‘Donald Trump was never a historical aberration’

Author Nick Bryant on what the presidential hopeful’s guilty verdict means for US democracy

June 05, 2024
Trump supporters on 6th January 2020. Image: Picture Architect / Alamy Stock Photo
Trump supporters on 6th January 2020. Image: Picture Architect / Alamy Stock Photo

Last week, Donald Trump became the first former US president to be convicted of a crime. A New York jury found the billionaire guilty on 34 counts of falsifying business records ahead of the 2016 elections (to cover up money paid to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star, to keep quiet about their relationship). With sentencing due on 11th July and the elections in November, I spoke to journalist Nick Bryant, whose book The Forever War: America’s Unending Conflict with Itself is out this week, about what the Republican hopeful’s conviction means for US democracy—and democracy worldwide. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What does Donald Trump’s conviction mean for his bid to be the presidential candidate for the Republicans? 

It’s fired up his base. It has brought about a lot of fundraising. It has demonstrated his total control of the Republican party. What’s remarkable about this (which perhaps is not remarkable anymore, really) is how few Republicans have come out and said anything critical. But I do think it depresses his vote. There was a Reuters poll over the weekend suggesting that one in 10 Republicans is less likely to vote for Trump because of the verdict. And this is an election which is going to be so close that a small shift of votes and a small number of states could decide the result. That’s why it’s so problematic for Trump. 

I worry about the Republican response. The 6th January attack on Capitol Hill [after the 2020 election that Joe Biden won] should have been a moment of Republican repudiation of Trump; instead it became another moment of Republican radicalisation. The attack on democracy continued even after the insurrectionists were cleared from Capitol Hill, when almost 150 Republican lawmakers went back into the chambers where they’d run for their lives and voted to overturn or challenge the 2020 election. [Last week’s guilty verdict] was another opportunity maybe for a repudiation of Trump, a convicted felon, but again, it’s had another radicalising effect: having attacked democracy, they’re now attacking the courts. 

There’s nothing in American law to stop him running now that he has a criminal record?

No. When they decided upon the Constitution, they didn’t spend an awful lot of time thinking about what disqualified a president. So legally, there’s nothing to bar him running, even though he’s a convicted felon. In some states, convicted felons can’t vote. That’s the case in Florida, where Trump is registered to vote. But Florida tends to take into account where the conviction was and the law in that state. New York [where Trump was convicted] does allow convicted felons to vote. So Florida will allow Donald Trump to vote. Legally, he’s not disqualified from running for office. And politically, he’s not disqualified either.

Critics of the trial have said that the New York case was the most politically motivated of all the legal proceedings against Trump. Is there any truth in that? 

The Republicans say [there was a] Democratic jury, in a Democratic city, with a Democratic judge with the Democratic prosecutor—that emboldens the narrative that it’s rigged and it’s a witch hunt against Trump. But it was a jury that the Trump legal team managed to get some potential jurors off. And it was a unanimous decision. We don’t know much about the jurors, but the politics for New York look quite diverse, and this was the weakest case [of all the cases against Trump]. The significance of this case is that it looks like it is going to be the only case that goes to trial before the November election.  

Can you walk us briefly through the three other legal proceedings against Trump? 

The other three charges are more serious (and frankly, the evidence is even stronger). It doesn’t look like they will go to trial before election day. The big one is about 20th January [2021], and Trump’s role in what the prosecutors say was defrauding the electorate by trying to overturn the election [Trump allegedly pressured US officials to change the results, propagated disinformation about fraud, and tried to use the 6th January insurrection to stay in power; he is facing criminal charges that include conspiracy against the rights of citizens]. There’s another case in Miami, which relates to the [classified government] documents that he allegedly mishandled. All the documents that were found piled high [at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida beach resort owned by Trump]. And then the Georgia case relates to another attempt to try and overturn the result of the 2020 election by trying to conjure up 11,000 or so votes that Trump asked the Georgia secretary of state to find for him [in order to overturn results that Joe Biden had won in the state], which is all on tape. That’s a very strong case. And that’s significant because it’s a state prosecution, which means Trump couldn’t pardon himself over that if he does win the presidency. With the federal cases, he could either pardon himself or he could tell the Justice Department—if he wins office—to drop the charges.

