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Trump’s Case Isn’t a Celebrity Trial. Let’s Not Consume It Like One

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

If you blink at the wrong moment, you miss history. The blink itself, in some cases, can be part of our natural response to the events if we’re too numb to appreciate that what we are seeing is far afield from what most would call normal. As everyone in Washington and more than a few Americans watched the oddly captivating visual of an SUV rumbling down FDR Drive, waiting for an ex-President to reach the lower Manhattan courthouse where he was scheduled to surrender, the only thing that was clear was that nothing about the scene unfolding on our phones and TV screens was normal. Not even close.

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For many of us who were waiting for a court to unseal a 34-count indictment, the blend of novelty and news collided at our desks. The potential for an ex-President to face a criminal sentence isn’t a throw-away line anymore, any more than a history-making double impeachment, a pandemic, or an administration that seemed to thrive on hating the very power of government it wielded. These are days that will be preserved and studied for generations if not centuries.

And yet, to simply wave off this case because of its sordid particulars is to wave off far more. So, so much more is at stake then whether an ex-President cooked his books to pay off a porn star: the rule of law and those it exempts, the notion that tax bills aren’t a suggestion, and whether Americans will accept criminal backgrounds or moral failings from their future leaders as perfectly benign lines on C.V.s.

That’s why efforts to treat Trump’s indictment as a typical celebrity conflict—one where the proceedings are consumed as entertainment, regardless of the outcome—excuses our own complicity; some voted him into power, all lived under his four years of governing, more may restore him to power and live another term as constituents of a United States he represents globally. This will be with us for years, and we are hardly passive players.

And how we look back at this moment will be weighted with how we have allowed politics to become increasingly conflated with celebrity, to the point that we have trouble remembering how certain figures became known to us at all. Watergate made household names of The Plumbers. Iran-Contra shifted functionary military aides into a rogues’ gallery that would later populate the far-right roster of celebs or martyrs. The endless parade of Bill Clinton-era scandals made White House staffers and oversight lawmakers into rock stars who realized the cable-news shout fests and college-campus book tours could prove lucrative. And in the post-9/11 era, especially, those who emulated Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf or Gen. Colin Powell could double-dip as on-air military analysts and in-house war planners.

Then, the Trump era rolled into Washington, changing the rules in ways we’re still struggling to understand, as the the technocrats of the Clinton and Obama orbits became patrons of The Resistance, and Trump characters parlayed their proximity into media contracts, endorsements deals, and personal appearance fees. It’s no accident that the most compelling television coverage of politics these days is called The Circus.

None of that, however, should blind us to the importance of what just unfolded. This wasn’t your typical celebrity perp walk. It was a constitutional crisis, served in miniature. The events were the first time anyone who deployed the title of President of the United States faced a criminal trial. And while the trappings of the day were the stuff expected in celebrity trials—be they for admissions fraud, ski accidents, or sexual assault—the day decidedly was not. We cannot let it blend into the zeitgeist like just another blip.

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