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Trump’s Stunning Guilty Verdict Shatters His Aura of Invincibility

Democratic operatives sometimes say there’s no sense in talking about Trump’s trials, because his “negatives” are “baked in.” Nonsense. A guilty verdict is powerful new information. The force of this truth should inform how Democrats proceed.

One of the most bizarre things about the Donald Trump era has been the persistence of his aura of invincibility. Trump, who never reads books but somehow harbors deep knowledge of what history tells us about how autocrats succeed, cultivates this aura relentlessly. The nonstop lying about his poll strength, the absolute refusal to concede the slightest error in any situation, the endlessly hallucinogenic fabrications about his crowd sizes—all of it flows from his seemingly instinctual sense that conceding any hint of weakness must be resisted at all costs, lest it unleash forces that shatter him entirely.

The guilty verdict that a Manhattan jury handed to Trump in his hush-money trial—he was convicted on all 34 felony counts—is surely such a powerful spectacle in part because it upends that dynamic. Only hours ago, it was possible to still see Trump as a seemingly untouchable figure on the verge of defying us all again. An entire political party had lined up behind him to cast the proceedings as illegitimate. No matter how sleazy, grotesque, and damning the revelations, his grip on the GOP seemed to only grow stronger. His poll numbers refused to budge. He was violating his gag order with impunity, insulting the judge and his family, hypnotizing millions of rank-and-file Republicans into seeing him as a victim of overzealous law enforcement, and generally unfurling a big, fat middle finger at the justice system and at the rule of law itself.

He was getting away with all of it. Again.

Until he didn’t.

The force of this truth should inform how Democrats proceed now. Democratic operatives sometimes say there’s no sense in talking about Trump’s criminal trials, because his “negatives” are “baked in,” as the grating consultant-speak has it. Indeed, according to a source familiar with the situation, the Biden campaign has no plans for any paid ads on the verdict. The campaign did put out a powerful statement about the verdict, and it’s somewhat understandable that Biden himself is cautious about commenting on Trump’s legal travails, given that his own Justice Department is prosecuting Trump.

But that can’t set the tone for the whole party. Other Democratic groups and elected officials must do all they can to make sure that voters know about this conviction, and, importantly, that Republican lawmakers—who are running for reelection as we speak—lined up like little robots to savage the justice system, all to put Trump above accountability and the law.

After all, Republicans are in a terrible trap. Look what happened when Larry Hogan—who is running for Senate in deep blue Maryland—dared to say the absolute minimum of what’s responsible here, that the system should be respected:

What that really shows is how devastating it would be for Trump if more Republicans follow suit. Chris LaCivita, Trump’s campaign manager, knows perfectly well that nothing about any of this is “baked in.” In a way, the baked-in idea is just another version of the invincibility thesis. And it’s nonsense: A guilty verdict is powerful new information—the fact that one of the major party nominees is a convicted felon is an unprecedented and deeply jarring situation. We should hold institutional Democrats responsible if they don’t use it, and use it ruthlessly and effectively.

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True, the hush-money affair is less serious than Trump’s alleged crimes related to the insurrection and the theft of national security documents. But it shouldn’t be hard to make the case that an extremely serious offense lurks beneath the tabloid trash: Trump committed extensive fraud to deceive the American people about a tawdry affair and cheat his way into the most powerful position in the world, one he never should have been granted in the first place. The GOP presidential nominee is now a convicted criminal. As Dan Pfeiffer put it, Democrats should “call Trump a convicted felon at every opportunity.”

The larger story is also a powerful one. The system sought to hold Trump accountable despite a roar of second-guessing—and in the face of incredible strains inflicted on it by Trump and his GOP enablers and media propagandists, who make up an extraordinarily powerful elite cadre. The system held. That reflects positively on our country. There is time for the Biden campaign to figure out how to tell that story as well.

No question, Trump could still defy political and legal gravity in plenty of ways. Though some polls suggest Trump will pay a political price for his conviction, it’s anyone’s guess whether voters will make good on that, and a lot rides on whether Democrats succeed in driving it all home. Beyond that, Judge Aileen Cannon seems to have delayed Trump’s trial for theft of state secrets. The Supreme Court could still stall Trump’s insurrection-related trial until after the election. But I suspect that has now become somewhat less likely: Now that Trump has been branded a felon, dubiously helping Trump delay justice will become harder to justify, and will come at a greater political and institutional price.

Trump’s aura of invincibility has never been earned. He was impeached more times than any other president in U.S. history. He presided over the worst string of GOP electoral losses in many decades. He lost reelection after only a single term, which he won only after losing the popular vote. He has never once commanded majority support in this country. He had already been losing in court already—he’s been nailed for sexually assaulting E. Jean Carroll, and his company was found to have systematically lied about its worth—even though he enjoys the priciest legal representation, funded partly by donor money that he fleeced from his own party, another privilege that pretty much no other defendant has enjoyed, ever.

And now, after Trump and his elite enablers attempted mightily to wreck the whole system to keep him beyond accountability at all costs—an effort that for a time looked like it just might succeed—a jury of ordinary Americans heroically stood up and said: No.

Greg Sargent @GregTSargent is a staff writer at The New Republic and the host of the podcast The Daily Blast. A seasoned political commentator with over two decades of experience, he was a prominent columnist and blogger at The Washington Post from 2010 to 2023 and has worked at Talking Points Memo, New York magazine, and the New York Observer. Greg is also the author of the critically acclaimed book An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics.

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