Can American democracy survive the test of Trump running, or even winning?

One of the reasons American democracy is so fragile right now is that it was never really meant to be strong. The founding fathers saw democracy as a closed shop. Voting rights weren’t very expansive. They were worried about mass democracy. What they did was to come up with a system that was very counter-majoritarian, which has ended up being excessively minoritarian. They came up with mechanisms like the Electoral College, so even if you win the national vote, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, you don’t necessarily win the election. You need to win the Electoral College. What this has underscored are some of the problems of the mechanisms of US democracy and how frail it is becoming. 

Democracy has really been under assault from the moment America got universal suffrage—and that was as late as 1965. A lot of people don’t realise that it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that really gave America universal suffrage, because for the first time, black people in the South were able to vote without all the mechanisms that had been designed to prevent them from doing so. The moment that legislation was enacted, an attack on democracy began again, where people tried to curb voting rights, trying to stop minorities especially from voting. In many ways, 6th January was the culmination of an attack on democracy that had been going on for decades. That was an attack on a pretty frail democracy to begin with.

You argue in your book that what’s happening now has very deep roots, that the division of American politics is a historical matter. 

Division is the default. It always has been. Victory over the British brought about independence, but it didn’t bring instant nationhood. One of the reasons George Washington reluctantly agreed to serve as president was because he was worried about the fracturing of this new land. The Constitution, in many ways, was an agreement to keep on disagreeing. And issues like slavery were put off. That was the big fault line that was bound to erupt at some stage, and it did with the Civil War [in 1861]. And after the Civil War you had a period of reconstruction, which was trying to make good on the promise of emancipation and the rights that would go with that. But that was very short-lived, and it was replaced by segregation. You really had two Americas then, a segregated America in the south and an America in the northwest, where the black population had more rights. Now, polarisation is really baked in; it is the default. We’re talking about two Americas now, and it’s not something new. To an extent, there have always been two Americas. And Trump was never a historical aberration. If you look back through American history, demagogues regularly raised their heads. A surprising number of former presidents have shown authoritarian tendencies, including some of the heroes of the American story, like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There’s a long tradition of Americans liking a strong president and punishing a weak and a frail president. That is a real concern for Biden. 

After the New York verdict, former PM Boris Johnson published a piece in the Daily Mail saying Trump is being hounded politically, and Trump thanked Johnson for his support. How worried should we be about what politicians in other countries see when they look at how Trump is able to continue his political career, despite the legal mess around him? 

America has always prided itself on being a global exemplar of democracy. What I worry about now is America is becoming a super-spreader of democratic dysfunction. Johnson’s remarks in response to the guilty verdict indicate that. In Brazil, when Jair Bolsonaro lost the election [in 2022], his supporters carried out a copycat [action to 6th January] where they tried to storm Brasilia. 

When I came to live in Australia, after living in the US for eight years, I was in a quarantine hotel in the centre of Sydney and I heard this roar from the streets down below, and it was anti-lockdown protesters. When I watched the TV later, they were carrying Trump flags. And later they paraded a gallows through the streets of Melbourne, just like they did on 6th January [in Washington]. They urinated on the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, which, again, mimics the insurrectionists of 6th January. We’re probably going to see this over the weekend with the European elections, and the [expected] gains of the populist far right. Trumpism is becoming a global phenomenon expressed in different forms.  

In the run-up to November, what should we be watching when it comes to Trump’s legal troubles?  

I really worry about sentencing on 11th July. That could be a flashpoint if Trump tries to mobilise his supporters as he did on 6th January. Other setpiece events? The television debate between Biden and Trump in June is going to be key. Will Biden be frail and weak? Or will he deliver the kind of performance he gave in the State of the Union, which was unexpectedly strong? The states I’ll be watching are the key six: Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. I think the election is going to be decided there.

Nick Bryant is the author of The Forever War: America’s Unending Conflict with Itself, published by Bloomsbury on Thursday