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Avoid hot takes on Trump’s supposed trial of the century

Case may involve unflattering details, but without TV in courtroom, it may not move voters

Former President Donald Trump, center, sits with his attorneys Todd Blanche, left, and Emil Bove before jury selection in his trial on 34 felony counts in Manhattan Criminal Court on Monday.
Former President Donald Trump, center, sits with his attorneys Todd Blanche, left, and Emil Bove before jury selection in his trial on 34 felony counts in Manhattan Criminal Court on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/Pool/Getty Images)

The unmourned death of O.J. Simpson last week provided a timely reminder that a criminal trial can galvanize a nation.

The political question hovering over the 2024 election this week is whether the first criminal trial of Donald Trump can create a daily sense of drama similar to Simpson beating the rap for murder in 1995. 

In theory, the New York City case against Trump is about as sensationalized as you can get: A former president, running to regain the White House, is on trial over hush-money payments to a porn star on the eve of a prior election. 

Fifteen years ago, this could have been the plot of a dystopian movie about the dramatic descent of American democracy. Now it is just another week in the life of Donald J. Trump. 

Even as he rides high politically, Trump is on a major losing streak within the legal system. Courts have ordered him to pay nearly $100 million for defaming journalist E. Jean Carroll and roughly $500 million to New York state for wildly exaggerating, in trademark huckster fashion, his net worth. 

But those were civil judgments. The current New York case is the only one of the four criminal indictments of Trump likely to come to trial before the election.

Had things proceeded differently, the 2020 election interference case against Trump in Georgia brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis had the best chance of providing hour-by-hour courtroom drama. Trials are televised in Georgia and it is easy to imagine millions of viewers transfixed by the historic you-are-there drama. 

But Willis jeopardized the case with a romantic entanglement with Nathan Wade, the attorney she had hired to oversee the prosecution of Trump. Wade had to resign to avoid what a Georgia court called “an appearance of impropriety” and now everything is delayed. 

The New York case seems minor compared to the charges of trying to overturn the 2020 election brought by Willis in state court and special counsel John L. “Jack” Smith in federal court. But in political terms, the New York case centering around $130,000 in payments to conceal Trump’s involvement with the X-rated movie star Stormy Daniels is the only game in town. 

Given the unseemly nature of the case, there will be unflattering courtroom revelations about Trump that have little to do with policy matters. But will they matter to swing voters without TV cameras to bring the testimony to life? 

In an earlier media environment, when there was widespread trust in journalists, TV viewers and readers of newspaper websites would not doubt any story emanating from the courtroom. 

But in 2024, if you can’t see it, will you believe it? 

Obviously, Democrats will hang on every word coming out of the courtroom, while MAGA Republicans may doubt the veracity of any story that is not highlighted on Fox News.

The trial will undoubtedly launch enough hot political takes to power all the stoves in Manhattan. But be cautious about making assumptions about how this unprecedented trial of an ex-president will play out in November.

Yes, there are things we know for certain. Every Republican member of Congress will be asked about the latest revelations in the Trump trial — and virtually all of them will claim that they are not following the case, can’t recall the name Trump and have no opinion.

In the highly likely category are Trump tantrums in the courtroom. These outbursts, combined with angry charges in press conferences outside the courtroom, will reassure Trump supporters that their hero is, indeed, the greatest martyr in two millennia. 

The late Pat Schroeder, the witty Democratic congresswoman from Denver, labeled Ronald Reagan as “the Teflon president.” 

But Trump is the one truly made of Teflon. With no sense of shame, no fidelity to the truth and a refusal to ever admit that he has been wrong, Trump has managed to go through life with nothing sticking to him from business bankruptcies to four separate criminal indictments as an ex-president.

It is easy to assume that swing voters are inured to Trump — and they have factored his high-decibel antics into their voting behavior. By this logic, anything that comes out of the New York trial will be mentally filed away under the label, “That’s Just Trump.”

But it is possible, just faintly possible, that a parade of witnesses testifying under oath about Trump’s extracurricular activities with a porn star and a tabloid culture of paying for damning stories in order to kill them will motivate some up-for-grabs voters to think to themselves, “Now, wait a second.” 

Republicans in Congress should remember that if the air ever leaks out of the Trump balloon (through declining polls or courtroom convictions), they will be repeatedly asked, “Why did you do nothing, other than grouse in private, during Trump’s reign of error?”

Maybe a criminal conviction will provide Trump with a stigma he cannot escape. Or, equally likely, maybe most swing voters will take the cynical route of believing that all prosecutions against Trump are politically motivated.

Needless to say, a “not guilty” verdict in a Manhattan courtroom would energize Trump and his supporters. Joe Biden may even pay a political price in this get-out-of-jail-free situation even though he had nothing to do with the prosecution in state court. 

The Trump trial is a sad moment for American democracy. However the case plays out, it will mean that 2024 is an election that could be partly shaped by the verdicts of 12 unnamed New Yorkers in what could turn out to be the trial of the century, even without TV cameras.  

Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for The New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is a veteran of USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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