Why Are Democrats Holding Their Fire on Trump’s Conviction?

For Biden consultants to look out at this set of conditions and say “We just don’t know what to do” is worse than political malpractice; it’s civic idiocy

President Joe Biden, right, and Vice President Kamala Harris wave and give thumbs up during a campaign event at Girard College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 29, 2024.

(Hannah Beier / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Less than a week after Donald Trump’s conviction on criminal charges of fraudulent concealment of illegal campaign funding, the cable-driven mediasphere has reverted to form. There’s now wall-to-wall coverage of the content-challenged trial of presidential failson Hunter Biden in Delaware, interspersed with footage of the GOP House’s show-trial inquisitions of its pet supervillains Anthony Fauci and Merrick Garland. Already the Trump verdict is coming off as just more background noise that right-wing ideologues can tune out at will.

You don’t need a media decoder ring to divine why this is so. It’s the same narrative that has hobbled Democratic responses to the rolling scandals of the Trump era, harking all the way back to the e-mail server attacks on candidate Hillary Clinton: As the GOP moves as one body to browbeat the opposition with any and every blunt instrument at hand, Democrats dither and fret about theoretical electoral liabilities and institutional protocols. As Brain Beutler—who together with The New Republic’s Greg Sargent has been exhorting Democrats to go aggressively negative on the Trump conviction—has noted, the fact that Democrats immediately plunged into timorous debate mode in the wake of last week’s verdict is itself an indictment of party strategy and messaging. In what known universe would the Hillary-Fauci-and-Garland-baiting GOP spend the downtime leading up to a criminal conviction of Joe Biden wringing its hands and wondering what it should do next?

My Nation colleague Joan Walsh has laid out the unassailable case behind the urgent mandate for Democrats to ensure “felon” is the instant appositive voters assign to the twice-impeached coup plotter, serial sexual assaulter, and billion-dollar-fraudster leading the Republican ticket. The polling, which has tilted against Trump in the verdict’s aftermath, points toward that strategy, as does a commonsense understanding of how politics works. Yet Democratic strategists remain exasperatingly gun-shy and diffident. Reuters reporters Jarrett Renshaw and Stephanie Kelly interviewed more than a dozen Democratic Party insiders in key battleground states who delivered this wan, inert assessment:

They think whatever political pain Trump endures will largely happen organically due to intense media attention and without the need for them to amplify and frame the issue… . “Talk to me again in 10 days, when the headlines go away,” said one senior Democrat. “We could see some independents who can’t vote for a felon move to Biden, or we could see a surge of soft Biden supporters who feel this is overreach move to Trump. We just don’t know yet.

This feckless wait-and-see posture is predicated on savvy Democratic massaging of an American electorate that no longer exists. The Trumpified political scene is dominated by two interlocking forces: negative partisanship and asymmetric polarization. Republicans have adapted to this reality and can dictate the terms of debate within it; Democrats refuse to own up to it, and continue to play into the MAGA world’s discursive strengths as a result.

The whole idea that Democrats should take a 10-day breather in the wake of the opposition leader’s criminal conviction is dumbfounding. This is a moment when every indicator is bright red for Democrats to hammer out a compelling narrative about the Trump-led GOP’s status as a criminal conspiracy, and force the Republicans, for once, to assume a defensive posture in the face of court-sanctioned proof of their corruption. To look out at this set of conditions and say “We just don’t know yet” is worse than political malpractice; it’s civic idiocy.

It’s also a repudiation of the basic work of politics: If hypothetical future polling evidence suggests that the existing political narrative is breaking away from your message, it’s your job to change the existing narrative. It’s difficult to think of any set of circumstances that cries out more strongly for that approach than your opponent’s criminal conviction in a court of law.

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But as Beutler also notes, we’ve seen this same sickening posture of learned Democratic helplessness before—in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Then, too, a historic Republican breach of law cried out for a disciplined and aggressive Democratic effort to instantly brand the MAGA movement as a real and present threat to democratic governance. Instead, Democratic leaders gaveled Congress into recess, claiming that the mystic demands of an orderly transition of power—out of a narrowly defeated effort to overthrow the government—had to take precedence. Once they returned, Democrats adopted a Hail Mary impeachment of Trump as he was about to vacate the Oval Office, in which Mitch McConnell unsurprisingly gave his Senate caucus the green light to acquit the coup leader atop the GOP. The Republican Party line then was that the courts were the proper place to adjudicate Trump’s responsibility for leading the coup attempt—which led, in equally predictable fashion, to the MAGA war on the courts we are currently living through.

Meanwhile, as Democratic strategists dawdle, evidence of Trumpian corruptionism continues to accumulate at every turn. ProPublica reports that Trump paid off defense witnesses in his criminal cases with flagrant bribes for their testimony—an especially bad look after he’s literally been convicted for using illicit payoffs to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. HuffPost has revealed Republican federal judges used an obscure linguistic database to determine how the word “sanitation” was used in 1944 to strike down federal Covid mask mandates after attending a lavish, Koch-funded resort conference where they were instructed to do just that. And a sitting Supreme Court justice is poised to rule on two critical challenges to Trump’s pending January 6 prosecutions after he’s used both of his homes as outlets for January 6 cosplaying. Are the Democrats out in front of any of this? Well, here’s how Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse—who is actually far more aggressive than most of his colleagues on these matters—responded to the mask-mandate scandal: The federal judiciary’s administrative arm “should take a close look at tightening its rules to ensure transparency around such junkets.” Faced with metastasizing MAGA corruption, in other words, Democratic lawmakers call for more and better paperwork. Of course, that messaging could always be retooled in another 10 days, should it prove too incendiary.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).