Are Americans so depraved they’ll put a convicted felon in power?

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Before we ponder the big unanswerable question – is this country so sick that it’ll put a convicted felon in the White House? – we should expel a brief sigh of satisfaction.

What we witnessed Thursday afternoon was an historic triumph for the rule of law. Twelve everyday citizens did what the gutless Senate Republicans twice refused to do. And, if I may wax patriotic for a moment, I’ll simply note the verdict in the New York trial could never have happened in any of the autocratic nations – Russia, Hungary, Turkey – that the convicted felon reveres.

Thomas Jefferson said it best in 1788: “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

If Judge Juan Merchan doesn’t sentence the felon to jail, I’d suggest community service – like cleaning the latrines at the Port Authority bus depot. That’s the minimal punishment one should mete out to someone who committed crimes to steal a presidential election.

What we don’t know, however, is whether his criminal status will repel a sufficient share of voters and consign him to permanent exile. Serious question: Is convicted felon a fatal stigma in contemporary politics? I can’t believe I even need to ask that – I’m old enough to remember when the “law and order” Republican party would never nominate a criminal. But, hey, anything is possible in this benighted nation, given how he and his MAGA puppets have so thoroughly debased American civic life and warred against fact-based truth.

Some smart observers insist he’s toast. Richard Painter, who served as the ethics lawyer in George W. Bush’s administration, says with confidence: “Americans will not elect a convicted felon to the White House.” Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who followed the election-interference trial closely, says “there is a segment of the Trump-doubting but not Trump-hating public that will be turned off by the notion of electing a felon to be president of the United States.”

If the polls are right (big caveat), the felon may indeed have a problem. According to an ABC News survey earlier this month, 20 percent of the felon’s supporters said that, if he were convicted by a jury, they’d either reconsider their fealty or dump him forthwith. An NPR-Marist poll released this week said 17 percent of all voters would be less likely to cast a MAGA ballot if duh leader was a felon. Those numbers, if true, are hefty enough to swing a close election.

But they may also be ephemeral. There’s plenty of time left on the clock for wavering MAGAts to convince themselves that even though he’s a criminal, he’s their criminal – as the relentless MAGA propaganda machine will remind them 24/7. The felon’s puppets on Capitol Hill (Marco Rubio, Susan Collins, J.D. Vance, Tim Scott, Mike Johnson, et al, ad nauseam) are already busy with their anti-American nonsense, hailing the felon as a martyr and tearing down our judicial system. That vile messaging could sway lots of impressionable naifs, especially the low-information types who barely know there was a criminal trial.

That messaging will win unless it’s relentlessly counter-programmed. The Biden campaign and the Democratic party have been handed a golden opportunity, if they’re not too characteristically timid to seize it. Just imagine if Hillary or Obama or Biden had been criminally convicted of 34 charges in the midst of a presidential campaign. Republicans would be pounding away at that every waking moment until election day. The Dems should do no less. This is a street fight for the future of democracy, and Marquess of Queensberry rules will not suffice.

Every Republican candidate up and down the ballot should be confronted daily: “How can you support a convicted felon?” Granted, this isn’t the only issue this year, but it can be tied to all the others. For instance: “The felon committed crimes to steal the 2016 election, then he put three people on the Supreme Court who made it possible to steal women’s bodily autonomy.” For instance: “Joe Biden is rebuilding and repairing our roads and bridges and railways, while the felon who stole the 2016 election wasted four years getting nothing done.” For instance: “Joe Biden has put billions into fighting the horrific effects of climate change, which the felon has dismissed as a ‘hoax.’”

Bottom line: The presence of a convicted criminal on the ballot for president of the United States is itself a malignant affront to everything this country purports to stand for. This historic (and perhaps final) free election will be the ultimate stress test. It will tell us whether we the people are still as decent as we’d like to believe, or as fatally depraved as we may fear.

Copyright 2024 Dick Polman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at [email protected]

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review website as one of the nation's top political scribes, and by ABC News' online political tip sheet as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation, " Dick Polman is the national political columnist at Philadlephia NPR affiliate WHYY, and has covered or chronicled every presidential campaign since 1988.

A Philadelphia resident, Dick roamed the country for most of his 22 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been blogging daily since 2006. He's currently on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "Writer in Residence." He has been a frequent guest on C-SPAN, CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, and various NPR shows - most notably Philadelphia's "Radio Times" on WHYY-FM.