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Too Soon?

The Latest Trump Indictment Is Damning. Will It Change Anything?

Political parties used to change their ways after defeat. Electoral losses and indictments have only brought Republicans closer to Donald Trump.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Donald Trump in Nevada last month

The most important unindicted co-conspirator in yesterday’s indictment is the hapless teacher who taught young Donald Trump civics at the New York Military Academy. Even a marginally competent instructor would have drummed into Trump the lesson that there are things we simply never countenance in America, especially trying to overturn a presidential election.

But Trump never got it. Nor did the sleazy band of legal talent that the defeated president assembled in his White House bunker at the end. We already knew about the desperate Rudy Giuliani (Co-Conspirator 1) and the conspiracy-theory-addled Sydney Powell (Co-Conspirator 3). But the indictment also reminds us of forgotten characters, like the odious Jeffrey Clark (Co-Conspirator 4), who wanted to be the acting attorney general to aid and abet Trump’s coup. In the most chilling detail in the indictment, Clark responds to concerns that stealing the election would trigger massive riots across the country by saying coldly, “That’s why there’s an Insurrection Act.” This obscure 1792 statute would allow the president to deploy the military to fire on civilian protesters.

For the most part, the powerful storyline laid out in Jack Smith’s 45-page indictment is the CliffsNotes version of the House’s January 6 report. We are reunited with Republican heroes such as Rusty Bowers, the straight-arrow former speaker of the Arizona House, who continually resisted pressure from Trump and Giuliani to decertify the state’s 11 Joe Biden electors. In a crucial moment, Bowers said that he would not “play with the oath” of office he took to aid the Trump conspiracy.

In the years to come, some artful political scientist or biographer will offer a compelling theory to explain why Bowers and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s stand-up secretary of state, held firm against intense pressure while fellow Republicans like Giuliani and Clark wanted to shred the Constitution in the service of their Supreme Leader.

This being politics-obsessed America in 2023, everyone’s second-day story will be about how Trump’s third and most serious indictment will play in the polls. The true answer is that we simply don’t know yet. Instant polling after a seismic event is often unreliable. The outcome will partly depend on how GOP leaders—including Trump’s opponents for the 2024 nomination—will respond, although the omens are not promising given their long see-no-evil history. And because the indictment follows the familiar contours of the January 6 hearings, there are no stunning revelations akin to low-level Trump aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s televised testimony about a reported struggle in the presidential limousine and ketchup-stained walls at the White House.

Even teasing out the polling effects of Trump’s two prior indictments is tricky, since these legal charges did not occur in isolation. Perhaps the smartest post-indictment commentary comes from FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich: “The unprecedented nature of an ex-president and active presidential candidate being indicted three times in less than six months makes it very hard to predict what will happen to his polling numbers.”

By chance, Indictment Day came just after The New York Times ballyhooed a national poll showing that Trump was lapping the field for the Republican nomination. This was widely interpreted as taps for Ron DeSantis and the other lagging GOP contenders, with The Washington Post breathlessly headlining its analysis: “Nobody has lost a primary after holding a lead like Trump’s.”

But that sweeping conclusion comes with a few caveats. Historical analysis tends to glibly liken elections before the creation of Fox News (1996) or Facebook (2004) with contemporary politics. Also, front-runners with huge poll leads have had scary moments in the primaries. Think of Bernie Sanders challenging a seemingly unbeatable Hillary Clinton in 2016. A Gallup Poll in late June 1999 found Texas Governor George W. Bush swamping his Republican rivals for the 2000 nomination by 51 percentage points, with John McCain limping home in fourth place with just 5 percent support. Of course, that was before McCain and his Straight Talk Express trounced Bush by 18 points in the New Hampshire primary. McCain probably would have won the nomination if he had held on against vicious mudslinging in South Carolina.

Buried in the Times/Sienna College Poll is an intriguing question about the priorities of likely GOP primary voters. Even though 78 percent of Republicans have a “very unfavorable” view of Joe Biden, beating him is not their highest priority. By a margin of 59 percent to 38 percent, Republicans in the poll say that agreeing with a candidate on the issues is more important than defeating the Democratic incumbent.

A rational political party learns from its mistakes and adjusts course for victory. At a dramatic moment at the 1952 Republican convention, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen snarled at Tom Dewey, the 1944 and 1948 nominee, “We followed you before, and you took us down the road to defeat.”

After three landslide losses in the 1980s, the Democrats triangulated away from standard-issue Northern liberalism in 1992 with a New Democrat ticket from the Old Confederacy of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Stung by the defeats of McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, the Republican National Committee commissioned an elaborate polling-based autopsy on the party’s strategy that concluded that the GOP’s leadership was filled with “stuffy old men” who didn’t reach out to minorities. As soon as Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, that autopsy was dropped in the dustbin of history.

Trump, if nominated, may spend more time in 2024 sitting mute in courtrooms than he will orating to fanatical true believers in basketball arenas about “witch hunts” and stolen elections. Despite ridiculously premature polling showing the 2024 race neck and neck, it seems like a weird political strategy for the Republicans to rally around a thrice-indicted proven loser. The problem, of course, is that Republicans are still in the grips of a collective delusion that Trump is the legitimate president. A late June Monmouth University Poll found that 68 percent of Republicans believe—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that Biden only won in 2020 because of vote fraud.

A handful of prominent Republicans get it. Retiring four-term New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu said after the indictment, “There’s no independent out there going, ‘Yeah, I might go with Trump now. I’m back on the team.’” At a recent conservative forum in Iowa, Will Hurd, the former congressman who is mounting a quixotic presidential campaign, provoked massive booing when he said bluntly, “Let me be crystal clear: Trump’s presidential bid is driven by an attempt to stay out of prison and scam his supporters into footing his legal bills.”

By the evening of February 24, as the results from the South Carolina GOP primary come in, we will probably know whether the Republicans are a party out to win back the White House or a cult willing to immolate itself on Trump’s behalf. That decision by the voters will come before we have any clarity about Trump’s ultimate legal fate. But just as Jack Smith’s two indictments of a former president are unprecedented, so is the choice of democracy versus autocracy facing Republican voters in the early primaries and caucuses.