He’s not sleeping. He’s feeling something much different.

He’s not sleeping. He’s feeling something much different.
He’s not sleeping. He’s feeling something much different.

Everyone remembers their last trip before COVID shut the world down, but my February 2020 ski vacation stands out for a very specific reason. My boyfriend (now husband) and I flew to Bozeman, Montana, to attend the wedding of one of his ski racing friends —as the location and connection might suggest, the weekend was centered on the sport. We all hit the local mountain Saturday morning, before heading home to prepare for the après-ski-themed reception.

This is where the story gets embarrassing, but here goes: I decided that the winter boots I had brought wouldn’t actually work for the party and insisted on going to the local strip mall to find a more appropriate pair. My partner was not into this choice and sent me on my own. I found exactly what I was looking for, pretty quickly. Then, when I departed said strip mall and made a left-hand turn across four lanes of traffic, I hit another car—it was worse than a fender bender, but no one was hurt.

This was bad. But what was worse: I wasn’t listed as a driver on the rental car. What meant the insurance situation was unclear. Because I couldn’t figure out what insurance was covering me in that car—after realizing I couldn’t use the insurance on the car, I tried to find the card for the insurance that covered me back home but couldn’t find that on my phone either—I left the scene of the collision with not just a ticket but a summons to show up at the Bozeman municipal courthouse that Monday morning.

It put a damper on the weekend, to say the least. After making a pact to tell no one at the wedding what had happened—too big of a bummer of a story for that—we tried to celebrate but ended up leaving without even trying the vodka ice luge. I was unbelievably nervous throughout the next day. I didn’t really understand the range of punishments, I was nervous about being on the hook for potentially thousands of dollars in repairs, and the idea of ​​being in trouble generally just freaks me out.

When we showed up in court, I kept feeling worse. Even though every single person was kind to us, the system was confusing, I was terrified of being late, and I felt an incredible amount of shame. Why had I driven that car without being an approved driver? Why had I been so stupid as to insist that I needed those shoes? No one was going to care what was on my feet at a wedding in a community center with an ice luge! Never mind all of the rethinking about exactly what had happened when I’d made that left turn (the car coming toward me was turning right, and I hadn’t seen the car behind the turning car).

I still remember the courtroom: the dingy tile floors that looked like the ones in my elementary school, the totally unfamiliar organization of the system and room numbers, the harsh fluorescent lighting, the general consensus among every person in the building, minus the employees, that it would be a lot better if we didn’t have to be there. That consensus manifested in different ways, but it was universal. Sitting in the actual room that would serve as my court, waiting for the woman who would be my judge to call my case, I felt sick and scared.

What happened when I was called is a blur. But I do remember that I was told that I had some amount of time to gather my documents and submit them to the court for assessment. And that, when she called my name, and my boyfriend, then in her second year of law school but, well, certainly not a lawyer, stood up to accompany me, she told him to sit back down so fast my shame tripled, if that was possible. How dumb were we, thinking I could bring my boyfriend to the stand to hold my hand (or, really, answer a technical legal question)?

I thought a lot about all of these emotions on Thursday, when I went to court for the second time in my life. (My pandemic upside? Because the world was shut down, my case was resolved over Zoom, meaning I didn’t have to go back to Montana for the follow-up. Eventually we did sort out some insurance and everything ended up OK—no crazy expense, not even a ticket in the end.) My feelings came up all over again because the dingy tan tile floor reminded me of elementary school. The lighting was terrible. The courtroom’s ceiling was at least two stories tall, with high windows on one side, and yet the shades were fully drawn. There was paneled wood around the whole room, which had the exact same vibe as the last courtroom I’d been in—the vibe of “this is not a place you want to end up.”

A lot has been said about how satisfying it is that Donald Trump is stuck in this courtroom, that he’s in the same type of building as every other person who has to go through a criminal case in the United States of America. (Also, his case is being heard in the same courtroom that Harvey Weinstein’s New York criminal trial was heard.) Trump has to show up every day no matter what, even if he’d rather be on the campaign trail or attending his son’s high school graduation (although he did get permission from the judge to do the latter).

What I’ve been wondering about is how Donald Trump feels being stuck in this courtroom. Does he feel nervous? Does he feel shame? Does he think, What if I had just done the paperwork differentlyjust like the zillion times I wondered why I hadn’t just added my name to the rental car and paid for the extra insurance?

The media has been closely monitoring Donald Trump’s state in the courtroom so far, a story that kicked off when reports surfaced that he was asleep on his very first day on trial.

