The political world is abuzz once again over the prospects of Donald Trump being convicted for one of the many, many crimes he is charged with. On Tuesday, a panel of judges from the DC Court of Appeals ruled that the former president did not have immunity from prosecution and must go to trial.
The panel clearly saw through Trump’s attempt to delay proceedings and sought to penalize him for requesting an appeal from the entire Court of Appeals, forcing him instead to go straight to the Supreme Court. Observers praised the Court for its careful attempt to protect the rule of law and its refusal to accept the Trump team’s dangerous legal argumen; in The Atlantic, George Conway called it “masterful.”
When will the trial be held?
There is still no certainty as to whether or not Trump will be tried prior to the November election. The Supreme Court will likely intervene to settle the question once and for all. But they may use delays and excuses to postpone that decision until after November. In that case, the justices are making their case dependent on the results of the 2024 election, since Trump will simply pardon himself if he wins.
If the jury does deliver its verdict prior to the November election, there is widespread speculation as to what will happen next. An author in New York magazine devoted an entire article to speculating on what a Trump prison sentence would be like. As for the election itself, polls indicate that the view of Trump could dramatically shift if the former president is convicted of a crime. NBC News projects a seven-point swing from a conviction, while other polls report up to 30% of Republicans planning not to vote for Trump if he is convicted.
Other observers have poured cold water on this prediction. They have noted the previous strength of Trump’s support and his ability to withstand dozens of scandals and examples of bad behavior prior to this point. As a recent Politico column argued, “voters appear to be pricing in Trump’s legal woes already.” According to this theory, conviction would be just another scandal added to the top of the pile.
It is indeed possible that a Trump conviction will be forgotten by general election voters in November. But it is also possible that the extraordinary nature of a conviction could break through our short attention spans and crowded news environment like no other.
Would conviction matter?
Part of the disconnect between observers and voters on this question is the view of a criminal conviction among the electorate. College-educated reporters and pundits have a nuanced perspective of criminal justice and convictions. They know that the idea of criminality is to some degree a socially constructed one and that people who are convicted of crimes are not always monsters. Therefore, they do not see a conviction as markedly different from the scandals surrounding the Access Hollywood tape or the E. Jean Carroll trial.
But this view is not always shared by the general public. In an era of enormously popular true crime shows, where everything from murder to securities fraud is fodder for dozens of television shows and podcasts, the idea of “being a convicted criminal” is still enormously powerful. A 2020 article study reported that of 500 people of all ages interviewed for their thoughts about crime, “neither children nor adults reported that incarceration stems from societal-level factors such as poverty.” The force that keeps so many convicted felons from jobs and housing is one that could also keep Trump from securing a second term in the White House.
In addition to being consequential in the minds of voters, a conviction also has the possibility of keeping the issue relevant throughout election season. Many other Trump scandals have been individual incidents that are well-fitted to a single outrage cycle. Trump says or does something offensive, Democrats respond, Republicans rush to defend him, and the country gets bored and moves on to the next topic. A conviction, on the other hand, would produce months of follow-up news stories. There would be constant discussions over prison time and sentencing, as well as a clearer salience to Trump’s need to corruptly pardon himself if he wins. The issue would likely become the single defining issue of the election, crowding out a likely-healthy economy and the border issue.
Despite his protests to the contrary, Donald Trump does not want to be convicted. Even he knows his chances of winning in November are far from certain. Whatever chances did exist would likely be dashed among moderate voters who have not completely joined the Trumpian cult. Trump’s best hope is that Supreme Court justices, weary of putting the judiciary in the spotlight during an election year, will give Trump the delays he needs to push off a trial until after election time. Time will only tell if his hopes are warranted.