An image of a broken gavel with a bandaid across it to convey it being healed.

State of Disunion

The Real Message in Donald Trump’s Conviction

The conviction of the leading GOP presidential candidate is a victory for the rule of the law in a country whose democracy is steadily unraveling. Now it's time for Dems to trumpet that message through Election Day.

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Weeks of testimony and evidence, long hours of deliberation, 12 ordinary jurors, 34 felony counts, and one defendant guilty of them all: These were the key elements in the conviction of Donald Trump. Against all odds and expectations, Trump had been put on trial for nearly three dozen charges that he falsified business records to hide an illegal influence campaign designed to preserve his 2016 candidacy for President of the United States, and against all odds and expectations, he was found legally culpable for all of it. To Republicans, the trial and verdict represent the most egregious miscarriage of justice in our history. To Democrats, it’s a subdued victory for the rule of law and a dangerously muddled message for the party. And for the invested voter, it’s the best sign our democracy has had in years.

From the moment Donald Trump entered the political mainstream in 2015, the Republican Party has normalized the abnormality of his extremism. Between their political goals and Trump’s authoritarian impulses, the GOP has convinced us to accept racist impositions on religious minorities, the abandonment of asylum protocols under international law, widespread and open bribery of federal officials, foreign interference in policy and elections, and an attempt to violently overthrow the elected government to install Trump as dictator—so it’s no surprise that they have tried to spin the trial and its outcome the same way. This distortion field has been so consistent and so effective that even many liberal and non-aligned voters believed before the verdict that Trump would again elude justice for the myriad crimes that he’s committed. Under the influence of the Republican Party, anyone who still had faith in a fair system was making a sucker’s bet.

Yet far from the travesty of process that Republicans describe, we watched a scrupulously fair trial unfold with (undue) deference to the defendant, restraint and equanimity from the judge, and an aggressive but direct argument from the prosecution. In return, Trump, his lawyers, and Republicans writ large struggled to offer any sincere or straightforward defense. Trump whined incessantly about the stifling limitations of the gag order, but failed to take the stand in his own defense in the courtroom. Republican resistance to the trial was based not on Trump’s innocence—an outrageous premise—but on the idea that any prosecution of Trump is self-evidently illegitimate. According to the GOP, fairness isn’t about determining responsibility or guilt, but giving Donald Trump what he wants.

As absurd as that argument is—that the only legitimate system serves the desires of Donald Trump—it has nonetheless been accepted across courts where the Republican faction holds sway. The willingness of GOP judges to act out the political whims of the party leader is the major reason that this New York trial was the only one to manage its full procedure before the November election. Every other spate of charges have run into delays and hurdles, leaving this hush money conviction as the thin reed that judicial trust rests upon. Despite all of the conservative clamor about “politically motivated prosecutions,” it’s the lack of politically motivated interference that had Trump placed before the judgment of a jury. And if that group of 12 citizens had split on the charges or rejected them outright, the system would be virtuous to Republicans not for the fair deliberation of the jurors or the strength of the defense’s case, but for the politically advantageous result.

In the absence of another narrative, the GOP delegitimization campaign against the judiciary and the rule of law has sown wariness among Democrats and confusion among the citizenry. The constant screeching about weaponized prosecution and hollow charges have made the political opposition nervous about seizing the topic as an issue, fearful that it will either validate the attacks or incite a backlash among voters who have already been convinced. Meanwhile, as many people have been out of contact with the campaign and this trial in particular, most voters are still confused about the case and the importance of the charges. The headlines have grabbed their attention, not their understanding.

The good news for democracy amid these dire circumstances is that the unambiguous conviction of Donald Trump solves every problem: For all the values, principles and rules that voters have forgotten, Democrats now have the perfect opportunity to remind them.

Rather than shy away from the conviction—as so many pundits have warned—this is the moment for Democrats to embrace it. With 12 unanimous jurors on such a massive number of counts, there is no confusion or complication around Donald Trump’s guilt; it is a fact. For the intricacies of the charges and the nature of the transgression, there is the simple explanation of “a cover up that is also a crime.” And to express to any disinterested or diffident voter why this matters, it is enough to say that as a man convicted of faking business accounts, lying to banks and investors, and interfering with elections, Donald Trump is a criminal who can’t be trusted, and trust is the only way our government can work.

Because underneath the obvious political gift of an opponent lining themselves up for jail time less than six months out from an election, there is the loss of first principles that allows someone with Trump’s track record to remain an eligible candidate despite being fitted for an ankle monitor. With all of the rhetoric and distraction, Republicans have convinced a wide swathe of our polity that elections are coronations instead of job interviews. Donald Trump isn’t being fitted for a crown; he is asking for an office of public responsibility. We aren’t voting for a king; we are selecting a servant of the people. Twelve regular citizens reviewed the evidence and came to only one conclusion: Donald Trump serves only himself. Surely, if provided with the same context and argument, 200 million voters can recognize the same thing.

Affirming the role of jurors, the fairness of the system, the rights inherent in a trial, the undeniable verdict of the jury is an affirmation of democracy in practice. This conviction is truly what democracy looks like in a time when so many of our institutions are cratering in trust. This trial was a question in every phase: whether these charges were the correct ones; if enough unbiased people existed in Manhattan for a jury; was there the evidence to prove the case; would it be convincing enough to sway the layperson; when and how would Trump disrupt the efforts, and would any of it be enough? None of these could be swayed or resolved by the interference of Democratic officeholders, nor did any of them try. Instead, Democrats and their voters waited for the process to provide an answer—even if it didn’t provide the one desired. And when it supplied the best possible result, most of us were unprepared for how decisive and unequivocal it was. Despite everything, the system—the rule of people, not sovereigns—succeeded.

In the months of arguments and debate about adopting the Constitution, as states weighed the value of joining together under a new and more powerful federal government, the limits of the presidency were lauded far and wide by a multitude of speakers. Unlike a king, citizens were told, a president could be impeached, convicted, removed from office, and then tried for the offense in civilian courts, possibly losing his freedom, his property, or even his life. Since 2021, we have heard “former president” being lobbed up as a shield for the misdeeds and corruption of Donald Trump. But “former president” is a sneaky way of avoiding the words “private citizen.” Donald Trump wasn’t president when he committed these crimes; he isn’t president now, and if we take this conviction seriously, if Democrats demonstrate why this can and must be the last line he crosses, he won’t be president ever again.

That’s democracy in action.

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