Another Rubicon has been crossed: a former president, the presumptive presidential nominee for a major political party, has been convicted of a felony. A Manhattan jury has found Donald Trump guilty on 34 felony counts. 

When it was announced in April 2023, Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s indictment was considered legally novel. Analysis at the left-leaning site Vox even termed it “dubious.” Unlike some of the other indictments of Trump—for his efforts to challenge the 2020 election or allegations about his handling of classified documents after leaving office—this action turned on legal issues from many years earlier. They concerned bookkeeping arrangements for alleged “hush money” payments to Stormy Daniels, the porn-film actress who claims a sexual liaison with Trump in 2006.

It’s unclear what the short-term political effects of Trump’s conviction will be. In the 2024 Republican primaries, Trump’s indictments proved rocket-fuel for his campaign. Shortly after Bragg announced his charges last year, Trump rose to an unchallenged lead with GOP voters. But many Democrats hope (and some Republicans fear) that convictions will hurt Trump in the general election. 

Polls so far show Trump with a narrow advantage over Biden. The cloud of legal scandal has not yet proved decisive for a majority of voters. The past few weeks have modeled a striking contrast: even as blow-by-blow coverage of the Manhattan trial has filled the national press, polls remained relatively stable. Most voters seem to have tuned out the trial. For many, the recognition that Trump has done unsavory things in his personal life may be priced in.

A new Marist poll of registered voters (taken before the verdict was announced) found that only 17 percent of respondents would be less likely to vote for Trump if he were convicted in the “hush money” case; 15 percent said they would be more inclined to vote for him. A supermajority said that a conviction would not affect their votes.

The trial exemplifies the larger dynamic of political escalation that has marked the Trump era. Many Trump opponents allege that the former president represents an existential threat to American democratic norms. This threat, they say, in turn justifies the overturning of longstanding political and legal norms. Trump’s presidency faced a blizzard of innuendo and covert opposition from the federal bureaucracy. His most prominent foes denounced him and anathematized his supporters, tossing them into a “basket of deplorables.” His election in 2016 mainstreamed numerous anti-Trump conspiracy theories (such as the charge that the election was “hacked”) that still echo through the body politic. The unprecedented campaign of legal warfare against Trump and some of his aides risks consuming the federal government more broadly. One sign of the fevered political climate: in the New York Times, Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin, a noted Trump critic, called for the Biden administration to start deciding which cases specific Supreme Court justices can and cannot hear.

Congressman Raskin’s essay highlights how the crusade to “break norms in order to save them” lacks a limiting principle. And such radical politics of opposition may, if anything, have strengthened Trump’s position. Trump’s “American carnage” vision for politics assumes a kind of existential struggle. By invoking an existential emergency, Trump’s enemies sign on to the fundamental premises of his own political brand.

Shortly after the verdict was announced, some of Trump’s past Republican opponents took to social media to denounce the result. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who challenged Trump in the primary, attacked the prosecution’s case, calling the trial “a testament to the political debasement of the justice system in places like New York City.” The main Republican donation platform, WinRed, crashed within an hour of the verdict.

Even now, the gyre may not be done widening. The all-out-legal crusade against Trump could lead to a backlash in which Republicans launch their own legal broadsides against their Democratic opponents. In a much-shared piece in National Review, former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo made precisely this case, arguing that Republican retaliation would be needed to dial back lawfare.

In an escalatory spiral, urgency is usually a conspirator against good sense: because the stakes are so high, just this time we should act heedlessly, without paying attention to the consequences. The whirlwind awaits.

Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next