"A giant step toward autocracy": Trump makes his criminal conviction bad for democracy

"What impact will this trial have on democracy? A lot. All bad"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 4, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump behind bars (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump behind bars (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is now the first president – and also presumptive presidential nominee for a major political party – to be a convicted felon. Trump still faces far more serious felony charges in three other criminal cases. His sentencing hearing in New York's hush-money trial is scheduled for July. Given his open disdain for the court and utter lack of contrition, it is possible, however unlikely, that he could be sentenced to some type of home confinement or even prison.

To that point, convicted felon Donald Trump appears to be daring Judge Juan Merchan, who presided over the New York hush-money election interference trial, and other law enforcement to take action against him. During interviews and other statements since his conviction, Donald Trump and his propagandists and other agents have been threatening and inciting violence, revenge, and mayhem against their perceived “enemies”, including Judge Merchan, the prosecutors and attorney generals, the jurors, President Biden and the Democrats, and anyone else they believe is part of a “witch hunt” and attempt to persecute him.

"The fact that prominent lawyers, including many who have attended Harvard or Yale Law Schools, are attacking the fundamentals of a legal system that is operating by the book, is a giant step toward autocracy."

Of course, there is no conspiracy against Donald Trump. He was finally held responsible, in some small way, for his decades-long crime spree. If Donald Trump somehow ends up in prison, it is his own fault.

These are truly historic times here in America where long-standing assumptions and norms about the country’s political culture and values — and the future of its multiracial pluralistic democracy — are being challenged to the extreme by Trumpism, American neofascism, and a “conservative” movement and Republican Party that are openly contemptuous of real democracy. Trump’s wanton criminality reflects these much deeper challenges and problems. But in this historic moment, opportunity exists alongside great peril. The American people and their leaders can choose to put a convicted felon and aspiring dictator who admires Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin back in the White House or they can instead defeat him soundly in November, and then use that momentum to renew and improve the country’s democracy and society more broadly.

In an attempt to make better sense of Donald Trump’s historic felony conviction and its meaning and implications for this political moment, the 2024 election, the country’s democracy and what may happen next, I recently spoke to a range of experts.

Rick Wilson is a co-founder of The Lincoln Project, a former leading Republican strategist, and author of two books, "Everything Trump Touches Dies" and "Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump - and Democrats from Themselves."

That a convicted felon remains the GOP's nominee shows how the party jettisoned any semblance of principle and is nothing more than a Trump personality cult. The party's leadership response since the trial has been to attack the court and undermine the rule of law just like they've worked to create doubt in the political process. While Trump's conviction will provide some accountability for his crimes, the only way Trump and the MAGA movement will be defeated is through the ballot box.

Norm Ornstein is emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute co-author of the bestselling book "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported."

Joe Biden did not make Donald Trump a convicted felon. Democrats did not make Donald Trump a convicted felon. The Deep State did not make Donald Trump a convicted felon. Donald Trump, by cheating and lying, by falsifying business records and enlisting David Pecker, Allen Weisselberg, Michael Cohen and others to kill stories that would damage his faltering presidential campaign, committed 34 felonies. 12 ordinary New Yorkers acting as a jury, listened to weeks of testimony and followed a voluminous written trail of records, and unanimously came to the conclusion that Donald Trump was guilty.

But you would not know that if you watched Fox or listened to the likes of Susan Collins, Josh Hawley, John Yoo, Mike Lee, Speaker Mike Johnson, Jonathan Turley, and so many more. Lies and distortions, all from a script that could have been written by Trump based on his unhinged rants in front of the courthouse. It is worse than a cult simply acting as puppets. Jim Jordan, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, wants to haul in Alvin Bragg, and no doubt will not stop there. Other congressional Republicans want to bring in Judge Marshan and his daughter. John Yoo has called for Republicans to retaliate by prosecuting Democrats. Of course, that means prosecuting whether there are offenses or not.

