What the conviction of Donald Trump means - Hindustan Times
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What the conviction of Donald Trump means

May 31, 2024 09:24 PM IST

Trump's conviction may persuade the Left-wing voter currently upset with Biden that Trump represents a greater threat

Donald Trump has become the first man who served as president of the United States (US) to be convicted of a crime. He will also be the first convicted felon to be the Republican nominee for the next president. This throws up questions about the impact of Thursday’s verdict on the nature and the outcome of the elections on November 5.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at Trump Tower, Friday, May 31, 2024, in New York. A day after a New York jury found Donald Trump guilty of 34 felony charges, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee addressed the conviction and likely attempt to cast his campaign in a new light. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)(AP)
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at Trump Tower, Friday, May 31, 2024, in New York. A day after a New York jury found Donald Trump guilty of 34 felony charges, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee addressed the conviction and likely attempt to cast his campaign in a new light. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)(AP)

Will Trump’s conviction make a difference to the nature of the election? The answer is an unequivocal yes. But not in the way most people may intuitively assume. In an almost equally divided country, both camps will draw from the verdict the conclusions they wish to draw and put on the ballot the legitimacy of America’s legal system, the idea of rule of law and the application of the rule of law.

For the Democrats, independents and even some moderate Republicans, the New York jury’s unanimous verdict will serve as more proof that Trump spells trouble and shares an uncomfortable relationship with both facts and laws. This is a leader who, the verdict confirms, engaged in falsity to enter office — the current case is all about Trump making hush payments to suppress information to influence the 2016 elections. He faces criminal charges for what he did to retain his office — Trump is accused of seeking to subvert the 2020 election results and block its certification in Washington DC and pressure state officials to change the results in Georgia. And he faces criminal charges for what he did after leaving office — in Florida, Trump is defending himself in a critical case involving his decision to take away classified files and not return them when asked.

For his critics then, given that the other cases aren’t expected to go to trial before the polls, the New York verdict comes as confirmation that Trump is a threat to the rule of law. He can now, accurately, be called a convicted felon. Political opponents will use this label most frequently to show that it’s not them but the independent judicial system that sees Trump as breaching the rules of the game. The Democrats will seek to construct a contrast between the decent, stable, law-abiding Biden and the anarchic, reckless, constant law-violator Trump who can’t be trusted to keep America’s systems stable and who thinks he is above the law.

For Trump and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, the conviction is a liability but also proof that America’s legal system is compromised. For eight years now, Trump has fed his constituency with a narrative of victimhood that America’s “deep state” is against him. While in office, he saw any investigation by the intelligence community into the Russian involvement in 2016 elections as a part of this plot to destabilise him. He saw efforts by legal oversight committees on the Hill in a similar conspiratorial manner. And Trump painted any assertion of autonomy by institutions — such as by the department of justice during his effort to block the peaceful transfer of power — as proof of a conspiracy.

Ever since he left office, and began confronting the barrage of cases thanks to his own actions, Trump has pushed this narrative of the “weaponisation” of law enforcement agencies and courts. Every new criminal charge, according to the Trump narrative, without any evidence, is a Biden conspiracy of “election interference” against a political rival, a violation of democratic norms. Just like, with his “big lie”, Trump eroded the faith of a majority of Republicans in the legitimacy of the 2020 election, he is now eroding the faith of his supporters in the law enforcement and criminal justice system.

Strikingly, given the unpleasant experience that minorities have with law enforcement, the impression of a “persecuted Trump” is evoking sympathy for him in unlikely poor, Black and Hispanic segments. And so, for his constituency, the New York verdict is proof that the system is ranged against Trump. Trump is both the hero standing up to this system and the victim who is suffering. To them, a second Trump term is not only essential so that the former president can protect himself and his supporters but also to engineer a wholescale overhaul of the bureaucratic and justice mechanisms.

Will the conviction impact the outcome? Here, the answer is unclear. What is, however, important to note is that this remains an extraordinarily competitive and open election.

Polling day is five months away. Global events are unfolding rapidly with dramatic consequences on domestic American attitudes and no one knows what the public mood will be in October. The entire outcome hinges on a set of counties in six to seven American states. The state of the economy, including inflation, can’t be predicted.

Trump has indeed been consistently ahead in these swing states in polls including during the period of the trial; immigration and economy rank as key issues and on both Trump has the edge; his support among Blacks and Hispanics has increased; and Biden’s domestic coalition is deeply fractured due to the opposition to the war in Gaza.

At the same time, the Republican base is also fractured with moderate Republicans alienated from Trump; Biden’s team is confident that progressives currently unhappy with Biden will return to the Democratic tent come polling day given the enormity of what’s at stake; Biden has more money; abortion remains a key rallying cry; and MAGA candidates have had a less than impressive electoral record since 2018.

It is in this overall backdrop that Thursday’s conviction may make a difference on the margins. It may persuade the Left-wing voter currently upset with Biden that Trump represents a greater threat. It may result in a disillusioned old-school conservative voter who doesn’t like Trump’s Republican Party staying home. It may make a Trump-leaning voter who isn’t a part of the cult rethink his choice. Alternatively, it may make a Trump loyalist even more determined to come out. But, in itself, it may not alter the overall mood and direction of the electorate. And that itself tells you a story — a story of American democracy in crisis.

The views expressed are personal

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