Will Donald Trump’s Felony Conviction Decide the Election?

On May 30, 2024, former President Donald Trump was found guilty of 34 felony charges related to falsifying business records to cover up a payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 election. As we head into the 2024 election, this makes Trump the first convicted criminal to run for president in the history of the United States.

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As with so many other issues in a divided America, reactions from either side of the political fence have been polar opposites.

Across the country, liberals cheered the verdict and expressed a renewed sense of faith in an American justice system that ruled that “no man is above the law.” On social media, they reminded us that Trump himself claimed that Hilary Clinton “had no right to be running” in the 2016 Presidential election under the possible threat of felony indictment over her infamous emails and that “lock her up” was a recurrent rallying cry on his campaign trail.

Conservatives quickly circled their wagons, with talking points about the verdict being “unjust” or a “witch-hunt” or that “the real verdict” would come in November during the next election. Fox News coverage included one supporter expressing disgust over the New York trial’s outcome and opining that “they’re not treating him like a President, an American, a father, [or] a husband…”

To many liberals, it might seem unfathomable that Trump being a father and husband would ever be rationally invoked in defense of his conviction for using campaign money to cover up a sexual encounter with a pornographic film actress. But such lack of understanding is nothing new—liberals have been shaking their heads in a struggle to comprehend the dedication of Trump supporters ever since his unexpected defeat of Clinton in 2016.

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Some liberals have fallen back on the claim that Trump supporters must be the hapless, brainwashed victims of a “cult.” Yet that framing is a pejorative oversimplification that maligns at the expense of understanding the psychology of their devotion.

In this post, I’ll take a look at recent poll findings and psychological research to explain people’s devotion to Trump and why it is unlikely to waver in the wake of his conviction.

Source: John H. Gámez / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0

The Role of Trust

One reason is that supporters believe there’s almost no one else they can trust more than Trump to tell the truth—that is, to tell it like it is. A 2023 CBS/YouGov poll found that among likely Republican primary voters, 58% trusted their friends and family for accurate information, followed by Trump (53%), conservative media figures (50%), and religious leaders (44%) with President Biden trailing far behind at the end of the pack (10%).1,2 Among Trump supporters, a whopping 73% believed that Trump tells the truth, well ahead of family and friends (63%), conservative media commentators (56%), and religious leaders (42%).

That some supporters rate Trump as more trustworthy than family or clergy is striking in light of his strong support by Christian evangelicals. But such numbers echo a recent Associated Press article that reported Trump supporters as feeling that he “shared their Christian faith and values” and concluding that “we all come from sinning… it’s not where Trump came from, it’s about where he’s going and where he’s trying to take us.”3 One supporter summed it up by saying, “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.”

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Such framing helps to understand why, beyond truth-telling, the “sin” of a felony conviction could be so easily forgiven. That some Trump supporters would even place him side-by-side with Jesus—something that Trump himself has done on several occasions4—is further explained by a recent study by University of Massachusetts Lowell sociologist Fanhao Nie who found that support for Trump was strongly correlated with belief in demons and evil spirits, whereas support for Biden was inversely correlated.5 In his paper, Nie noted:

“Aligning with [the] political and social climate of ingroup versus outgroup rivalries is the spiritual warfare perspective. According to the spiritual warfare perspective, the world is dichotomized into good and evil. The good and evil share a very tenuous relationship, with the evil lurking behind the good and always trying to attack the good, causing immense harm and damage… For deity-based religions, it is imperative to have a good “god” along with an evil one in order to maintain the viability of the religions among the followers.”

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A Battle Between Good and Evil

This “spiritual warfare perspective” suggests that for some, support for Trump boils down to a simple Manichean dichotomy of good and evil. For those sympathetic to this perspective, Trump represents a Messianic crusader, pushing back against the amoral tide of abortion, LGBTQ rights, unbridled immigration, lawlessness, and “wokeism.” As such, Trump’s perceived persecution by the Left allows him to be viewed as a martyr who’s above the law and beyond reproach. Whatever moral shortcomings he might have can therefore be easily swept under the rug of “the ends justifying the means.”

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Source: Evgenia Makarova / Printerval

If that kind of “fire and brimstone” framing seems over the top, it’s not one that’s limited to Trump supporters. More than a few Trump-rejecting commentators—Christian pastors among them—regard him as a false idol and have gone so far as to suggest he’s the antichrist.5-9 The related claim that supporters are little more than cult following automatons is no less extreme and misses the point.

As I explained in previous posts, a better understanding of Trump’s unwavering appeal right now is that when values, morals, and cultural identities feel threatened, it often paves the way to usher in authoritarianism and a “strongman” who’s willing to bend or break the rules, and to throw decorum and political correctness out the window. in order to defeat ideological opposites.

Days after Trump’s conviction, a YouGov poll reported that just shy of half of respondents approved of the jury’s verdict in his felony case with a predictable partisan split. While 84% of Democrats approved (and 41% of Independents), only 15% of Republicans did. Conversely, 71% of Republicans disapproved, with only 4% of Democrats (and 31% of Independents) disapproving.10 What such numbers portend remains to be seen.

While it should come as no surprise that believers in Trump are unlikely to be deterred, it’s possible that the 15% of Republicans and the 41% of Independents who approved, or the 21% of all respondents who were “not sure” might just decide the election come November.

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