early and often

Trump’s Indictments Won’t Save His 2024 Rivals

The more he is “persecuted” for crimes and misdemeanors, the stronger Trump looks in the eyes of his party’s base. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

There’s obviously no precedent (in this country, at least) for a twice-impeached, twice criminally indicted presidential candidate, much less a front-running candidate for a major party’s nomination. By the time voting begins in the 2024 Republican nomination contest next January, Donald Trump may have collected more indictments in addition to the charges over hush-money payments and the mishandling of sensitive documents. As Iowa Republicans caucus, the 45th president may be a convicted felon, though the odds are high that his army of lawyers will find ways to keep him, at least temporarily, out of the slammer.

Will any of these developments materially damage Trump’s bid to become the 47th president? The jury is literally out on that question. But at this point, there’s no reason to assume that any legal proceedings against Trump will hurt him among the Republicans who will determine the 2024 nomination. We know this from what happened to his standing when legal peril overtook him earlier this year.

On March 30, when his indictment in Manhattan over the hush-money charges hit the news, Trump’s level of support in the 2024 GOP race was at 45.9 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling averages. His lead over Ron DeSantis stood at 15.8 percent. By May 10, when a civil-jury verdict affirmed Trump had sexually abused and defamed writer E. Jean Carroll, his level of support per RCP had risen to 53.5 percent, and his lead over DeSantis had climbed to 31.3 percent. That’s almost identical to where Trump and DeSantis stand today in the polls, and that’s after the Florida governor launched his formal campaign and began spending a fortune on ads and door-to-door canvassing in the early states.

Why has Trump only grown stronger as a candidate as this shadow of disgrace fell upon him? It’s likely a combination of factors. First, as Jonathan Chait explains, Trump’s base is increasingly convinced that his criminality is actually proof of his victimhood via politically motivated prosecutors who would jail every MAGA activist if they could:

The paranoia of the right and the seamy criminality of the right’s current champion … have brought the party to this point. Trump’s endlessly repeated “witch hunt” meme blends together the mobster’s hatred of the FBI with the conservative’s fear of the bureaucrat. His loyalists have been trained to either deny any evidence of misconduct by their side or rationalize it as a necessary countermeasure against their enemies.

The concept of “crime” has been redefined in the conservative mind to mean activities by Democrats. They insist upon Trump’s innocence because they believe a Republican, axiomatically, cannot be a criminal.

Republicans feeling solidarity with Trump precisely because he is in legal peril has placed his rivals for the presidential nomination in a terrible bind. With very few exceptions, they have followed the GOP rank and file in defending the former president against his prosecutorial tormenters. But that undermines their ability to criticize Trump on other grounds — even electability, as Eric Levitz compellingly argued after the first indictment:

In the eyes of the conservative base, to attack Trump is to aid and abet the president’s persecution at the hands of Soros and his minions. To question his electability, meanwhile, is tantamount to calling on Republicans to let the terrorists win.

Some believe the sheer magnitude of Trump’s legal peril will reach a tipping point where Republicans become weary of the old scofflaw, sparking a desire for a fresher MAGA demagogue like DeSantis who doesn’t have to spend so much time in court. We’ll likely find out which way this particular cookie crumbles if Trump (as widely expected) is prosecuted by the Justice Department for his involvement in the planning and execution of the January 6 insurrection. Sizable majorities of Republican voters have convinced themselves that Trump’s grievances against the outcome of the 2020 election were righteous even if his conduct was imprudent.

Being prosecuted by the law-enforcement arm of an “illegitimate” president (which is what Republicans think of Joe Biden) may strengthen the bond between Trump and conservative voters. But even more than that, a nomination contest being held while Trump’s legal battles dominate the news may reduce his Republican opponents to frustrated futility as they spend half their time defending the former president and the other half desperately trying to retire him. Suffice it to say that those who are confident the courts and juries will bring Trump down bear a heavy burden of persuasion. Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Trump’s Indictments Won’t Save His 2024 Rivals