Why the Manhattan Trial Is Probably Helping Trump

Throughout the Republican primary campaign (such as it was), it was perfectly clear that the multiple indictments of Donald Trump helped him consolidate support. This was a source of moral exasperation to liberals, but their bafflement coexisted with the hope that what played well with the MAGA faithful would have the opposite effect in the general election. Trump’s cries of persecution might rally conservatives in a primary, but the trials themselves would help Joe Biden cruise to re-election.

The trial that we’re actually getting, the prosecution of Trump for falsified business records related to hush money payments related to his assignation with the porn star Stormy Daniels, could theoretically still have that effect; a guilty verdict could shake loose a couple of points from Trump’s modest but consistent polling lead.

But watching the trial play out so far, it seems just as likely that as in the primaries, so now in the general election: Any political effect from being charged and tried is probably working marginally in Trump’s favor.

First, consider how this trial plays if you are not paying close attention to the legal details. Follow the coverage casually, the headlines about Daniels’s testimony especially, and it appears that Trump is on trial for cheating on his wife in a distinctly sordid way and then trying to conceal it — for being a political figure, a candidate for high office, and lying about sex.

As it happens, America spent a pretty important period of time litigating the question of whether it’s a serious offense for a lecherous politician (one whose campaign apparatus notoriously labored to prevent “bimbo eruptions”) to conceal an inappropriate sexual liaison. Indeed, we even litigated the question of whether committing brazen perjury while trying to conceal a sexual liaison is a serious offense. And the country answered this question by embracing the consensus position of American liberalism at the time and offering Bill Clinton tolerance, forgiveness, absolution.

Admittedly some politically engaged Americans are too young to directly recall the Clinton presidency. But the Lewinsky affair still casts a meaningful cultural shadow, and many of the Trump trial’s headlines cast the prosecutors in a Kenneth Starr-like part. Nothing really new is being revealed about Trump’s conduct here; the country already knows that he’s a philanderer and scoundrel. Instead the revelations are about the seeming hypocrisy of his political enemies, and how easily the former Democratic indifference to lying-about-sex gave way to prurience when it offered a path to getting Trump.

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