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The threats to the judge, including Trump's ethnic slur, and the fact that prominent lawyers, including many who have attended Harvard or Yale Law Schools, are attacking the fundamentals of a legal system that is operating by the book, is a giant step toward autocracy, with potential for violence along the way. It is unfortunate that the unconscionable delays in prosecuting Trump for instigating an insurrection and pilfering our most sensitive classified secrets and criminally sharing them— while obstructing justice to stay out of prison— have left us with just this one prosecution. But this, even if it is less serious than the others— not to mention Georgia— is still a clearcut violation of New York law that arguably altered the election outcome, with devastating consequences.

Will it affect the outcome in November? It very well could. It is true that most voters have told pollsters it will not affect their votes. But that is meaningless. We know this election will be decided at the margins in 7 or 8 states. And for the swing voters, especially college-educated suburban Republicans and Independents, the fact that Trump is a convicted felon, along with his assaults on democracy and women, could easily tip their votes to Biden— and to a greater receptivity, for those not happy with either Biden or Trump, to the argument that a vote for anybody other than Biden is a vote for a convicted felon, sex offender and insurrectionist.

Dr. Jennifer Mercieca is a historian of American political rhetoric. She is a professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Texas A&M University and author of several books including "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump." 

The decision shows that Trump illegally interfered with the 2016 election, and essentially stole the presidency. This verdict is a major victory for the cause of democracy and free and fair elections. At the same time, the partisan extremes and highly engaged likely will not be persuaded by the jury's decision. They'll rationalize the outcome to be consistent with their partisan preferences.

So, what impact will this have on the election? (that's the wrong question) The right question is what impact will this trial have on democracy? A lot. All bad. Trump has used the authoritarian strategy of attacking judicial proceedings throughout this election, delegitimizing the rule of law. Trump has attacked the court daily in media appearances, his propagandists have attacked the court, the trial, the witnesses, etc. The whole strategy has been to try the case before the public as another example of corruption. That delegitimizing propaganda has been ubiquitous and reported everywhere. While Trump has attacked this case and the rule of law, he's also declared that the rule of law doesn't apply to him. In a nation ruled by laws, not men, no one is above the rule of law. Not even a president.

Autocrats "rule by law," they use the law to punish their enemies & reward their friends. Autocrats like Trump do not allow themselves to be held accountable to the rule of law. What we've seen over this case (& others) is proof positive that Trump is an autocrat, not a democrat.

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To be clear: Trump should have been tried for these crimes. What we learn from the trial is that he's guilty of the crimes he is accused of committing AND that he's an autocrat. Trump has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he's an autocrat for how he attacked the rule of law throughout the case.

D. Earl Stephens is the author of “Toxic Tales: A Caustic Collection of Donald J. Trump’s Very Important Letters."

The trial and Trump’s conviction were about the best thing to happen to (and for) America in a long time. I’m not going to go all the way to shouting “no person is above the law” because that’s patently false. Hell, we all know there are double-dealers and liars on our Supreme Court who are wreaking havoc with our Democracy, and fancy themselves untouchable, because it looks like they are.

Still, watching this 12-person jury of Trump’s peers with no dog in the fight, sit through weeks of testimony and then waste little time unanimously convicting America’s biggest loser on all 34 counts he was charged with was a real shot in the arm to the millions of us who have waited to see some consequences.

There was no gaslighting allowed in the courtroom. There was no safe harbor for the unsubstantiated waste that’s rolled out by the GOP daily in public and then spread like manure by our corporate media as something resembling normal. There were simply the facts, and when the jury heard those facts, the rest was easy. Trump was guilty as charged.

Now the Republican Party knows it is left with a complete, anti-American, uncivil lowlife who lies as he breathes and contaminates everything he touches. Trump remains their problem.

Not surprisingly they have doubled down with their support for the convicted felon because there is no place left for them to go. The anti-American mob boss and his MAGA flunkies have got them right where they want them, and generally in the lowest places possible.

I could still stand to see much more outrage about this by our media, who can make literally anything seem normal these days. A convicted felon who attacked our country and stole top-secret documents heading the ticket for one of our two major parties isn’t that. It’s repulsive.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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