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Ad nauseam

It’s Up to You, Democrats: Make Donald Trump’s Conviction Matter

In a new poll, 10 percent of Republicans said Trump’s conviction made them less likely to vote for him. But Democrats have to make sure these voters don’t forget about it come November.

Trump departs the courtroom after being found guilty
Justin Lane/Pool/Getty Images
Trump departs the courtroom after being found guilty on all 34 counts in his hush-money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30

If there is such a thing as one infamous quote that defines an era, then during the George W. Bush presidency it was an on-background remark made by a Bush aide to the journalist Ron Suskind in 2002 that appeared two years later in The New York Times Magazine. A “senior adviser” who was unhappy about an earlier article by Suskind had called him on the carpet and then went on to explain the broader world view that Suskind failed to comprehend:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

The passage was instantly incendiary (everyone thinks it was Karl Rove; Rove has never confirmed this, and Suskind has never revealed his source). The arrogance of it, at a time when the Iraq War was hardly going to plan, was staggering. Some Democrats took the jibe as a badge of honor and began sporting “Reality-Based Community” buttons.

Republicans have a long track record of disastrous results. The Iraq War, which we were told in early 2003 would take a couple months, lasted years, killed hundreds of thousands, and cost trillions (and by the way, Iraq is still not close to being a free country). Bush also would go on to let a major American city drown (New Orleans) and nearly destroy the global economic order.

But we have to say this: None of that ever dims their confidence that they can create their own reality. And today, by which I mean right now, this week, Democrats can and must learn a thing or two from Republicans.

While Donald Trump was on trial, the conventional wisdom was that the outcome would have no effect on the election. The only people who disagreed were some conservatives—because they were sure it would actually help him.

But now we have a couple polls telling us something different. The conviction has the potential to hurt Trump. But emphasis on “potential.” It depends entirely on what the Democrats do with it. So this is the key question: Are the Democrats capable of creating their own reality? Do they have the imagination and courage to do it?

First, the polls. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after Trump’s conviction, 10 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of independents said the conviction made them less likely to vote for Trump. To be sure, majorities of both said it would have no effect, and 35 percent of Republicans said a conviction made them more likely to back Trump.

But the important number is that 10 percent. That is a huge number. Think it through with me. In 2020, 158 million people voted. According to the CNN exit polls, 36 percent were Republicans. That’s 57 million voters. If Trump were to lose 5.7 million Republicans, he would not only lose but probably lose convincingly. Even if half of that 10 percent comes back to him, he’d lose 2.85 million. That’s still a huge number.

Let’s do a little more math. In the key swing state of Arizona, the vote total was about 3.3 million. If we follow the CNN exit polls that put the GOP vote nationwide at 36 percent, then just shy of 1.2 million Arizona voters were Republican. If Trump were to lose 5 percent of them, that would amount to about 59,000 votes. And Arizona was decided, of course, by about 12,000 votes in 2020. In Georgia, which again was decided by roughly 12,000 votes, Trump would lose around 88,000 votes. In Michigan, it would be 99,000 votes lost if just 5 percent of Republicans desert him. In Pennsylvania, it would be close to 124,000 votes. And remember, I’m lowballing Republican defections from the poll’s 10 percent to half that, and I’m not even counting independents.

I trust you see the importance here.

Second post-conviction poll: Morning Consult found that 15 percent of Republicans believe Trump should end his candidacy. Now, there are no numbers to crunch here, and Trump is obviously not going to do that. But if roughly every seventh Republican really thinks Trump should end his candidacy, that is a staggering number, and again a potentially devastating one for him.

And again—emphasis on “potentially.”

Democrats, the ball is in your court. You can make your usual “judicious study of discernible reality” and buy into the lazy—and apparently wrong—conventional wisdom that says the verdict will make no difference.

Or you can create a new reality in which the verdict makes a big difference—maybe the difference between Joe Biden being reelected and Donald Trump destroying our democracy.

How to do it? There are lots of ways. But let’s start with this. “Convicted felon Donald Trump.” Not once. Not 10 times. Not 10,000 times. More like 500,000 times.

Seriously: No federal Democratic officeholder should, for the foreseeable future, say the name “Donald Trump” without putting the words “convicted felon” before it. We might give Biden himself a partial exemption here, because for a president, that kind of blunt, partisan repetition may be a little undignified. But no one else. Chuck Schumer. Hakeem Jeffries. Cori Bush on the left. Jared Golden on the right. Every. Single. One of them.

Blunt repetition may be boring. Democrats and liberals are intellectually averse to it, because it’s intellectually dull, and we’re supposed to be the smart side, always finding clever new arguments. But it works. People need to hear things over and over and over for it to lodge in their long-term memory.

Think of how many times you heard “Crooked Hillary” in 2016. Did they sound like mentally dull robots? Yes. But did it sink in, for millions of swing voters? Well, we do know this: As many as 40 percent of voters in 2016 polls said they thought she was corrupt. And when James Comey reopened that email investigation in late October, many of those voters thought: Aha. Crooked Hillary. Just what the Republicans have been saying.

This is how people’s brains work. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Gretchen Smelzer, a psychologist whom I admit I just found on Google on Sunday morning but who appears to be legit and whose 2018 book Journey Through Trauma earned a brief but respectful write-up in The New York Times. On her website, Smelzer writes:

There are only three ways that information can move from short-term memory to long term memory: urgency, repetition, or association.…

Repetition is the most familiar learning tool—everyone has memorized facts or vocabulary words by repeating them, and some have improved basketball free-throw shooting or playing piano scales through practice. Repetition creates long term memory by eliciting or enacting strong chemical interactions at the synapse of your neuron (where neurons connect to other neurons). Repetition creates the strongest learning.…

So Democrats. Here’s your situation. You can let this drop, thus ensuring that by November 5, Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts by a jury that deliberated for less than 10 hours will be totally forgotten, and no one will carry the thought of it into the voting booth. Or you can hammer away at it, never letting voters forget it—and by the way, driving Trump crazy the whole time, making it likely that he’ll say nuttier and nuttier things about it—and do all you can to swing those 59,000 votes in Arizona and all the rest.

It’s up to you. Do you want to wake up on Wednesday, November 6, with Trump having won, and with exit polls showing that his conviction made no difference? If not, well … as Malone (Sean Connery) said to Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) about stopping another mobster: “What are you prepared to do?”