Donald Trump’s Guilty Verdict Eviscerates US Moral Authority

Political Persecution Undermines Soft Power of Former Hegemon

Trump's guilty verdict

Trump still faces numerous felony charges in multiple courts around the country. (Sebastián Díaz)

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With Donald Trump’s guilty verdict, the degradation of the US brand abroad is complete. The United States now joins the ranks of countries where the party in power criminally persecutes its chief political rivals and convicts them in sham trials orchestrated by the adjudicating courts under their party control.

The guilty-on-all-counts verdict against Trump for falsifying business records to conceal another (unspecified) crime was considered inevitable from the start. Even the famously anti-Trump commentator Fareed Zakariah of CNN publicly conceded that it was obvious that this novel, unprecedented case would only have been brought against Trump. After the verdict, senior CNN legal analyst and former Assistant US Attorney Elie Hoenig published an article entitled “Prosecutors Got Trump—But They Contorted the Law.”

It gets worse. Trump still faces numerous felony charges in multiple courts around the country. These all arose only after Trump announced his candidacy for the US presidency.

The damage that ideological lawfare does to the moral authority of the United States on the world stage is incalculable. The United States has long prided itself on promoting the values underpinning democratic market economies around the world. Just recently, Biden declared in an interview with Time magazine that the United States was steering a values-based, practical foreign policy.

Chief among these values, in the past, has been the rule of law. The State Department (DOS) has officially positioned itself as a promoter of the rule of law abroad for decades, since at least 1985, when the rule of law was added as a policy priority to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (GAO). USAID declares that the rule of law to be intimately linked to all aspects of development and, therefore, fundamental to its mission to promote democratic development around the world.

The rule of law was once central to US soft power, a term coined by the renowned political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. He defined it as a country’s ability to influence others through conviction rather than coercion. For years, the United States derived its moral authority on the world stage through the power of example. People around the world would generally prefer to live free and have a say in how they are governed. Dictators know this. Otherwise, they would not oppress dissent and persecute their political opponents, as is currently happening in the United States.

As of now, the United States will not be able to credibly hold itself as an example to follow on matters concerning the rule of law and fair elections. As Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has declared, “If New York were a foreign country, America would sanction them for targeting political opponents.” 

US rivals are already using the Trump trials to lambast the United States in international forums. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently declared: “Their supposed leadership in the sphere of democracy is being burned to the ground.” Unfortunately, the lawfare being waged in the United States lends credence to its critics.

The “nobody is above the law” narrative being promulgated by US political elites and the state-aligned legacy media is fooling no one, either at home or abroad. Everyone knows that the law will only be harshly applied to one side. For this reason, following the guilty verdict, donations to the Trump campaign soared. Upon joining the social-media application TikTok, Trump took just one day to surpass by ten-fold the number of followers of incumbent President Joe Biden. These political achievements would not have been possible were it not for the unforced errors of the US ruling elites. They turned out to be gargantuan miscalculations that resulted in their loss of moral authority, both at home and abroad.

For him or against him, the US people and the world know that Trump is being legally persecuted solely because he constitutes formidable political opposition to the elites in power in Washington, DC. This is not a good place for the United States to be. It destroys any pretense of the United States having a superior moral standing on the world stage.

This presents substantial challenges for US foreign policy. The world closely follows US news and current affairs. That was once a factor that contributed to US soft power. Now it is the reverse. People across the globe see that Trump is a victim of a politicized justice system. Independent of their opinions of Trump, the instincts of important actors abroad will drive them to co-opt the judicial power within their own countries for political ends, following the US example. This is exactly the opposite of what US foreign policy should aim to achieve.

A politicized justice system degrades US soft power and runs counter to our long-run strategic interests. Going forward, the United States will have to rely more and more on hard power, right when that very factor is waning. Sad to say, but the United States has wasted the opportunity that its once much-vaunted hegemony offered.

Nicholas Virzi

Nicholas Virzi is dean of the ASTRA Institute for Leadership and Governance.

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