Rick Wilking / Reuters

Tuesday’s conviction of Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chair, and the plea deal reached by Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen represent a stark divergence from the historical norm. In the United States, few people of Cohen’s or Manafort’s wealth, status, and political connections are ever convicted of anything.

As with so many things, Trump’s bombast, unrestrained self-interest, and delusional relationship with facts have brought to their natural conclusion the absurdities of an American system that has so often enriched the few at the expense of the very many. Manafort and Cohen most likely believed they would never face justice for their crimes, because the American criminal-justice system so rarely prosecutes men like them for the crimes they commit. Yet by Tuesday evening, the president’s former campaign chair had been convicted of tax and bank fraud, and the president’s former attorney had told prosecutors that Trump had told him to violate campaign-finance law by paying hush money to women with whom Trump had extramarital affairs.  

The American justice system has consistently rewarded the corruption of the wealthy and politically connected, whether your name is Bob McDonnell or Bob Menendez, whether you’re a financial institution responsible for an economic calamity that turned millions of Americans out of their homes or a credit-rating agency that fails to take minimal efforts to protect the private information of consumers with little say over how that agency does business. The Roberts Court has all but legalized the bribery of politicians, an act that has served the corrupt of all political persuasions.

What Trump has done, by consistently defending his criminal associates, and by attacking the prosecutions as politically motivated or corrupt, is make the implicit obvious: Regular people go to prison; rich or connected people do whatever they want. At least most of the time. The surprise is not that Trump surrounded himself with advisers who committed crimes, or that Trump himself encouraged his advisers to flout the law. The surprise is the mere possibility that any of them will pay for it.

Even more shocking is that the list of the president’s criminal associates is long: There’s Manafort and Cohen, but also former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Manafort’s former deputy Rick Gates, and the former campaign foreign-policy hand George Papadopoulos. The president is either spectacularly corrupt, or he has a knack for choosing advisers who manage to find themselves on the wrong side of a legal system designed to protect people like them.

More by Adam Serwer

Prior to Manafort’s trial, Trump had all but urged the non-sequestered jury to nullify the charges—that is, refuse to convict, regardless of the evidence—because of Manafort’s membership in the same gilded class as the president, and their proximity to each other. Cohen pleaded guilty without going to trial, and he has broken with Trump since federal investigators raided his office, home, and hotel room in May. At the time, Trump called the raid “an attack on our country, in a true sense.”

Trump has tweeted that he thinks “the whole Manafort trial is very sad,” and that Manafort is “a good person.” In declaring that he thinks “it’s very sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort,” the president sent the message to the jury that the federal government is engaged in an illegitimate prosecution. Convicting Manafort is a violation of the unwritten rules that protect people like him, and like Trump. The president went out of his way to persuade the jury not to convict Manafort, not because of what he did or didn’t do, but because of who he is.

Manafort had ostentatiously flouted the law. It wasn’t simply that he had made his living influence peddling. He laundered millions through schemes so transparent prosecutors were able to document them easily in his indictment. His attempt to circumvent the judge’s gag order by ghostwriting an op-ed was foiled by the track-changes feature in his word processor. He even sought to tamper with witness testimony. When placed in solitary confinement, he bragged that he was being treated like a VIP. If Manafort’s schemes seem obvious and brazen, it is only because he had all the reason in the world to believe he would never be indicted for anything he did, let alone be convicted. And despite his conviction, the possibility that he will go free—either through a presidential pardon, or a successful appeal through a sympathetic judge—is far from remote.

Attempting to get the jury in the Manafort trial to nullify was only the president’s latest attempt at undermining the rule of law. Since taking office, he has fired the FBI director over the investigation into his campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election; he has successfully urged the FBI’s leadership to purge civil servants he deems disloyal; and he has demanded the Justice Department prosecute his political rivals and critics. There is no law his allies must respect, and no transgression by his critics, real or imagined, that does not demand prosecution and punishment.

What Trump seeks is nothing less than a federal government that enriches himself and his allies, prosecutes his political opponents and critics, and turns a blind eye to any crimes he or any of his cohorts commit. The institutional guardrails that have restrained him will not hold forever. Either American voters will remove him from office, or the federal government will increasingly become an enterprise run for the benefit of a single wealthy family and whoever earns its favor.

Many commentators have described that kind of authoritarianism as foreign to the United States. But it isn’t. It has its inspiration and precursor in the racial kleptocracy of the Jim Crow South, in which states were essentially criminal enterprises that existed to expropriate black wealth, exploit black labor, disenfranchise black voters, and shield acts of racist terrorism and violence from prosecution.

Remnants of this society are still with us, from mass incarceration, to discrimination against black jurors, to stand-your-ground laws. But alongside it, America retains a system in which the wealthy remain largely immune to financial crimes. Weak laws and regulations make the prosecution of financial crimes difficult, and prosecutors are often loath to pursue individuals who might be able to fill their campaign coffers come election time. Whether the president is Barack Obama or Donald Trump, the rich can afford a different kind of justice than everyone else.

Even if Trump had never entered the White House, the American justice system, which harshly prosecutes any transgression by the poor, no matter how minor, while largely ignoring financial crimes, no matter how massive, would still exist. Trump himself is a remarkable synthesis of America’s history of cruelty toward people of color and the poor of any race, but he is still only a symptom of a greater disease.

Manafort and Cohen may see prison time. But even if they are held to account, the outcomes of their cases on Tuesday can’t legitimize a system of justice in which wealthy people who commit financial crimes can fully expect to get away with them. Trump did not create the rot in this system. He has merely made it obvious.