The felon frontrunner: How Trump warped our politics –

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Donald Trump is now a convicted felon.

Donald Trump is also still the favorite to be the next president of the United States.

Since as far back as at least 2017, Democrats have dreamed about the moment when a jury would find Trump guilty of crimes. And on Thursday, a Manhattan jury found Donald Trump guilty on 34 felony charges of falsifying business records in the first degree.

But now that that moment has arrived, the vibes are all wrong. 


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Trump’s conviction, explained

What happened? Former President Donald Trump was convicted on 34 counts in a New York legal case, the first of his four criminal trials to reach a verdict.

What was the case about? Broadly, the $130,000 hush money payment that Trump’s lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election so Daniels wouldn’t go public saying she’d had a sexual encounter with Trump. Specifically, the question was whether, ​​when Trump later repaid Cohen for that money, the Trump Organization falsely logged those payments as “legal expenses” in company records. 

What’s next? Sentencing. Juan Merchan, the New York justice overseeing the case, plans to sentence Trump on July 11. Trump was convicted of 34 counts of a nonviolent, Class E felony, and he has no prior convictions, which means he could receive anywhere from no prison time to up to four years incarceration. 

Trump’s conviction on charges of falsifying business records comes as he has held on to a stubborn lead in both national and swing state polls for months, and as Democrats have grown increasingly anxious about Biden’s reelection chances.

Some might hope the conviction and ensuing sentence will be a turning point for the 2024 campaign — that it will be the moment when the public is jolted into realizing that, actually, they don’t want a felon as president. There’s been at least some basis for that hope in polls showing a significant share of voters saying they would switch from Trump to Biden after a conviction. 

But amid a long track record of Trump surviving past scandals, a robust right-wing media ecosystem peddling alternative narratives that Democrats are the corrupt ones, and widespread dissatisfaction with Joe Biden’s presidency, it’s far from clear a conviction would really make such a difference in practice.

What seems to have happened here is that, over the past decade, the idea of having a major political figure in prosecutorial jeopardy has been normalized. First, we got used to Trump being under investigation and then under (quadruple) indictment. Now, Team Trump has successfully warped the rules of politics to the point where even a felony conviction may not matter.

It’s like the metaphor of the frog that doesn’t notice the water around it is gradually boiling: We, the American electorate, are the frog. 

The long, gradual descent into a world where “President Convicted Felon” is plausible

Back in the before times, criminal investigations of leading politicians were a big, earth-shaking deal.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was dogged by the FBI’s investigation into whether her use of a private email server had jeopardized classified information. In July, FBI director James Comey publicly opined that she had been “extremely careless,” but concluded that “no reasonable prosecutor” would actually charge her. 

Then, in late October, Comey suddenly announced in a letter that he was reopening the investigation because new information had been discovered — the new information didn’t prove to be significant, but there’s good reason to believe Comey’s letter and the heavy media coverage of it swung the election to Trump. (In the week after he released the letter, Trump gained 3 points in the polls.)

Once Trump was elected, investigative attention switched to him, focused at first on whether his associates had worked with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. Trump’s own behavior, such as his sudden firing of Comey, heightened these suspicions, and spurred the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. 

The Mueller investigation drew enormous public attention and seemed to have a great deal of gravity to it. This, it was believed, was the investigation that could unmake a president, it could bring Trump down like the Watergate scandal did to Nixon.

But as the probe stretched on, an important change occurred: Trump and his supporters got better at hitting back. He mobilized his allies in Congress and in right-wing media to aggressively attack the investigators, portraying all scrutiny of his conduct as illegitimate. So by the time Mueller got around to finishing his report in 2019, the conclusion didn’t even really matter anymore: Republicans in Congress would almost surely not have removed Trump from office no matter what the special counsel found.

This basic dynamic persisted during Trump’s first impeachment scandal — you know, the one over him trying to strong-arm Ukraine’s president into investigating the Bidens — and even after his attempt to steal the 2020 election and the ensuing January 6 attack on the Capitol. Every time, the right would unite behind Trump, shield him from consequences, and ensure he’d still be present in our politics after the storm passed.

Meanwhile, the right has also become quite adept at constructing alternative narratives in which it’s really Democrats and the people investigating Trump who are the real criminals. Fox News focuses intensely on Hunter Biden’s legal travails to send the message that Democrats are the corrupt party. Less ideological voters hear both narratives and may conclude it’s really both parties who are crooked, which dilutes the impact of Trump’s criminal scandals among the general public.

We don’t know for sure how Trump’s conviction will affect the polls, but there are reasons to doubt it will sink him

But, some Democratic optimists say, this time is fundamentally different — a criminal conviction that will officially make Trump a felon and could even perhaps send him to prison. Perhaps this will be the tipping point for some voters to abandon him? They point to some polls in which a significant number of voters have said they won’t vote for Trump if he’s been convicted of a felony.

Consider me skeptical. For one, people have been predicting that this or that scandal will finally be the thing that takes Trump down — driving away enough of his support so that his political career is over — since he first entered politics in 2015. Such predictions continued during his presidency, after his loss to Joe Biden, and after his attempt to steal a second term for himself ended in violence at the US Capitol. But Trump’s dominance over the GOP base and the Republican Party in general has been unshakable.

I’m also doubtful that swing voters will be particularly affected by this. Trump has long been scandal-plagued, and voters have heard of his legal jeopardy for many years. It is not as if voters are suddenly learning for the first time that he is unethical. The trial itself focused on a matter — hush money Michael Cohen paid to keep Stormy Daniels from going public to allege a sexual encounter with Trump — that was first reported back in 2018. The specific charges are technical, focused on whether internal Trump Organization documents about repaying Cohen were falsely categorized as being for “legal services.”

But Trump tried to steal the 2020 election in plain sight. If voters are still considering voting for him even despite that, it seems unlikely that this conviction on the far less consequential business records matter would be the thing that stops them. 

As for those polls in which many voters said they’d ditch Trump if he’s convicted: Voters there are responding to hypothetical questions in a vacuum. But in the real world, these voters will also be exposed to pro-Trump messaging: his complaints that he was unfairly treated, that the prosecution was brought by a partisan Democrat in an extremely Democratic area, that the underlying offense is no big deal, etc. 

Finally, there’s another issue: It’s a two-candidate race, and many on-the-fence voters are frustrated with Joe Biden’s presidency. It’s easy to say, in theory, that no one who’s a convicted felon should be allowed to be president. In practice, there will only be two options on the ballot, so the lesser-of-two-evils reasoning will be strong. 

That means that if voters decide they really want President Biden out, they may conclude that the only realistic alternative is President Convicted Felon.

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