Donald Trump: Indictment Helps Him Win the GOP Primary and Lose the General – Former US President Donald Trump has been indicted. This is the first time an American president – former or sitting – has been formally accused of a crime. This raises many legal and logistical questions unique to Trump’s position as an ex-president and current presidential candidate.
More important, though are the political questions.
Trump and his supporters see this as a political prosecution, particularly in right-wing media. Criminalizing political difference – including the prosecution of former officeholders – is indeed a problem in many democracies. But to Trump’s opponents, this shows that no one, even presidents, are above the law.
The struggle to frame Trump’s looming arrest – as either overreach or overdue – will shape Trump’s effort to re-take the presidency. In brief, the indictment will likely help Trump win the GOP nomination; it will validate the belief of his core voters that they are a politically persecuted minority in their own country. On the other hand, it will likely cost him the general election. Non-Trump voters are deeply wary of his continuing scandals and clownishness. Yet more legal trouble will only confirm those anxieties. Donald Trump did not win the popular vote in 2016 or 2020. This indictment makes that more likely in 2024.
How Do You Arrest an Ex-President Anyway?
The immediate issue, which dominated the cable stations today, is the actual logistics of the indictment.
Trump’s arraignment should happen next week, and it is unclear how that will be structured or what the charges even are.
Will Trump be required to fly to New York City? Will he have to do a ‘perp walk’ and a mug shot? Will the Secret Service, which protects ex-presidents, go with him through the whole process, including possible imprisonment? Will Trump supporters riot in front of New York government buildings? If Trump is convicted, can he still run for political office?
Other democracies, such as South Korea, have removed and jailed president and ex-presidents with a massive breakdown in social order. That suggests this can be done. But Donald Trump is nothing if not unscrupulous. He will argue relentlessly that the novelty of his indictment means that he is being singled out. He will damn the entire thing as political vengeance. He will encourage his supporters to mass and possibly, as happened on January 6, 2021, try to stop the process through street action. All this will gum up the works and make the actual legal process far harder and more complicated.
Indeed, this tumult is likely why President Gerald Ford pardoned disgraced former President Richard Nixon. Nixon was obviously guilt of crimes connected to Watergate, but official Washington was genuinely unnerved by the prospect of jailing an ex-president. Nixon helped fix this dilemma by wisely receding from public life. Nixon paid for his lawlessness with national disgrace and self-imposed exile.
That Donald Trump refuses to do the same – to recede from public life in quiet – is what makes this indictment so tricky. Trump desperately wants to be president again. Yet he has a long history of shady business dealings for which he always managed to escape prosecution. To let him off the hook yet again suggests he is above the law. Unlike Nixon, Donald Trump is determined to force the issue by compelling his opponents to investigate him and debate which crimes are serious enough to pursue an ex-president over.
The Political Implications for Donald Trump
As with so many investigations of Trump, this one will likely be drawn-out and complex. There will be a lot of hesitation to actually imprison Trump if he is found guilty. Similarly, there will be much hesitation to deny Trump the right to run for office, even if he is in prison, if only because of the cult-like bond he has with his voters. So it is still safe to say that Trump will remain a candidate for the presidency in 2024.
And this indictment will help him in that quest. Trump’s biggest fight now is inside the GOP. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the first real Republican challenger Trump has faced since he took over the GOP in 2015/16. A lot of GOP elites want Trump to step aside for the more disciplined and focused DeSantis. But Trump voters like the real deal, and his ‘persecution’ by the ‘deep state’ is precisely what bonds them to him so tightly. The indictment will help Trump beat DeSantis.
The next problem is the general election. Donald Trump has never won the popular vote. He squeaked into the presidency via the Electoral College in 2016. He also has poor coattails. Trumpian candidates performed poorly in 2022. This indictment is likely to further alienate swing voters who already think Trump is too crude and volatile to be president. The indictment is likely to help current US President Joseph Biden win reelection.
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So, in the end, the indictment probably will not change much politically. Trump was always likely to be GOP nominee, and this will further consolidate that lead. Conversely, Trump has always struggled to build a national majority, and this indictment will further worsen that problem.
Author Biography and Expertise
Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; RobertEdwinKelly.com) is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.