Lawless and disorderly: Republicans line up behind Trump after conviction

A shameful day in American history. A sham show trial. A kangaroo court. A total witch-hunt. Worthy of a banana republic.

These were the reactions from senior elected Republicans, who once claimed the mantle of the party of law and order, to the news that Donald Trump had become the first former US president convicted of a crime.

Related: Angry Trump revisits escalator where it all began – but this time as a felon

It soon became clear that one of America’s two major political parties was determined to undermine faith in the US judicial system with expressions of rage and demands for revenge, creating an alternative view of the US in which Joe Biden is a clear and present danger to US democracy.

Experts warned that by sowing distrust in institutions and the rule of law Trump, his supporters and his Republican allies were creating a political tinderbox ahead of November’s presidential election. In the coming months – especially as Trump faces sentencing in June – that sense of dread and fear of political unrest is likely to only increase dramatically.

“We’ve entered new political & legal territory as a Nation,” historian Tim Naftali wrote on the social media platform X. “Donald Trump will now force every GOP candidate to trash our judicial system. There will be a chorus of poison likely worse than what we heard before Jan. 6th. Should he win, he’d have a more toxic mandate than in ’17.”

On Thursday a jury in New York pronounced Trump guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. He will be sentenced on 11 July, four days before the Republican national convention in Milwaukee.

While Democrats hailed the verdict as proof that America’s system of checks and balances remains robust, able to hold political leaders to account, the ex-president claimed the trial was “rigged” and a “disgrace”, adding: “The real verdict is going to be November 5 by the people.”

His campaign fired off a flurry of fundraising appeals. One text message called him a “political prisoner”, even though he has not yet found out whether he will be sentenced to prison and most experts see it as highly unlikely. The campaign also began selling black “Make America Great Again” caps to reflect a “dark day in history”.

Trump campaign aides reported an immediate rush of contributions so intense that WinRed, a platform the campaign uses for fundraising, crashed.

Republicans rallied around Trump with both uniformity and ferocity, seeking to cast the justice system as biased and broken. Mike Johnson, who as speaker of the House of Representatives is the third most senior elected official in the country, called the trial a “purely political exercise, not a legal one”, and accused Joe Biden’s administration of participating in “the weaponisation of our justice system”.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said: “Absolute injustice. This erodes our justice system. Hear me clearly: you cannot silence the American people.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina implied that Trump’s conviction set a dangerous precedent of prosecuting former presidents: “Two can play this game.” Alongside a fundraising link, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida posted on X: “Don’t just get angry about this travesty, get even!”

The hyperpartisan response illuminated a very different America from the 1970s when the supreme court ruled that President Richard Nixon must hand over tapes of Oval Office conversations that ultimately led to his resignation; Nixon complied rather than complaining of a kangaroo court or seeking to undermine the system.

But in 2024 America is on a collision course between partisan politics and the rule of law. Analysts warned that the Republican backlash could tear at the social fabric in an already volatile election year.

Tara Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “That is the bigger crime here in the long term. The Republican party has now facilitated the continued onslaught against our democratic institutions.

It’s the world turned upside down and the Republican party is enabled it

Tara Setmayer

“The long-term consequences of the idea that our justice system or the rule of law is somehow corrupted because Donald Trump says so are immeasurable. We’re seeing that now where even in a court of law where the evidence is clear it’s not good enough. It’s the world turned upside down and the Republican party has enabled it.”

Just as Trump has told his supporters “I am your retribution”, so his allies in rightwing media, who have spent months conditioning their audience to distrust the court’s verdict, deployed the language of vengeance. Some argued that, if Trump regains power, he should go after Democrats, prosecutors and journalists.

Setmayer added: “If you look on social media platforms and the rightwing ecosystem, the reaction to the verdict was one of hysteria and threats against anyone who was in support of the verdict, particularly in the media. ‘Add them to the list. Buy guns and ammo. Get ready, gear up.’

“The language is mobilising and violent and that is something that we should all be concerned about. Many of us who’ve been paying attention have warned about this. This is part of Trumpism. The violence and the retribution is the point and he’s laying the foundation for his followers to rationalise a violent response.”

No presumptive party nominee has ever faced a felony conviction or the prospect of prison time, and Trump is expected to keep his legal troubles central to his campaign. He has long argued without evidence that the four indictments against him were orchestrated by Biden to try to keep him out of the White House.

In the next two months Trump is set to have his first debate with Biden, announce a running mate and formally accept his party’s nomination at the Republican national convention. On 11 July he could face penalties ranging from a fine or probation to up to four years in prison. Both he and his political allies seem sure to continue exploiting America’s political polarisation and alternate realities.

After Republicans gained narrow control of the House last year they set up a panel, chaired by the Trump loyalist Jim Jordan, to investigate “the weaponization of the federal government” and examine what they allege is the politicisation of the justice department and FBI against conservatives. Some have called for the impeachment of the attorney general, Merrick Garland.

Nicole Wallace, a former communications chief for President George W Bush, said on the MSNBC network: “I think what is important is for us not to look away from what is broken. And what is broken is that one of the two parties does not respect the rule of law, not because they didn’t like what they saw, not because they saw something different in Judge Juan Merchan than we saw, but because they don’t like the result. And that is a flashing red light for our country.”

Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, added in a phone interview: “The process of delegitimising our institutions is very far advanced and here you don’t have to speculate. All you need to do is look at the surveys of trust in institutions and just about everything is at rock bottom.

“Certainly the judiciary, for various reasons, is no exception. As the judiciary has gotten pulled into what many people see as partisan battles, trust has declined on both sides of the aisle. But the uniform Republican response to the outcome of this trial, which is likely to be sustained over many months, will have even more pernicious effects.”

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