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After Conviction, Trump Is the Outsider Tribune Again

Donald Trump would be an unsympathetic defendant even in a friendlier venue than a Manhattan courtroom. He defies authority, and neither judges nor juries take kindly to that. He’s now been convicted of 34 felony charges involving an arcane confluence of sex, money, and election laws. Trump did, of course, pay for a mistress’s silence. But that’s not a crime in itself; the prosecutors convinced the jury that Trump violated the sanctity of elections by authorizing this particular payoff. His opponents would like to put Trump in jail for his actions on January 6, 2021, but this set of ultimately sex-related convictions will have to do for now. 

There’s more to come, of course: Trump is on trial for his life, given all the lawfare he’s facing. Trump appeared at the Libertarian Party convention last weekend and said that, if he wasn’t a libertarian before this trial, he was one now. There’s an old joke among libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives that says every American is guilty of one crime or another, so overloaded has our law code become with tax rules and business regulations and, indeed, campaign-finance minutiae. “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime” is a saying attributed to various Soviet police state commissars. But in America too, the law criminalizes so much that an enterprising prosecutor can find some grounds on which to convict anyone—including a political enemy.

The reason the prosecutorial apparatus isn’t overtly weaponized more often is that leaders in both parties have a common interest in keeping such prosecutions to a minimum. Donald Trump, however, is a common foe: Establishment Republicans are not about to prosecute a Biden or a Clinton to the fullest extent of the law simply because a Democrat goes after Trump. In the ways that count, Donald Trump is still an outsider, and the insiders are all eager to see him punished. His convictions are a satisfying revenge not only for Democrats but for the many old-line Republicans he has humiliated, too.

Trump is no revolutionary, however—he’s simply a defiant individual, who can’t be assimilated into the leadership class because he’s just too self-oriented and self-directed. He’s a class traitor, or rather a scoffer. But he’s also the tribune of Americans who do reject the nation’s bipartisan leadership class for deeper political reasons. Humiliating Trump, perhaps hobbling his campaign or even condemning him to die in prison, doesn’t solve the problem that his powerful enemies face. In fact, successful lawfare only makes their problem worse, because their problem is that much of the American public no longer views the leadership class and the institutions it controls with respect and deference. Seeing the law used to strike down Trump only confirms the impression of his supporters that the whole system is rotten. And if it can be used against Trump in this way, it can surely be used against any of them—any businessman, any Christian, any critic of power.

For the most intensely committed segment of Trump’s base, his felony convictions only confirm what they have believed all along, that Trump is embarked on dangerous work on their behalf, and sooner or later the empire will strike back. Trump’s supporters are too many and too strong for the Republican Party to shake off, so Trump’s campaign for the White House will go on, and many Trump Republicans will be all the more energized now. Whether Trump’s opponents will be similarly energized is doubtful. For the average Democrat, Trump was already guilty of every count before he was convicted—indeed, before he was even accused. Little changes on the Democrat side of the political tug-of-war as a result of the Manhattan jury’s verdict. 

There are broadly two kinds of Americans who are not already committed either to Trump or his opponents. There are those who do not want to challenge the leadership class, but who do think the country ought to have a better leader than Joe Biden. These voters may have been winnable for Trump before his convictions, but they will find him a more dangerous and unappealing figure now. 

On the flipside, however, are those Americans who are not Republicans, conservatives, populists, or Trump fans who nonetheless feel that the leadership system, and justice system, in this nation is broken. Some of those voters may not have an affinity with Trump’s politics, but they can perhaps identify with his plight and his fight. Trump is now a more radical version of what he was previously: a symbol of resistance—rejection of conventional politics personified. (Again, that’s symbolism. In practice, Trump’s policies were often far from dramatic departures, either for good or ill, from Washington practice.) 

A ruling class that wants to remain in power cannot be brittle; it cannot be seen to panic and overreact. But that’s what has happened here. The weapons the law places in the hands of prosecutors are not so awe-inspiring as to put an end to Trump’s defiance, still less to strike his supporters dumb with awe. The lawfare against Trump, even when it succeeds, is not conclusive and cannot quell rebellion. All it can do is bring on escalation: Trump will continue to mouth off about judges and prosecutors, and his supporters will see in his persecution a threat to the republic itself, which must be met with strong institutional measures: lawfare against lawfare, or an uprooting of the administrative state and weaponized legal apparatus itself. 

The stakes for November’s election have been raised by Alvin Bragg’s successful prosecution, but even if Joe Biden wins, nothing will return to normal. The question of whether a Republican can get a fair trial in a Democratic city when charged with politicized offenses will persist, as will the larger question of whether government itself, as it has developed under Democrats and establishment Republicans alike, is fair, impartial, and even minimally just.

Trump’s successes, but also his greatest setbacks, can be attributed to his fundamentally defiant personality, and in overreacting or reacting badly here he could do to himself what his enemies cannot do to him. If he appears more petulant and self-obsessed as a result of the convictions, if he seems rattled and weaker, his campaign will falter. His enemies are counting on him to unnerve himself. 

Now is a time for confidence and good humor, if Trump hopes to be acquitted by the voters on November 5. If he comes off as unsympathetic to the public at large as he did to the Manhattan jurors, he won’t just lose the election; he’ll lose his liberty and legacy, too. But whatever becomes of Trump, the conflict between the outsiders who found an outlet in him and the insiders who rely on lawfare as a substitute for legitimacy will continue.



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