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Arrest Trump? That Makes Him the GOP Nominee (But Can’t Beat Biden)

Trump’s Arrest will Probably Help Him – In the GOP Nomination Fight But Not in a General Election: Former President Donald Trump recently announced that he would be arrested this week. It is unclear if this will actually happen. Trump has ducked legal troubles for decades, and his status as a former president makes it all the trickier to arrest him. The charges are well-known by now. Trump has long been disloyal to his wives, and he apparently paid off one of his mistresses in the run-up to the 2016 election.

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Trump is almost certainly guilty, but that is not really the issue. More important is whether his arrest will impact the 2024 US presidential race. Trump is now the front-runner in the GOP primary, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis likely his toughest opponent. An arrest will probably help Trump win the GOP primary – he will market himself as a martyr – but hurt him in the general – where centrist suburban voters will pull back from a now-indicted, as well as impeached, ex-president.

MAGA will Embrace Trump’s ‘Persecution’

A core argument of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ movement is widespread persecution of Trump voters and conservatives in general.

Fox News, the conservative movement’s primary media organ, regularly speaks of conservative shadow-banning on social media. The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has opened investigations into the ‘weaponization’ of government against conservatives. Even Ron DeSantis felt compelled to describe Trump’s looming indictment as a product of George Soros action against Red America.

Whether true or not, this narrative is deeply resonant, and Trump himself has regularly tapped into it, such as when he referred to himself as his voters’ ‘retribution’ on elites who contemn them. Hence Trump is likely to slot his arrest into this narrative. Trump has already decried the prosecutor – who is not white – as a racist and a radical leftist. He has called for protests, much like he did on January 6, 2021 – presumably to blackmail the district attorney into not indicting him.

Assuming Trump does not actually go to prison – no former American president ever has – Trump will continue as a candidate. The arrest will, inevitably, become an issue. DeSantis will try to use it, but in the GOP primary this will likely not work. Trump will pitch his arrest to GOP voters as yet another example of the ‘deep state’ attacking him and, by extension, them.

Fox and other conservative media will not air Trump’s mugshot nor discuss the details of the case. It will be decried as politicization.

If this is correct, an arrest will not hurt Trump. Indeed, it may even help him.

Can Trump Overcome the Arrest in the General Election?

I have argued repeatedly on this website that Trump will likely beat Ron DeSantis in the primary. Insofar as DeSantis is running as Trump-lite figure, I see no reason why GOP voters would take that over the real thing. DeSantis offers no real choice beyond style, and the charismatic Trump badly outclasses the bland DeSantis.

The bigger issue is the arrest’s potential ramifications in the general election. The general is still decided by swing voters. The US is indeed polarized between right and left, but crucially, both parties still poll over 45% in US general elections, leaving centrist and swing voters to decide elections.

Neither party routinely wins a definitive majority, and the Electoral College has allowed the Republicans to stay competitive even if Democrats win the popular vote. 

These remaining swing voters tend to be educated women concentrated in the suburbs. Trump has traditionally struggled with this demographic because of his regularly harsh comments about women and their appearance. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 and 2020. It seems likely he will do so again in 2024. 

One can already foresee the commercials from the campaign of current Democratic President Joseph Biden. They will emphasize again and again that Trump is a criminal. He was impeached twice, which has not happened to any other US president.

He may also be indicted, complete with a mugshot and fingerprint. That imagery will show up on American televisions for months, hammering away on theme that Trump is not fit for the office. Trump’s previous vote totals and his weak coattails suggest it will work.

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MORE: What Trump Getting Arrested Could Look Like

Trump’s arrest will be heavily hyped in the media, but it is unlikely actually to change the race. Were DeSantis running against a normal candidate, that candidate’s arrest would be disqualifying. But Trump’s intense, cult-like bond with his voters is well-established.

His arrest is more likely to verify the premises of that bond than challenge it. The real question looms over the general then, where Trump is on track to lose the popular vote, as he did before. His arrest will make that more likely.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.



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