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Trump may well end up in prison. There is still time for 2024

The accusations here are stunning

Noah Berlatsky
Wednesday 16 August 2023 10:24 BST
Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Getty Images)

A new indictment has come down on former president Donald Trump and his cronies, this time from a grand jury in Fulton County in connection with Trump’s efforts to overturn election results in Georgia. Trump has been charged with racketeering, filing false documents, and coercing public officers to violate their oaths.

Along with the indictments comes the inevitable media firestorm. And while that firestorm can hardly be called good for Trump, it does put his Republican rivals for the GOP presidential nomination in a bind. As in 2016, so it is today: candidates have difficulty breaking through to primary voters when all they hear about, 24/7, is Trump, Trump, and Trump.

It’s hardly surprising that the media and the public are focused on Georgia indictments. The accusations here, as in Trump’s previous indictments, are stunning. Never before has a former president been accused of such sweeping, relentless criminal activity. The Georgia indictments arguably go even further than previous charges in making the case for a coordinated, openly thuggish conspiracy, intent on strong-arming public officials through thinly veiled threats and knowing winks and promises. Virtually everyone, from former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to the entirety of social media, has been riveted.

Trump didn’t plan for the indictments, and they are causing him a great deal of anxiety, based on his increasingly panicked social media denunciations. He may well end up in prison. Georgia in particular doesn’t grant pardon power to its governor, so Trump can’t even hope for Republican allies to rescue him if he’s convicted.

Donald Trump indicted for fourth time

At the same time, though, the unending barrage of Trump news during the 2023 Republican primary season is uncomfortably reminiscent of the 2015-2016 Republican primary season.

Trump, a celebrity reality TV star, was seen in his first campaign as entertaining, bizarre, and riveting. Media outlets fell over themselves to cover him because they figured people would watch. He eventually got more than $5 billion in free media attention, more than Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republican rivals Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio combined.

This doesn’t necessarily explain Trump’s victory over Clinton in the general election; presidential campaigns receive blanket coverage, and it’s not like Clinton needed the name recognition. However, the Republican nomination contest is a different story. Being featured as the most important and omnipresent Republican candidate in a crowded primary field is an enormous advantage. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz struggled to get voters to see them as viable party leaders when the only person on television was Donald Trump. The media treated Trump as de facto party leader, and that was bound to have a powerful effect on voters, many of whom were probably only vaguely aware that other Republicans were even running.

Thing are different in 2023, in some ways. The media isn’t irresponsibly boosting Trump as an entertaining celebrity, they’re covering him as a former president mired in absolutely breathtaking scandal.

The exact effect of those scandals on voter attitudes is hard to measure. A recent study found that Trump’s indictment for mishandling documents mildly harmed him with likely Republican primary voters, who were more likely to think he had mishandled documents after the indictment, and less likely to want to vote for him in the primary.

But the attention also has upsides for Trump. Indictments tend to put Trump in the news, and rally partisans to his defense. Even his primary rivals have been reluctant to accuse Trump of real wrongdoing; the Republican party line has been that Trump is being unfairly targeted by Democrats. And if the Democrats hate Trump and fear him (which is why Republicans say he is targeted), then, if you’re a Republican primary voter, it makes sense that Trump’s your best option for 2024.

That’s why Trump has gotten major fundraising bumps when early indictments were announced (though that has somewhat trailed off with more recent ones.) And it is why the season of indictments has been very bad for his main rival. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis started slipping shortly before the first New York Grand Jury indictments were handed down on March 30, and has been collapsing ever since. No other candidate has so far managed to seriously challenge Trump, who is currently leading the field by some 38 points.

Trump’s victory in the Republican primary isn’t assured yet. There’s some time to go until the voting starts, and the situation is very chaotic. It’s feasible, for example, that Trump could be jailed for his constant witness tampering. If he were removed from public view, it’s possible media attention would diminish at least slightly, and give other Republicans like businessman Vivek Ramaswamy or Senator Tim Scott a chance to make their case to the Republican electorate.

For the moment, though, the Republican electorate is, like the rest of us, hearing about little except Trump. And if Trump is all they see, 2016 suggests that Trump is who they will choose.

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