The starting point for Trump’s revenge

While the former president charges against the justice system over his guilty verdict in the hush-money case, the Republican Party is threatening to torpedo legislative activity. The great fortunes have closed ranks around the tycoon and donations are increasing

Former President Donald Trump
Former president Donald Trump, last Friday in New York.Julia Nikhinson (AP)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

The fact that the Encyclopedia Britannica, that traditional repository of knowledge, updated Donald Trump’s biography on Thursday in a matter of minutes to include his status as a convicted felon, indicates that, beyond the fleeting and bombastic media headlines, what happened that day in a Manhattan criminal court made history. In fact it is still the first page of a tale that begins with an abyss of unpredictable consequences for the politics, the laws and even the basic existence of the country.

It will take a whole new frame of mind to address the eventuality that a candidate convicted by a court of law (but who will probably not go to jail) can not only run in elections without undermining his own representativeness — exemplarity is another matter, but Trump has never been exactly an edifying figure —but even stands a chance of winning them. Wounded in his self-esteem by the verdict of the jury, which declared him guilty of the 34 charges against him for falsifying business records to cover up a bribe to the porn actress Stormy Daniels for electoral purposes, Trump feels free of constraints to undertake his flight forward, until he becomes strong again, if the polls are kind, inside the White House.

It does not look like he will have a difficult time, and it is not only because of his advantage over the Democratic candidate Joe Biden according to different polls, especially in some pivotal or swing states that could decide the election in November. It is also due to the closing of ranks around him of billionaires willing to finance his campaign — like everything in the United States, the result of an election depends largely on money — and the thousands of small, anonymous donors who in just a few hours contributed almost $35 million to Trump’s campaign machine after the verdict was announced. Almost 30% contributed for the first time to the main Republican fundraising site, WinRed. That Wall Street opened higher on Friday, apparently immune to the political earthquake, was another very clear sign that the Republican will have the upper hand from now until November.

If during the six weeks of the trial, by virtue of the gag order imposed by the judge to prevent him from criticizing witnesses, a tamed version of Trump was on display, albeit with reservations, since he was twice found in contempt of court, now nothing is preventing him from giving free rein to his rage and his thirst for revenge. These are not exactly arguments typical of a campaign program, but they are factors that mobilize voters in a political scenario definitively dominated, today more than ever, by emotions.

Furthermore, by portraying himself as politically persecuted, he has more freedom to complain. The fact that, in his words, the trial was ‘rigged’ also allows him to recover the term he used to denounce the alleged 2020 election fraud.

No one dares to predict how the verdict will affect the outcome of the November election, but one thing is clear: if there was any lingering doubt that Trump was the leader of all Republicans, it is no longer there. The first consequence has been the undisguised judicial interference by part of the legislature, in a new political upheaval to further inflame an already vicious campaign.

Republican Mike Johnson, Speaker of the House, urged the Supreme Court to “step in” to overturn the verdict, saying he knows some of the judges “personally” and believes they are “deeply concerned.” If it sounds like blackmail, that’s because it is. Also on Friday, the chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee, fellow Republican Jim Jordan, demanded that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who headed the case, and prosecutor Matthew Colangelo, who led the prosecution in the trial, be called in on June 13 to explain Trump’s “unprecedented political persecution.”

U.S. President Donald Trump's criminal trial
Front pages of major American newspapers, with the word "guilty" in the headline.Mike Segar (REUTERS)

Meanwhile, eight Republican senators, including Marco Rubio and JD Vance, announced that they will boycott legislative activity, opposing any non-defense spending bill and stopping any Democratic initiative, after considering, without evidence, that Trump has been the victim of a political process. The current composition of the upper house is 49 Republicans and 51 Democrats.

If institutions are used to serve the interests of an individual, there is a heightened risk of appropriation of pillars of the system such as the judiciary. This trend was clearer than ever at Trump’s appearance on Friday in New York, where what was on display was not so much the image of a citizen condemned by justice, but that of an aggrieved presidential candidate, who took refuge behind the logo of his campaign. The values that suit one’s interests are appropriated; those that do not, such as an adverse judicial decision, are delegitimized in this supermarket of values that American politics seems to have become since Trump’s term in office (2017-2021). Politics, in short, is being dragged through the mud.

