David Bell – America’s Post-Conviction Politics

2 June 2024

If any proof were still needed of the utter weirdness of American politics in 2024, it is this: A political candidate bribes a porn star to keep quiet about their adulterous affair, then falsifies business records to conceal the transaction. The offense earns him a criminal conviction. A normal political party would disavow this politician as quickly and as loudly as possible. A normal electorate would not come within a light year of returning him to office. But Donald Trump remains the undisputed leader and hero of the Republican party. And he still has a strong chance of winning the 2024 election.

It is still too early to determine the electoral fallout from Trump’s conviction. Most immediately, it has stoked the genuine outrage of the MAGA faithful and the mostly feigned outrage of Republican officeholders, who have uniformly denounced Trump’s conviction by a jury of his peers as a sinister plot against America. Travelers in many parts of the United States will see flags flying upside down this week: a distress signal that the MAGA have adopted to show their rejection of the verdict, and, more broadly, of Biden’s democratically-elected government. Some polls predict that the conviction will turn at least a few voters against Trump while others say the reverse.  Committed partisans made up their minds long ago, of course, but voters just turning their attention now to the presidential election (there must be some, somewhere) might possibly think twice before voting for a convicted felon. On the other hand, if world-shaking events continue to occur at the pace of the last two years, and if Trump continues to say new outrageous things every day, by November the conviction may seem like a distant memory to most Americans.

As has been the case throughout the past decade, Trump hopes to survive and even profit from this latest scandalous development thanks to his one, great, uncanny skill. What Picasso was to art, Donald Trump is to utter shamelessness. He never admits wrong, never takes responsibility, never expresses the slightest doubt, never even tries to tell the truth, and flings every criticism and attack straight back at his opponent (thus he calls Hillary Clinton a “puppet,” Biden a “dictator,” and American under Biden a “fascist state”). “Fake news” may have originally been a phrase lobbed by Democrats against Trump in 2016, but Trump made it his own far more effectively. Everything he does and says is “perfect” and “wonderful.” Everything his opponents do and say is “nasty,” “corrupt,” “a disgrace.” These antics have all the grace and sophistication of a nursery school food fight—but they work.

They work in the first place because Trump’s gleeful transgression of political norms so delights that large segment of the population which feels intense resentment towards educated elites. These men and women, largely white, largely without college degrees, feel the elites have condescended to them, hurt their livelihoods, and embraced dangerous, ridiculous and offensive policies (“open borders,” trans rights, “critical race theory”…). They don’t necessarily believe everything Trump says, but they adore him for his pugnacity and rudeness (“telling it like it is”). And the massive MAGA propaganda network that extends across television, radio, print media and especially social media artfully keeps their resentment and outrage at a fever pitch, thereby transforming them into what must now be reckoned one of the most powerful political movements in recent American history.

Thanks to this movement, Republican officeholders and commentators (many themselves belonging to the educated elites), have no choice but to repeat the party line with all the fervor and fake sincerity of Stalinist apparatchiks circa 1937. I doubt many prominent conservative politicians or broadcasters honestly believe that Trump has been a faithful husband and an honest businessman. They know he slept with Stormy Daniels and deliberately falsified his business records. For that matter, they know he lost the 2020 election, that he conspired to overturn that election, and that he was criminally careless with top-secret national defense documents. But they also know that saying any of this out loud will end their careers. Perhaps they have fooled themselves into thinking that only Trump can save America from the evil Democrats, so they need to support him, warts and all. Perhaps they are just cynical. Whatever the case, he is their idol, their Kim Jong-Un. Those aspiring to serve as his Vice-President even try to out-Trump him. “Our current President is a demented man propped up by wicked & deranged people willing to destroy our country to remain in power,” tweeted Senator Marco Rubio, who eight years ago was denouncing Trump as a cowardly, pants-wetting “con artist.”

My own sense is that if Trump’s conviction is going to influence the election, it will be more because of its effect on Trump himself than because of its effect on the small remaining handfuls of undecided voters. Rubio was not wrong when he called Trump a coward. The former president also has an extremely thin skin—he quite possibly decided to run for President only after Barack Obama, in response to his “birtherism,” humiliatingly roasted the then-businessman at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. By most reporters’ accounts, the verdict announced on Thursday left Trump shaken. His speech the next day was even more confused and incoherent than usual.  It also could not have pleased him that his wife, the betrayed Melania, remained entirely absent during the trial, and has as yet made no statement in his support. Much as Trump loves to project an image of strength, he is an obese, choleric, 77-year-old man trying to deal with multiple criminal indictments and massive civil judgments against him in the midst of a political campaign that is by its nature punishing and intense. Will he be able to stand the strain? President Biden, four years Trump’s senior, looks far more frail and of course has been endlessly lampooned as senile, senescent, demented, feeble, doddery, infirm. Trump routinely repeats the libel that Biden needed cocaine to deliver his fiery State of the Union speech in March. But despite the unsteadiness one might expect in an 81-year-old, Biden is much thinner and fitter than Trump, and the pressures on him are political, not personal—he is in no danger of criminal prosecution; impeachment efforts against him have fizzled. If I had to place money on which of these two old men might break down spectacularly before the election, I would choose Trump.

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