Does Donald Trump’s Conviction in New York Make Us Banana Republicans?

Gun Rights

The United States doesn’t fully meet the definition of a banana republic—we don’t have an economy dependent on resources, like bananas. But in terms of unstable politics in which government officials misuse powers and the courts to punish foes, the U.S. resembles that term more every day. The concluded hush-money trial of former (future?) President Donald Trump is a case in point.

A Convoluted Case With Political Ramifications

“President Donald Trump was convicted yesterday of allegedly altering business records to conceal his alleged payment of money to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, in order to influence the 2016 presidential election,” Northwestern University law professor Steven Calabresi wrote June 1. “But, altering business records under New York State law is only a crime if it is done to conceal the violation of some other law. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleged that the documents were allegedly falsely altered to conceal a contribution of money in violation of federal campaign finance laws or in pursuance of winning the 2016 election by defrauding the voters of information they had a right to know. Neither argument passes First Amendment scrutiny.”

By no means do all legal experts agree with Calabresi. But as Politico noted last year, the charges hit “a wall of skepticism — including from left-leaning legal experts, liberal pundits and some of Trump’s Republican detractors.” Reason‘s Jacob Sullum considers the charges “dubious” and marred by “logically impossible claims.”

Obviously, a Manhattan jury disagreed on its way to finding Trump guilty on 34 counts. But pursuing a former president who is the leading opponent to the incumbent White House resident via what even The New York Times called a “rarely used strategy” fuels suspicions that the target was less Trump’s crimes, whatever they were, than his candidacy. Many Americans agree.

Unimpressed Americans

“A plurality of Americans, 50%, think former President Donald Trump’s guilty verdict on all 34 counts in his hush money trial was correct,” an ABC News/Ipsos poll found over the weekend. “Forty-seven percent of Americans said they think the charges against Trump in this case were politically motivated.”

What’s notable is that, post-conviction, these numbers barely budged from the 48 percent who originally approved of the charges and the 47 percent who said they were politically motivated in an ABC News/Ipsos poll last year. Public sentiment doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere from here.

“Perceptions of Donald Trump (and Joe Biden) are statistically unchanged from before the verdict was announced, suggesting minimal changes in how Americans feel about the two presidential candidates,” adds Ipsos.

That’s not surprising given the number of Americans who assumed from the beginning that the New York prosecution was motivated by partisan animus. The verdict, let’s remember, came down the same week the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held in a lawsuit against New York regulators that “the NRA plausibly alleged that respondent violated the First Amendment by coercing regulated entities to terminate their business relationships with the NRA in order to punish or suppress gun-promotion advocacy.” That clears the NRA’s case to proceed against those officials for using their power to punish political opponents.

It also comes in an environment in which even many of Donald Trump’s supporters take it as a given that he’s a crook, but don’t see that as a problem. In April, 59 percent of respondents told Pew Research pollsters that they’re “not too or not at all confident” that Trump will act ethically in office. In March, while the percentage of respondents telling New York Times/Siena College pollsters they think Trump committed “serious federal crimes” declined from last year, it still stood at 53 percent.

But whatever was prosecuted in Manhattan looks more like throwing enough charges to see what sticks than “serious federal crimes.” And Biden is underwater himself in public opinion of his ethics, beating only Trump’s rock-bottom numbers, according to Gallup.

Get Ready for Retaliation

Beyond short-term political gamesmanship, the larger risk is that we’re normalizing by-any-means-necessary lawfare by those in power to kneecap opponents. It’s a game that anybody can play, though we’ll all be losers in the end.

“In order to prevent the case against Trump from assuming a permanent place in the American political system, Republicans will have to bring charges against Democratic officers, even presidents,” University of California, Berkeley, law professor John Yoo, who served in George W. Bush’s administration, urges.

He’ll likely find a receptive audience in the form of Trump himself, who has never been shy about using government power against enemies. He encouraged his supporters’ “lock her up” chant against 2016 presidential opponent Hillary Clinton, promised last year to act as an agent of “retribution” if returned to office, and vowed in November to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”

Donald Trump is not a turn-the-other cheek kind of guy, and more than willing to weaponize the state. On this road to banana republic status, each major political faction seems eager for the journey.

“Prosecuting current or past top officials accused of illegal conduct seems like an obvious decision for a democracy – everyone should be held accountable and subject to the rule of law,” James D. Long, Morgan Wack, and Victor Menaldo of the University of Washington’s political science department cautioned in 2022. “But there are consequences to prosecutions of these officials – not just for them, but for their countries…. If the prosecution of past leaders is brought by a political rival, it can lead to a cycle of prosecutorial retaliation.”

I expect we’re going to see exactly that in the U.S. It’s a regular feature of some other countries’ political systems. Costa Rica, for example, more or less offers prosecutions as parting gifts to its former heads of state. It’s still a lovely country. And the bananas there are delicious.

An unstable political system in which laws and regulations are weaponized by the powerful against opponents isn’t the end of the world. But it delegitimizes the system, turns courtroom proceedings into an expected part of the election process, and poses serious legal dangers for dissenters.

By no means are all Americans sympathetic to the GOP. But we may all be banana republicans now.

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