Politics / May 31, 2024

Trump’s “Tough Guy” Act Is Put to the Test

The former president’s felony conviction follows weeks of Trump repositioning himself as a politically persecuted martyr—and an American gangster.

Sasha Abramsky

People react after former US president and Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump was convicted in his criminal trial outside of Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 30.

(Photo by Charly Triballeau / AFP)

On Thursday evening, as business began to wind down at the courthouse in Downtown Manhattan, Donald J. Trump was finally held to account. Twelve New Yorkers found the former president guilty on all 34 felony counts in his New York City trial. After all the armchair commentary about this being a weak case, about District Attorney Alvin Bragg being out of his depth, about this being a legal theory of accountability built on quicksand, in the end it took the jurors less than two days of deliberation to come to a unanimous verdict on all counts.

Guilty. Or, in Trump social media-speak, GUILTY!!!!!

Let that sink in: Donald J. Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee for president, a man who has spent his entire life making up his own rules of engagement, has been convicted of felony charges by a jury of his peers. Add that to a résumé that now includes two impeachments, liability for sexual abuse, tens of millions of dollars in fines for defamation, hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for his company’s committing fraud, and three additional felony trials pending.

In normal times, all of those Republicans who have spent the past years sidling up to Trump would now start gradually sidling away. They might not like the premises of the charges Bragg brought against Trump, but they would find ways to say “for the good of the party and the country, we urge ex-president Trump to step aside and withdraw his candidacy for the president of the United States.” In this Trump-cult era, however, that won’t happen. In case any Republicans were thinking of jumping ship, the House leadership immediately circled the wagons. Speaker Mike Johnson was quick out of the gate to declare the jury’s verdict “absurd” and a “shameful day in American history.”

And so, this American nightmare will continue, except now Trump’s bid for the presidency is nothing more or less than a vengeance campaign against a legal system he has denounced as a web of corruption and political game-playing.

Over the past several weeks, Trump has tried to preempt a guilty verdict by repositioning himself both as a politically persecuted martyr and also as a genuine Original Gangster, a bad-guy-tough-guy, a made man, a romantic desperado. He has repeatedly compared himself to Al Capone—not, of course, the broken man dying of syphilis after his release from Alcatraz, but the hero of working-class Chicago who waged a permanent war in the 1920s and early ’30s against what Trump might term the deep state—the G-men, the Justice Department, the anti-racketeers, the tax agents—in the years before the government finally managed to bring him down. Trump has leaned into the notion that he will, if reelected, immediately pardon those convicted for their involvement in the January 6 insurrection. At a rally in the Bronx, he invited onto his stage two rappers indicted on charges of alleged conspiracy to commit murder. They bantered together and the rappers made the obligatory MAGA statements.

Trump is, in these public performances, positioning himself as a Duterte-type character for whom criminal behavior is a boon rather than a curse, and he’s banking on continually being able to shape his own image in the public eye as a strongman protector-of-the-nation type figure.

Like everything else about the Teflon Don’s life, however, it’s all an act. Trump is no more Al Capone than he is Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela—two other individuals whom he has, of late, compared himself to in his speeches. Sure, he’s corrupt in his bones. But he’s corrupt in a money-chiseling, bookkeeping kind of way. He’s a small-time crook who bounces from one money-making or influence-peddling scheme to the next, rather than a master criminal. Look at Trump scowling and blustering and one sees a facsimile copy of a tough guy, a man who has made himself an avatar of what he thinks a hood cum politician looks like.

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Which is why it was so delicious to see Robert De Niro standing outside the courtroom in New York this week, attacking Trump and mixing it up with the ex-president’s diehard supporters.

De Niro also isn’t a professional tough guy; he’s an actor who plays tough guys. That, however, is where the comparison to Trump ends. For, unlike the 34-times convicted felon, De Niro plays Mean Streets characters really, really well, and has done so for more than half a century. Think of the menace of his Taxi Driver incarnation, of the incandescent fury of Raging Bull. Think of his Oscar-winning performance as Vito Corleone, in The Godfather Part II. Think, more recently, of the aging hit man he played to perfection in Scorsese’s The Irishman and the sociopathic businessman he portrayed in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Look at De Niro’s scorching denunciation of the hecklers who accused the Capitol Police officers who stood up to the insurrectionists on January 6, 2021, of being “traitors.” There’s a withering contempt when De Niro calls them gangsters, an “I’ll bury you with my tone, buddy” message, that Trump, in his wildest dreams, couldn’t come close to emulating. It was true cinema.

The newly minted felon-presidential candidate has always been good at projecting, ascribing to others what is clearly his own motive or behavior or reality. That’s how he can explicitly advocate for creating a Justice Department infrastructure to round up political opponents and then, with a straight face, denounce his own indictments as being a political witch hunt. It’s how he can accuse others of all kinds of treasonous acts while turning around and encouraging an armed uprising to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. It’s how he can declare that his opponents are weakening America while he buddies up to miscellaneous strongman leaders around the world. And so on and so on.

It was, therefore, almost certainly projection when his campaign’s knee-jerk response to De Niro’s star turn outside the courthouse was to issue a broadside calling De Niro a “washed up actor.” Yes, one of these two septuagenarians is, indeed, a washed-up actor, but it surely isn’t the man who received an Oscar nomination just this year for his performance in Killers of the Flower Moon.

On July 11, four days before the GOP convention begins, Trump will be sentenced. It’s conceivable that he’ll end up behind bars, especially if he keeps attacking the judge the way he did immediately after the verdict was announced. It’s more likely that, just days before he is embraced by the GOP as the party’s presidential nominee, he’ll either be fined or sentenced to some form of house arrest. He might end up with probation. He could even be forced into community service—an ironic situation for a man who has done nothing selfless in his entire career. How fabulous it would be if, in the run-up to the election, Trump has to juggle his noxious, violent, xenophobic campaign rallies with, say, weekends spent working at homeless shelters, in drug treatment facilities, or ministering to sick migrant asylum-seekers.

Trump’s schtick is entertainment, which is why his numerous high crimes and misdemeanors, including alleged sexual violence and conspiracies to defraud the American public, his two impeachments, and his four state and federal trials, haven’t so far hurt him with his legions of followers. But running for office as a convicted felon and a gangsta-candidate is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Now that a jury of his peers has convicted him, Trump knows that his Thug Nation show must go on—perhaps at a more frenzied pace, even, than has been the case up till now. If felon Trump wants to win the White House on a Bad Dude image, it’s not a bad idea for the Biden team to roll out someone who has played tough guys awesomely well for a very, very long time to serve as his foil. De Niro has just the right persona to take it to Trump’s goon squads, and, in his ripostes, to make these would-be toughs look small. He can say things that President Joe Biden, both by temperament and by virtue of the office he holds, cannot, and should not, say.

De Niro has Trump’s number. Trump ain’t Capone. He ain’t the Godfather. At best, he’s the hapless Fredo Corleone, the insecure loser-brother to the Big Man, the misfit who grifts and lies and cheats his way through life with no larger project in mind than self-advancement and petty pleasures.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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