The Ecstasy, Agony and Awkwardness of the Trump Conviction

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Darren Van Dreel, a 58-year-old electrician from Oshkosh, Wis., has followed the twists and turns of the investigations into former President Donald Trump over the years: the Mueller report, two impeachments and a flurry of criminal cases, most of which have been mired in delays.

So on Thursday evening, while he and his wife, Misty McPhee, were on a long drive from Wisconsin to the Washington, D.C., area, there was only one thing to do when the verdict came in.

“I high-fived my wife,” said a grinning Van Dreel, as he waited for a sandwich on Friday morning in the liberal Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Va. “I was just so pleasantly surprised that finally somebody’s holding him accountable.”

When a Manhattan jury found Trump guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records on Thursday, Trump’s campaign declared that the country had “fallen,” and his allies painted a picture of a nation consumed by rage. His supporters flooded corners of the internet with angry imagery (more on that below), and echoed his claims that the verdict was illegitimate.

Tell that to voters like Van Dreel, a liberal-leaning independent who deeply opposes Trump, and for whom the criminal conviction felt like Christmas in May. After years of watching the investigations into Trump come to nothing in the way of legal consequences, of being maddened by his ability to evade punishment, the guilty verdict made for a rare moment of Trump-related joy, mixed with a sprinkling of “I told you so.”

“I texted my nephew — I’m not a big drinker — and said, ‘I’m having a cocktail tonight,’” said Meg Ryan, 68, a mixed-media artist and a Democrat, as she enjoyed a breakfast of petit pain aux raisins in Del Ray. When she heard the verdict, she did a happy dance around the kitchen, she said, and poured herself a nice big gin and tonic.

But for many Democrats, the conviction is cold comfort. Trump is still expected to be the Republican nominee for president. He has been leading the polls in most swing states. And while it’s far too early to know how anything will play out, some are already worried that his conviction won’t change a thing.

“I’m much more pessimistic that it’s going to make a difference,” said McPhee. “There’s going to be an appeal. It’s going to go on forever. I just feel like the people who follow him will follow him no matter what.”

Trump himself, as well as his campaign and his Republican allies, immediately made it clear that they will try to turn his conviction into a feature, not a bug, of his candidacy. On Friday, his campaign declared that it had raised nearly $35 million — an astonishing sum — in the hours after his conviction. And as Trump claimed from Trump Tower that the trial against him had been unfair, his allies suggested that his felon status had left his base more motivated than ever.

“He’s more than just an individual,” said House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican who has allied himself closely with the former president, in a television interview on Friday. “He’s a symbol of fighting back against this government corruption, the deep state, the bureaucracy and all the rest.”

With Trump moving quickly to turn the conviction into campaign fodder, President Biden took the unexpected step of addressing the matter directly on Friday morning — though he took care to limit his remarks to a defense of the process, rather than to include a direct impugning of his opponent over the substance of the case.

“The American principle that no one is above the law was reaffirmed,” Biden said, speaking soberly from the White House and pushing back on Trump’s claims that the trial had been unfair.

“Our justice system, the justice system, should be respected, and we should never allow anyone to tear it down,” Biden said.

The Democrats who have spent years investigating Trump were less restrained than Biden, describing the guilty verdict as a vindication that barely scratched the surface of years of misdeeds.

“The president has committed so many crimes,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, a Democrat who was the chair of the House Judiciary Committee during the first impeachment of Trump in 2019. “It’s very important for the American people to know before an election that they’re dealing with a convicted felon.”

Trump was impeached that December, for allegedly pressuring Ukraine to help him dig up compromising information on Biden, and again in early 2021 for his role in whipping up a mob that had stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, but the Senate acquitted him in both cases.

“For years, people have been frustrated because they have felt that there was no way justice could ever be done in any of the Trump cases, and that now looks to be untrue,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Democrat who was the lead manager of Trump’s second impeachment and served on the House select committee to investigate Jan. 6. “I think it is a vindication of our system of justice, and we can feel good about that.”

Raskin said, however, that it’s too early for opponents of Trump to take a big victory lap.

“We’re still in the fight of our lives politically,” he said. “Ultimately, there is not going to be a resolution to the struggle over democracy and authoritarianism in a courtroom. The people are going to have to make the final statement.”

Nailah Washington, a 38-year-old emergency-room nurse and a Democrat who was reading a book in Del Ray, said she was shocked that Trump hadn’t found a way out of a conviction in New York. And while she doesn’t plan on voting for Trump, she has mostly tuned out the verdict.

“He’ll be made an example of for, like, five minutes,” she said, “and then life will move on.”

When the verdict was read on Thursday night, my colleague Ken Bensinger, who covers right-wing media, looked for reactions online. He found few signs of active threats or calls for violence — nothing like the specific and credible chatter that emerged online in the days before Jan. 6, 2021. But he did see a flood of dire, even apocalyptic memes and images. I asked him a few questions about what he is following.

Ken, when the verdict came out, you headed to X, where a lot of key right-wing media figures hang out these days, as well as Telegram and Instagram. What did you find there?

I saw a lot of people talking in vague terms about a civil war. Some people saying the civil war is coming, and this is it. Other people were saying we’ve been in a civil war, and this just proves it. I saw people putting up a line saying, “United States of America: July 4, 1776-May 30, 2024,” the implication being that somehow, this isn’t a real country anymore. I saw people talking about how there’s a need for this kind of new revolution, but all of it was in these lofty, sort of nonspecific terms.

That sounds a little bit like a text message I received from the Trump campaign, which read, in part, “Our country has FALLEN!” Do you think that people online are taking cues from Trump and his campaign, or is it the other way around?

Trump has a kind of ethos that he uses — we’ve been seeing it ever since the ‘American carnage’ inauguration speech he gave in 2017. I think a lot of people have internalized that energy and that vibe and know how to speak Trump without being Trump. And some of them are so good at understanding his aesthetic that sometimes they come up with a thing of their own that he loves, and he’ll amplify it by posting on his own social media.

What kind of memes and images did you come across last night?

There was a still from the recent film “Civil War,” showing the actor Jesse Plemons standing with his rifle, saying, “What kind of American are you?” It was a menacing meme suggesting that there are good Americans and bad Americans — and it’s probably the last kind of message the people who made that film would want to promote. I also saw dozens of people posting upside-down American flags, a symbol of distress that’s gotten more attention after The New York Times reported that Justice Samuel Alito, at one point, had one outside his house. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a Republican, posted one minutes after the verdict was announced. Soon, they were all over the right-wing internet, a symbol like a MAGA hat.

I understand you’ve been speaking with political violence researchers who track this, too. Are they concerned?

Neither of the researchers I spoke with was convinced that we are at a violent moment. The rhetoric they see online is nasty and ugly. But they believe that, at least for now, the prosecution of Jan. 6 rioters has deterred people from putting themselves at risk by engaging in political violence.



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