Dennis Aftergut and Donald Ayer | The "Felon" Brand Will Stick

Dennis Aftergut and Donald Ayer / Salon
Dennis Aftergut and Donald Ayer | The Former US President Donald Trump walks back to the courtroom after a break in his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on April 30, 2024. (photo: Justin Lane/Getty)

The master of branding has just branded himself a criminal

Donald Trump’s recent conviction on 34 felony counts hands the master of branding with short vignettes a very heavy dose of his own medicine.

“Convicted felon” packs a mighty punch in our society – at least equal, one would think, to Trump’s all-time winners like “Crooked Hillary,” and “fake news.” And its impact is all the more powerful, one might hope, since it is based here on real facts and not made-up nonsense.

Short memorable labels recalled or repeated can often have an impact because they are “sticky.” They break through the noise and are memorable. Such sound bites reach Americans busy with our lives, our economic survival, our children, careers and leisure time.

As Amy Walters wrote recently, much of the news received by low-attention voters “will be organic: the kind of information that is floating around in the atmosphere and that you can’t ignore. The first-time criminal conviction of a former president is one of those events.”

For a very long time, American voters have, understandably, been more than hesitant to cast their ballots for convicted criminals. Polling data indicates that such Americans include the young and the nonwhite voters who have been drifting away from President Biden. As the New York Times’ election analyst Nate Cohn has written, the pre-verdict polls “suggest that [those groups] might be especially prone to revert to their traditional [Democratic] leanings in the event of a conviction.” Indeed, a Gallup Poll taken in late January 2024 reported that 71% of Americans said they would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified candidate who was charged with a felony, and 77% gave the same response as to one with such a conviction. Even among Republicans, 65% said they would not vote for a person with a felony conviction.

It is telling that Trump and his shameless allies are working overtime to try to negate the verdict in voters’ minds with dangerous and untenable assertions. As Stuart Stevens has observed, these efforts “to spin that there is some non-MAGA pool of voters who can’t wait to vote for a convicted felon” is “transparently desperate.”

No one thinks that MAGA Republicans – Trump’s core base of support – will be much affected by the verdict, or that anything else is likely to shake their support for Donald Trump.

But whatever their exact numbers – whether they are 20% or 30% of all voters, or even more – no one also argues that Trump can win without attracting others who do not view him in the same rosy light. It is the decisions of that group of people, facing choices more complicated than unquestioning personal loyalty, that are likely to be impacted by the conviction.

The people who mainly matter are the 20% or more of voters who haven’t decided which candidate they like least, along with those who have completely tuned out politics. And in an ABC/IPSOS poll taken the day after the verdict, of the voters who say they dislike both candidates, 67% say that Trump should now withdraw.

Even more salient is the post-verdict focus group of two-time Trump voters initiated by Sarah Longwell, the former Republican political marketing expert and consultant. All nine members had twice voted for Trump; none said they would be voting for him now. Longwell reported these types of comments”

“I thought the trial was highly politicized, but in the hands of the jury, both sides had the chance to present their case,” Ryan from Colorado said. “And that’s ultimately how it should have been done.”

Michele [from Florida] agreed: “I’m tired of the nonsense, and I believed the testimony. And that is why I am happy that the jury found him guilty. And I think now that he is a convicted felon, he’s completely unfit.”

Trump’s all-purpose argument for ignoring any assertions that he is responsible for anything – that it is all a huge plot with Joe Biden at its apex – also offers no coherent basis on which to discount the impact of Trump’s “convicted felon” moniker. That is because Trump’s theory of a monster conspiracy driving everything cannot be squared with the widely known and totally transparent events of the trial of the case.

From jury selection to closing argument, the trial was a model of fairness and decorum. Trump had every imaginable opportunity to select a fair and impartial jury and to make his case as he saw fit, including to testify in his own defense. He chose not to do so. And the due process that our system of justice afforded him contrasted strikingly with Trump’s personal efforts to flaunt the court’s authority and to show his personal disrespect for the justice system.

Further, it was surely the most heavily reported non-televised trial in the country’s history, with some 140 reporters sitting in the courtroom or the overflow room live-blogging the proceedings. Fairness and Trump‘s expensive lawyers and vigorous defense were watchwords of the reporting.

Any rational person who buys Trump’s pitch that he was singled out and charged with violating an obscure statute, or that his corruption of the 2016 election was not vital to the verdict, should read this rebuttal by former Manhattan DA Karen Friedman Agnifilo.

As for MAGAworld’s attempts to undermine Trump’s guilty verdict, have you noticed how few times Trump’s acolytes have attacked the jury? You don’t hear them say the jurors just missed the boat. You don’t hear them allege the jury was corrupted.

It’s hard to argue with 12 ordinary citizens agreeing unanimously to guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on 34 counts. Jurors are everyday people who have been randomly selected, with the defendant and his lawyers fully able to remove for no stated reason 10 whom they don’t like.

None of this is offered to suggest that the indelible stain on Trump as a “convicted felon” means the election is over and Biden has won. As MSNBC editor Zesham Aleem recently wrote, there’s only one way to ensure that we don’t have a convicted criminal in the Oval Office come January: “crafting a better message, out-fundraising, out-organizing and out-mobilizing.” That’s as true today as it was before the conviction.

But Trump now has a serious blot on his name that is not going away. Being the “convicted felon” in the race is no small liability. We can all remind friends and neighbors of that, or speak out on social media, so that come November, the sensible majority of Americans keep us from having as president a man who was adjudged a criminal by a jury of his peers.

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