Acting Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan held Donald Trump in contempt for his violations of a gag order in his criminal hush money case. The penalty? A paltry $9,000. Nonetheless, the judge cautioned the former president that continued violations might result in “incarceratory punishment,” just as they might for any other defendant. We hope he’s not bluffing.

The idea that slapping the cuffs on would somehow help Trump, electorally and with his efforts to delegitimize the process that is attempting to at long last hold him accountable, is bunk. Whatever happens, Trump will claim he’s being politically persecuted, that this trial is an infringement not only on his rights but on the country’s own free elections, interfering as it is with one of the major-party candidates.

Setting aside the inanity of planting that flag in the ground while simultaneously under well-evidenced indictment for multiple efforts to reverse the 2020 election, let’s think through the implications that flow from that idea.

If the existing mechanisms of accountability cannot constrain the former president, then we are saying, in effect, that he cannot be held accountable. We know exactly what Trump plans to do with this immunity; in a recent series of interviews with Time, Trump and his closest allies describe in detail schemes to finally vanquish American democracy, unconstrained by the institutional guardrails that barely held last time around.

The president and his ready sycophants would deploy the military in American cities, jail political opponents (without basis, something that cannot in any reasonable way be said about Trump), bend subsequent elections to his will, disengage from international allies, crack down on speech and generally follow the authoritarian playbook. None of that rests on wild speculation or projection – these are plain as day plans, as readily laid out by Trump himself.

When things get to that stage, the option of actually holding him accountable begins to disappear altogether. Let us repeat: consequences need to come now, because there might not be a later.

Trump certainly hopes to use the powers of the presidency to shield himself from accountability, perhaps forever. Yet simply taking the opposite stance, showing that he’s not untouchable and that he can be brought to justice, might go a long way towards puncturing the Trump phenomenon, which has always been more artifice than anything.

Trump has, for all the bluster, never held majority support in the United States. Some subset of his hard-core fans will never abandon him, but for many, it is the sense that he can stick it to the authorities, that despite the setbacks he’ll sidestep and eventually subjugate the system, that holds appeal. If Trump can tell judges and prosecutors to go to hell and laugh at their rules, he’s doing what I wish I could, the thinking goes.

If the veneer starts cracking – if his flimsy attempt at a civil bond surety fails and his buildings start to be seized, if his goading of Merchan results in real, significant consequences – then the magic will quickly dissipate. The man will be left standing with all he has ever had: his narcissism, his entitlement and his steadfast conviction that people will give him what he wants. This time he’ll be wrong.

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