March 31, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
It happened. He’s indicted. But they’ll vote for him still
The misunderstood meaning of loyalty among supporters.
Late Thursday, the Times broke the story of a grand jury in New York voting to indict Donald Trump on more than 30 counts related to a hush-money scheme currently investigated by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
The criminal former president said two weekends ago that he expected to be arrested the following Tuesday. He dominated headlines, and the resources of law enforcement in New York and Washington, for days. But last night, according to USA Today, Trump was “shocked” by the news.
The story has many angles. Top of mind is that Trump is the first former president in American history to be accused of a crime. The second is whether he’ll be convicted. That’s hard to say for now. An attorney said he will refuse a plea deal. “There is no crime,” Joe Tacopina said on “Today.”
Skepticism is in order. Trump is above the law. He has been for years. It’s natural to think he’ll get off. The rich are different. They have more money.
But Trump’s initial refusal to accept a deal, which hasn’t been offered yet, tells us something about his thinking. If Trump were going to get off, on account of being rich (and having more money), an indictment would never have been brought in the first place. The DA’s office would have found reasonsreasons not to. So in a sense, the indictment itself is the hard part. Trump knows this. That’s why he was “shocked.” If you’re going after the king, you best not miss. Trump suspects DA Alvin Bragg isn’t going to miss.
If Bragg isn’t going to miss, and Trump probably believes he won’t, he needs another way to win that doesn’t involve evidence, facts and the law. We know what he’s going to do. He’ll turn the trial into a televised extravaganza so the public can’t tell whether Bragg is right, and real crimes have been committed, or whether Trump is right – all of this is a witch hunt, he has said and will continue saying. In rightwing politics, Trump is a martyr.
He’ll do something else. We know he will. He will attempt to incite violence among his followers. He believes that will send a message – trying to bring down Trump is trying to bring down America. If the public fears blood in the streets, well, there’s an obvious solution. Trump gets off scot-free.
We know he’ll do this, because he’s already done it. In the weeks before the J6 insurrection, Trump and his allies whipped his followers into a thick foam. They whipped them so much that followers became nihilists. There was no tomorrow if the enemy were not defeated today. That was costly. Over 1,000 of them have been prosecuted so far. The foam faded.
It will likely stay faded. Two weekends ago, when Trump said he expected to be arrested, he called for “protests,” meaning the revival of the spirit of the J6 insurrection. Law enforcement in New York and the Capitol prepared themselves for the revival. But it never came. Of those few who did protest, they were outnumbered by news cameras covering their demonstration.
In a piece published Monday, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor asked why. Why would loyalists who stormed the Capitol in an attempted takeover of the United States government fail to show up? The answer appears to be two-tiered. On the one hand, loyalists fear prosecution and the subsequent ruination of their lives. On the other hand, they see the ruination of insurrectionists’ lives and think – where was Donald Trump?
“Trump asked people to protest after the 2020 election, then abandoned them. … Trump abandoned some of his most faithful followers,” Rick McCargar told the Christian Science Monitor in Waco. “I look at this [then-pending indictment] and say, ‘He didn’t do anything to help those people.’ So would I stand out in the rain, sleet, or snow for him now? No.”
The other way for Donald Trump to beat the charges against him is by winning the 2024 election (presuming it’s still US Department of Justice policy never to indict a sitting president). That’s where the trial and the incitement of violence come together. While followers may fear the legal consequences of “protesting” for Trump, and while some of them accuse him of abandoning his followers, they still seem ready to vote for him.
While “it’s clear the aftermath of Jan. 6 has left a bitter taste – and soured at least some of them on the man himself,” reported the Christian Science Monitor. “Many say they will probably still vote for Mr. Trump in 2024.”
So Trump won’t only be the first former president to be accused of a crime. He will be the first former president to run for president for a second time while under indictment. What’s more, he has such a hold on his followers that they will vote for him – despite his being under indictment and despite their harboring feelings of betrayal. For them, one-way loyalty is jim-dandy.
This aspect of Trump’s power is underappreciated. Put another way, this expression of loyalty is misunderstood. To normal people, loyalty is equitable. I got your back. You got mine. You break that trust, I stop trusting you. Such are the stakes of individuals working cooperatively.
But loyalty among Trump supporters isn’t that. It’s about power. It’s about fear of Trump’s power. It’s about the fear of being cast out of the group for taking a stand against the man who betrayed the group. It’s about the fear of the consequences of privileging individual interest above the group’s.
So Trump isn’t just inciting violence to intimidate prosecutors in the hope he’ll get off the charges against him. His incitement doesn’t just scare normal people. It scares his people, too. If he wants to win the Republican Party’s nomination, and he likely will, Trump must keep them that way.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.