Trump is no outlaw, just a grubby, sad criminal

Trump wants to be Jesse James. His felony conviction exposes him as a weak fraud desperate to hide his real face

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 31, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Former US President Donald Trump looks on during Round 3 at the LIV Golf-Bedminster 2023 at the Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey on August 13, 2023. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President Donald Trump looks on during Round 3 at the LIV Golf-Bedminster 2023 at the Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey on August 13, 2023. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

I was asked a few times by people over Memorial Day weekend what I thought would happen in Donald Trump's criminal trial for fraud in Manhattan. I expressed cautious optimism that he would be convicted, pointing out that the prosecution presented an overwhelming amount of evidence while the defense acted like a bunch of clowns. Folks reacted with surprise to this prediction. They've been burned too many times, watching Trump wriggle away from consequences for a dizzying number of crimes, including his efforts to overthrow democracy. Thursday, however, a ray of hope opened up as Trump was found guilty on 34 state felony charges

Trump, with his lickspittle staff and his checkbook crimes, is closer to the corrupt Prince John than Robin Hood.

District Attorney Alvin Bragg and lead prosecutor Joshua Steinglass had two advantages over others who have tried to hold Trump accountable. First, there are no powerful Republicans swooping in to save Trump from consequences in New York. There are no corrupt Federalist judges, like Aileen Cannon or the Supreme Court Six, finding ways to delay Trump's federal trials indefinitely. No Senate Republicans to stop Trump from being rightfully convicted after his impeachment in the House of Representatives. No wealthy donors to step in and pay his civil judgments, whether for his extensive business fraud or his sexual assault of E. Jean Carroll. Second, Trump was facing a jury of his peers. I had some faith that ordinary people, when faced with inescapable evidence of Trump's criminality, would suck it up and do their civic duty. Unlike, say, all the people who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution but decided to protect the leader of the GOP instead. 

There was one other reason I felt a thrum of hope, one I feared to say out loud even to my friends outside of the world of politics: It sure seemed like Trump and his people expected he'd get convicted.

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As the trial progressed, Trump escalated far beyond his tired litany of claims that everything was "rigged" against him, though he kept that pattern up. He's been experimenting by trying to cast himself as a rakish outlaw. He wants voters to imagine his crimes are about standing up to a corrupt system. In reality, he is corruption embodied; a man who has never acted on anything but self-interest and who only evades justice by paying people off, usually in promised (if infrequently actualized) political favors. 

"Trump Leans Into an Outlaw Image as His Criminal Trial Concludes," read a New York Times headline on Tuesday. In it, reporters Maggie Haberman and Jonah Bromwich outlined how Trump was laying the groundwork, pre-verdict, to spin a guilty verdict into what he hopes is an electoral asset. He's "surrounding himself with accused criminals and convicts," they reported, even bringing the notorious Hell's Angel gangster, Chuck Zito, to trial with him. They note that Trump now valorizes "those prosecuted for storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021," and that he has sold merchandise featuring his mug shot after his Georgia arrest for his coup efforts in that state. Trump's tendency to celebrate his own criminality is so extensive that Haberman and Bromwich overlook some important examples, like how Trump repeatedly compares himself to murderous gangster Al Capone or waxes poetic about how much he adores fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter

No doubt there's a long history of Americans romanticizing criminals, going back at least to Jesse James or Billy the Kid, who became icons of the Wild West. In the early 20th century, bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde often became folk heroes. While Mafia movies like "Goodfellas" or "Scarface" usually conclude with the downfall of their criminal anti-heroes, all too often fans focus only on the early parts of the movies, when the bad guys are riding high, before the law and their own demons catch up with them. Most recently, we witnessed how all too many people thought Walter White was the hero of "Breaking Bad," instead of a character study condemning the darkness that lurks inside many otherwise "upstanding" citizens. 

But even by those standards, there's good reason to hope Trump's attempt to cast himself as a charming rogue will fall flat. For one thing, his images from the court are of a tired, elderly man with bad hair and makeup. This is not Warren Beatty sexily robbing a bank as Clyde Barrow or a 2003-era Johnny Depp winking at the camera as pirate Jack Sparrow. But more importantly, Trump's crimes aren't a daring good time. They're just the pathetic scramblings of a loser trying to avoid being exposed as the fraud he is. 

The details of the crimes that led to his 34 felony convictions are not flattering. First, there was the sex itself that led to the tawdry cover-up attempt. The story told by adult film actress Stormy Daniels was not of being seduced by an irresistible bad boy. Instead, she described a charmless bore who extracted sex by being "bigger and blocking the way" and making false promises that he could get her on TV. 

Then there was the coverup itself. The main theme of the testimony was Donald the Coward, who hides behind a series of "fixers" so he never has to deal directly with the fallout from his poor choices. The stereotypical romantic outlaw is a man who dives headlong into danger. Such criminal heroes take on dopey authority figures that are fun for audiences to root against, whether it's sanctimonious cops, rich bankers, or fancy nobles whose wealth needs a little forcible redistribution. Trump, with his lickspittle staff and his checkbook crimes, is closer to the corrupt Prince John than Robin Hood. His crimes aren't exciting strikes against "The Man." He is "The Man," preying on vulnerable people, like the 27-year-old Daniels or the financially desperate people he defrauded through Trump University or even some of the lost souls he snookered into storming the Capitol on Jan. 6. The regular folks on the New York streets weren't cheering Trump, but the brave jurors who stood against him. It felt like the end of "Ghostbusters," when New Yorkers applauded our little guy heroes who saved the city from a demonic apocalypse.

After being found guilty on all 34 counts, Trump did what he does best, which is whine at length at the cameras. (Not very dashing!) It was the same tirade we're used to hearing from him ad nauseum: He's perfect and never does anything wrong — it's everyone else who is the real criminal. And as usual, he went heavy into the racist lies while trying to invoke who the "real" criminals are: "Millions and millions of people pouring into our country right now from prisons and from mental institutions, terrorists, and they're taking over our country." Every word was untrue, from the numbers (which fall far short of "millions" by a couple of zeroes) to his characterization of refugees, who are families trying to escape criminal gangs, not members of them. 

What is especially typical of this rant wasn't just the racism, but Trump's famous psychological projection. His description of immigrants would be better applied to himself: mentally unwell "terrorists" who are "taking over our country." Migrants are not the people who sent a violent mob to the Capitol to overthrow an election and install a dictatorship. Trump did that. There's nothing glamorous or fun about Trump or his crimes. They're just the shabby dealings of an overprivileged fat cat trying to hang onto power he never deserved in the first place. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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