“Destroy the judicial system”

The political fabric has been practically torn to shreds, some observers warn. The historian Tim Naftali, a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, warned on X that the U.S. has entered new political and legal territory as a nation. “Donald Trump will now force every GOP candidate to trash our judicial system. There will be a chorus of poison likely worse than what we heard before Jan. 6th. Should he win, he’d have a more toxic mandate than in ‘17,” Naftali posted on X on Thursday.

Friday’s speech, delivered from Trump Tower in Manhattan, was in theory Trump’s official reaction to the verdict, but in practice it was a hodgepodge of topics — from the challenges posed by China to the arrival of migrants — and Trump did not provide any proposals, not even any ideas, just the usual fearmongering: the “invasion” by foreign criminals, the United States as a “corrupt country, with corrupt elections”; the external debt; the “record levels of terrorists” entering the country, in short, the “open borders” caused by the Democratic administration. It was nothing that he has not said before, sometimes on a daily basis as he entered and left the court building during the trial. It was the vocabulary of populism.

Considering the New York trial “very unfair” — and therefore, the justice system illegitimate — is yet another notch in a rhetoric that is well-rooted in the right-wing media ecosystem. “Everyone knows what he’s talking about, because he’s been planting these lines of attack for weeks and weeks, since before this trial even began,” maintains Abby Philip’s analysis on CNN. “We have yet to see Trump pivot to a message for a broader electorate, just from a political perspective, but I suspect we won’t see him do it, because, from his point of view, what he’s doing works, he doesn’t need to change.”

An NPR public radio poll confirmed on Thursday, a few hours before the jury’s decision was announced, that 17% of registered voters would support Trump even more strongly if he were found guilty. The outcome of the trial will not influence the vote of the majority of registered voters: two-thirds of those surveyed said that a guilty verdict would not change their choice on the ballot in any way. Three-quarters said the same for a not guilty verdict. Only a small percentage of votes, especially among independents, could change direction after learning that Trump is guilty.

The day after the verdict was the starting point for Trump’s revenge, staged a few meters from the golden escalator that, like the television star he was then, he descended in 2016 to officially announce his candidacy for the presidency. His 33-minute tirade on Friday was broadcast live on the news, although some channels chose to interrupt the connection when he issued falsehoods and attacks against the judge, prosecutors and President Joe Biden. Vowing to appeal the verdict, calling his fight existential for the Constitution and for the country, he said: “I’m doing something for our Constitution. It’s very important, far beyond me,” an unequivocal rallying point for the deep patriotism of Americans. “There is now only one issue in this election: whether the American people will stand for the USA becoming a Banana Republic,” tweeted tech entrepreneur David Sacks.

Republicans are trying to channel the judicial frenzy into fundraising and their sworn commitment to oust Biden from the White House in November. The existential dimension of the verdict is on the table, in the foreground: “This won’t stop Trump. He’ll win the election if he’s not killed first. But it does mark the end of the fairest justice system in the world,” tweeted Tucker Carlson, a propagandist for the most extreme wing of republicanism.

Among the immediate moves by Republicans is the possible opening of criminal investigations against Democrats in Georgia and Florida for conspiring to interfere in the elections by impeaching Trump. Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan D.A. who led the investigation, is a well-known Democrat, hence Trump’s refrain that the judicial offensive against him is politically motivated and that the case in New York was a “rigged trial.”

Trump will be confirmed as the Republican candidate for the White House at his party’s national convention, to be held in mid-July in Milwaukee. Technically, the party could still elect someone else, but no one is willing to bet a single cent on such an eventuality because Trump’s electoral machine is unbeatable, as demonstrated by his cash register, which has not stopped accumulating money after the four indictments and the guilty verdict. The media coverage of his trials has multiplied his public exposure compared to the Biden campaign, which is much more discreet and which has not entered the fray until the very last minute of his rival’s legal problems.

The emotions inoculated in the 2016 campaign have already borne fruit. Judging by the reactions to Trump’s guilty verdict, there seems to be no way to bridle them, or at least bind them to an electoral program with standard promises. The miracle worker Trump has managed to stir up the sound and the fury: the lack of expectations of millions of people given over to the desperation of alcohol or opiates — the so-called “deaths of despair” conceptualized a decade ago by the economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case; the paradoxical class struggle of Hispanics who arrived one day as immigrants, like those in the Bronx, and now ask Trump to close the borders to new arrivals and clean the streets of foreigners. Anger always trickles top to bottom, and Trump knows it.

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