President Donald Trump was indicted by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis along with 18 accomplices for his plot to steal the 2020 Georgia election on Monday.
CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images

But what makes you can also bring you down. Trump’s plot to overthrow the government now brings him to the apogee of his television arc. On Monday, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis indicted Trump and 18 accomplices for their effort to steal the 2020 election in Georgia. Unlike a similar indictment in federal court, the Georgia trial will be televised. And there is no greater spectacle the tube can create than the high-profile, nationally televised trial.

America had seen its fair share of “Trials of the Century” before the advent of television, but the tube brought the drama of these trials into more homes and with more intimacy and immediacy. The first nationally televised criminal trial came in 1979 when serial killer Ted Bundy was charged with the murder of two women. Bundy, “this terrific looking man with light brown hair and blue eyes, looking rather Kennedyesque,” as The New York Times described him, instantly became a celebrity thanks to his courtroom antics and received love letters from women even after he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

In 1991, Court TV became the first cable news network solely devoted to live criminal trials and hit it big covering the first Menendez brothers trial in 1993. “Like most Court TV addicts, I now find myself not only obsessed with the impending verdict but caught up in the theater of the trial itself,” an Entertainment Weekly reporter gushed at the time. And then came O.J.

On June 17, 1994, 95 million Americans tuned in to watch retired football star and actor O.J. Simpson lead the LAPD on a slow-motion highway chase in that white Ford Bronco. After the chase ended, Simpson would be charged with murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her acquaintance Ron Goldman. A year later, more than 100 million would turn to the tube to watch a jury hand down a not guilty verdict. In between these two events, Americans tuned into the rising cable news networks at record numbers. This change in viewership habits and taste ultimately transformed the news landscape, creating the 24-hour news cycle and, ultimately, reality TV.

But what heightened the spectacle of the trial is the way it came to stand in for larger issues not directly at play. Simpson’s trial came three years after the acquittal of the four police officers who beat Rodney King on camera, and the ensuing LA riots. The LAPD had a long history of abuse and gang tactics against Black residents. Simpson had long ago distanced himself from the Black community and any semblance of civil rights promotion, but his lawyers, who reportedly knew he was guilty, had only one winning argument: that Simpson was yet another victim of the racist LAPD. As Simpson trial reporter Jeffrey Toobin wrote after the verdict, his lawyers turned the trial into “an obscene parody of an authentic civil rights struggle.”

The move worked both inside and outside the courtroom. In the courtroom, Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD detective who found the bloody glove on Simpson’s property, was revealed to be racist. “If you grew up in this country, then you know there are Fuhrmans out there,” Simpson’s defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran said in his summation to the jury. Outside the courtroom, the public’s perception divided along racial lines, with the majority of Black people believing Simpson to be innocent and the majority of white people thinking he was guilty.

O.J. Simpson, on trial for double murder in 1995, demonstrates that a bloody glove found on his property does not fit during his highly publicized trial.
O.J. Simpson, on trial for double murder in 1995, demonstrates that a bloody glove found on his property does not fit during his highly publicized trial.
SAM MIRCOVICH via Getty Images

Trump’s televised trial promises to follow a similar script of victimization. His public defense has long been the same as his political appeal. “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you — and I’m just standing in their way,” he said after being indicted for financial fraud in Manhattan in June. Where Simpson stood in as a symbol for the entire history of racist police aggression in the U.S., Trump plans to make himself a symbol for all the grievances of his largely white conservative base. He and his supporters argue that just like Black people, Trump is a victim of a “two-tiered justice system.”

“To listen to the former president’s defenders talk about his legal woes is to hear the echoes of a sordid history,” Noah Rothman wrote last month in the conservative National Review. “It’s a noise that celebrates the miscarriage of justice as long as injustice is meted out in equal measure. It rejects equality before the law as an aspirational concept designed to apply a patina of legitimacy to structures that exist only to preserve existing power dynamics. In short, Donald Trump has become their O.J. Simpson.”

That sentiment has been expressed by both Trump supporters and opponents.

Noting that Trump is “essentially a horrible person … vulgar, amoral, narcissistic,” one Trump supporter told Politico in 2020, “To those of us who support what he has accomplished it feels like he is our O.J.”

“Trump is for a lot of white people what O.J.’s acquittal was to a lot of Black folks ― you know it’s wrong, but it feels good,” former President Barack Obama reportedly told his foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes.

While the circumstances are vastly different racial dynamics, they are sure to play out on TV during the Georgia trial, election law expert Rick Hasen writes in Slate. There is the fact that Willis is a Black woman, and Fulton County, where the trial will take place, is plurality Black. The case also centers on the abusive treatment Trump and his alleged criminal organization heaped on two Black election workers: Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss.

“Trump has a record of being especially hostile toward Black women, from journalists, to Vice President Kamala Harris, to New York Attorney General Letitia James, whom Trump for no reason branded a ‘racist’ after she brought tax charges against the Trump Organization,” Hasen writes.

In addition, Trump’s entire plan to steal the election targeted votes cast in predominantly Black cities as inherently fraudulent.

“Biden can only enter the White House as President if he can prove that his ridiculous ‘80,000,000 votes’ were not fraudulently or illegally obtained. When you see what happened in Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia & Milwaukee, massive voter fraud, he’s got a big unsolvable problem!” Trump tweeted in November 2020.

Trump's acts targeting Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss (left), former Georgia election worker, and her mother Ruby Freeman (right) are at the heart of the Georgia charges he faces.
Trump's acts targeting Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss (left), former Georgia election worker, and her mother Ruby Freeman (right) are at the heart of the Georgia charges he faces.
Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

This argument mirrors the race-based victimization narrative of his conservative supporters, who blame liberal politicians for providing special privileges to Blacks, immigrants and other groups that help them unfairly get ahead.

Ultimately, the televised nature of the trial could cut both for and against Trump. As many arguments over putting cameras in courtrooms go, one side can argue that the full revelation and recitation of the facts will help show the public ― including those who support Trump ― the reality of the crimes committed and the falsity of his lies about election fraud. Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.

“Having cameras in the courtroom reminds me of Mr. [John] Lewis saying how you have to bring light to the situation, how even in the Civil Rights movement, thinking back to Selma, it wasn’t until the media put the spotlight on it, the country began paying attention,” Rep. Nikema Williams, the Democratic congresswoman representing Atlanta, said in a press call the day after the Georgia indictment.

At the same time, Trump will be given yet another chance to commandeer the cameras and insert himself, through the tube, into our homes to make the case that he is being victimized on behalf of his supporters.

Unlike O.J., he may falter inside the courtroom ― there isn’t much ambiguity about his very public actions, nor is there a Mark Fuhrman character to cast as the villain ― but his appeal is to the public outside. Will they continue to believe his illusions? Or can television, for once, convince people what’s plain to see in front of their eyes?

The problem with television, and especially its 24-hour news monster, is that it flattens all information into an entertaining package.

“What I realized is, this is entertainment,” Gerald Uelmen, a Simpson defense lawyer, told The Washington Post about O.J.’s Ford Bronco getaway. “This is not news.”

Don’t change that dial.

Igor Bobic contributed reporting.

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