But I don’t think he’s actually ever sleeping in the courtroom, and that’s not only because he’s denied it, posting instead that “I simply close my beautiful, blue eyes, sometimes, listen intensely, and take it ALL IN!!!” Earlier this week, Trump beat reporter Maggie Haberman noted on the New York Times liveblog that she heard that Trump closes his eyes as a way of coping with his anger and that on Tuesday, the first day Stormy Daniels testified, he was “looking like his “face was going to crack from tension.”

I was curious to see this facial expression for myself Thursday in court. Not to get too psychodrama about it, but I wondered what it would feel like to be in the same room as this guy, who has dominated so much of America’s news and therefore my professional and occasionally emotional life for almost a decade. I felt a bit like I was one of the jurors who’d figured out how to get through enough of the process to still be invited to court and allowed the opportunity to insult Trump to his face, as several did in response to being asked their opinions of him during voir dire. (No wonder he was closing his eyes early on.) Those swearers’ responses were so relatable. We’ve all lived through these past eight years! Remember the time this man told us that we should put bleach in our veins when we were in a deadly pandemic??

The things about Trump’s demeanor in the courtroom that didn’t surprise me: that he made a show about entering and exiting, obviously scanning through the reporters to see if anyone he knew and liked was there, and acknowledging them when he did (when I was in court, this included a thumbs-up and subsequent finger-gun kind of gesture at a reporter from Newsmax and a smile and wave at CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on Friday he even reached out and touched Jeanine Pirro’s shoulder and later whispered to her to meet him outside court). He still sauntered in and out, making the most of his entrances and exits, appreciating being the star of the “hallway” to which the television cameras were confined.

The thing about Trump’s demeanor in the courtroom that did surprise me: He looked like if he was trying to disappear. As soon as I put my binoculars up to look at the TV that was broadcasting his face to the room (yes, this is what all those reporters are doing in there), I could see that the tension that was noticeable in his chin and mouth when he was walking by me—tension that has shown up in so many of the courtroom sketches, where he often looks frowny and toadlike—was even more intense once he was sitting up at his seat. It’s like the face that Dorothy makes of her when she clenches her eyes shut and clicks her ruby ​​red slippers to transport herself home.

This frowny face seemed to intensify around certain details: anytime Stormy Daniels was talking, basically, but particularly about sex—and every time the Access Hollywood tape came up. Years ago, before Trump won the presidency and probably right around the time the hush money deal that has landed him in this courtroom was taking place, I wrote about one of the main topics of those panicked days: whether Trump might actually be mentally ill, afflicted, most likely, with narcissistic personality disorder (and whether this might be a thing to disqualify him from the presidency, which—ha!). I wrote:

He lives in an alternative reality, one in which the popular backlash against him simply doesn’t exist. What could make someone so disturbingly unaware? So confident in his right to the presidency? Could it be that he is actually unable to grasp objective truth? Might he actually be mentally ill?

After going through a lot of evidence that the man is a narcissist—more of which he has accumulated in the intervening years—I concluded my assessment by noting that the real problem with trying to figure out how mentally ill Donald Trump is is that Donald Trump doesn’t ‘t care how mentally ill Donald Trump is. He’s certainly pathological, but he is not bothered by it:

I think the privilege into which Trump was born has exempted him from the operating rules of civilized society. Whether he’s bragging about sexual assault, denying reality during the debates, or promising to reject the democratic process itself if it does not happen to favor him, the thread that connects them all is privilege. The impunity he has enjoyed is chilling, and so is his blithe certainty that it will always be there for him.

This is so interesting now: His courtroom feels like maybe the only time in his life when Trump has not gotten to enjoy the impunity he has grown so used to and where he is forced to actually face the consequences of his actions. He has to show up every day, and he has to walk down the center of the aisle like all other criminal defendants do, as much as he tries to make it a show. He must adhere to the gag order enforced by the judge unless he wants to risk jail. He has to sit there within direct earshot as witness after witness testifies over loudspeakers about his alleged criminality (and to his being a sex pest, to put it mildly). And in a few weeks, when a verdict is reached, if it’s a guilty one, he’ll have to face a judge’s sentence and whatever that might mean for his freedom.

I understand how he feels because when I had to stand up and answer the judge for my stupid little crime, I also wanted to disappear. I wanted it not to be what was really happening. Unfortunately for Trump, this may be the only time where he can’t just will these bad things away. But no one can make him open those blue eyes and face it either.

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