March 21, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

An indictment is unlikely to hurt Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination

It's not a problem for him. It's a problem for his party.

Courtesy of Reuters.
Courtesy of Reuters.

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Most Republicans have rallied around the criminal former president who may or may not face criminal indictment today (it’s anyone’s guess) in connection with a hush-money investigation led by the Manhattan district attorney’s office involving payments to actress Stormy Daniels in 2016 to keep quiet about his affair with her. 

The Republicans say, as they have said for years, that anything that doesn’t kill Donald Trump only makes him stronger. They tell us an indictment will incite the Republican base. According to Lindsay Graham, Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg did “more to help Donald Trump get elected president than any single person in America today.”

It would probably hurt him in terms of respectable white people voting in the general. The same can’t be said for the base of his party.

Naturally, this gets pushback. The Post’s Jennifer Rubin said “an indictment’s long-term impact might be anything but positive.” 

Politico’s Alexander Burns said an indictment would magnify Trump’s current weaknesses : “His base of support is too small, his political imagination too depleted and his instinct for self-absorption too overwhelming for him to marshal a broad, lasting backlash.”

Both are wrong, but not for the reasons you think.

An indictment would hurt Trump in terms of general election voters.

The same can’t be said for the base of his party.

A problem for the GOP
I’m reminded of Jason Sattler’s recent piece in which he knocked down the idea that the 2022 midterms proved the maga movement had run out of gas. Sure, Trump’s hand-picked candidates failed in the general election. Jason’s point, however, is that this point is beside the point. 

The point is that each candidate, Jason said, burned through their primary opponents. In that sense, Trump’s power was clear. That, Jason said, is how we should measure his imprint on the Republicans, not whether his acolytes defeat Democratic opponents. Trump is still the Republican Party’s center of gravity. That’s not a problem for him. 

That’s a problem for the Republican Party.

The primary is the thing
I agree with Rubin, Burns and others. 

An indictment is going to alienate respectable white people – which is to say, “swing voters” – who care about appearing respectable among other white people who themselves care about appearing respectable. Respectable people always side with law and order.

Respectable white people constitute that great globular middle of American politics, and as such, they determine which of the political parties prevails most of the time during any given historical period. If you don’t win over respectable white people, you don’t win at all. 

But while respectable white people do make or break candidates in general elections, they do not have the same or similar influence on the internal process of nominating a party’s presidential candidate. 

That’s up to the party, especially the base voters of the party, who appear to believe that the covid is a Chinese bioweapon, that the J6 insurrection was an inside job and that Trump was robbed in 2020. 

Burns said that candidates can’t tell voters that he’s a warrior for their cause when he’s “consumed with narrow, personal complaints and crackpot conspiracy theories” to which I can only respond: 

Yesterday did happen. 

What Trump does best
The Republican base has been primed for years to believe in the existence of a deep state trying to bring Trump down, in the weaponization of the government against “conservatives” and the waves of wokeness cascading from George Soros’ penthouse.

That’s why things like the following, from Burns, are baffling. 

“Plenty of Americans can see themselves in an older white man scorned by liberals and the media for his crude manner and bigoted ideas. Fewer are likely to see themselves in a wealthy husband paying hush money to conceal his debauched sex life and whining about the unfairness of his circumstances in every public outing.”

Like yesterday never happened.

Trump must expand support, Burns said, “not merely rev up people who already care deeply about his every utterance and obsession.” Yes, he does – for the general election. As for the race for the GOP’s nomination, revving up “people who already care deeply about his every utterance and obsession” is what Donald Trump does best. 

Are we going to say that supporters who will do anything, like storm the US Capitol on an attempted takeover of the US government, are going to be put off by a criminal indictment? They will carry him over unless GOP elites mount a hostile counteroffensive to stop him.

So far, I don’t see that happening. 

Conditions are set
It’s true, as Jennifer Rubin wrote, that beyond a few sycophants in the House, many elected Republicans are quiet. But let’s not take that as a sign of disapproval or, much less, that the party is ready to abandon him. Why? Because none of us, as far as I know, was born yesterday. 

Over and over, throughout Trump’s presidency, he would say something that only a dictator would say. The newsspeakers would race over to the party elders, what I call the Stern Fathers of the Party, such as Senate leader Mitch McConnell, for comment. McConnell would say something bland, just enough to provide cover to Trump’s craycray but not enough to upend the balance of his personality cult. 

I would take silence by the Stern Fathers of the Party less as evidence of Trump’s declining influence and more as another gambit in which they wait to see the distance Trump is capable of going while anticipating the opportunities that arise from his having gone there.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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