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The Media Is Deluded About the Trump “Indictment Effect”

The former president’s legal entanglements aren’t his superpower. He’s taken a commanding lead in the primary because he faces weak opponents from a feckless political party.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Generally speaking, being charged with a crime is considered a bad thing. The accusations, the overwhelming scrutiny, the legal bills—none of it is good, especially if you’re asking voters to trust you with the nuclear codes. But after he levitated into politics on a cloud of reality-televsion hype, the media is highly resistant to treating Donald Trump as normal. So it was hardly surprising when, four indictments in, a consensus began brewing that these criminal charges against Trump are good, actually: “The pileup still seems like a boon to his renomination effort,” wrote Ross Douthat at The New York Times. Rich Lowry claimed that “the indictment helped boost him nearly 10 points in the national polls.” Political reporters coined this the “indictment effect,” noting Trump’s ability to “turn criminal charges into political assets.”  

This is a theory that took hold without ever really being tested as an empirical matter. By and large, it’s not clear that anyone has even tried to subject this claim to any scrutiny: The only evidence cited in support of the idea that the indictments benefit Trump politically is a cursory look at national polling averages, which do show Trump’s lead widening around the time that he faced his first indictment, from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

But it’s also the case that Trump has always led in the polls—far from signaling some major shift in voter sentiment, it’s much more likely that the indictments simply fell within the normal ebb and flow of Trump’s standing with voters, something we have observed numerous times throughout his tenure on the national stage. 

There are also several other explanations for Trump’s burgeoning lead that began last spring. The most obvious choice to pick from is the fact that Trump’s chief challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, made his official entrance into the race and was an almost instantaneous flop. Indeed, much of the lion’s share of Trump’s rise in the polls comes alongside the simultaneous decline of DeSantis—a candidate who has defended Trump ad nauseam, particularly on the issue of the indictments.

Adherents of the “indictments help Trump” theory have yet to put forward a coherent explanation for how Trump’s indictments have some sort of unseen power to convert DeSantis voters—by all measures just as radical and in no need of reasons to rage at the political left—into Trump supporters. It is definitely likely that DeSantis’s refusal to use the indictments as leverage in his campaign against Trump cued Republican voters to dismiss them; this is a weird campaign in which none of Trump’s opponents seem to want to take advantage of his legal woes. But in this instance, Trump isn’t so much blessed with four indictments as he is benefiting from historically inept primary opponents.

But the idea that Trump’s legal entanglements have added a creatine boost to his campaign is not just unsupported by its own evidence, it also ignores the growing indications that the opposite is true: Voters take the charges quite seriously. A CNN poll from late August shows that, just among Republican voters, 13 percent say the charges, if true, disqualify Trump from the presidency—a small number, yes, but more than enough to completely sink his chances of victory in a general election. For the electorate at large, the picture is even more dire for Trump: Numerous polls shows a majority of the country support the indictments, and even more voters say he should no longer be eligible to serve if convicted.

There is rarely one, clean explanation for anything that happens in American politics, and that’s quite clearly the case with Trump’s enduring lead in the 2024 primaries. The decision to attribute Trump’s strength to the indictments, then, is a choice the chattering class is making, plucked from the ether. It’s not hard to see why many in the establishment media have come around to this mystical notion: For as long as Trump has been in the spotlight, members of the media and political establishment have constantly predicted his demise.

The latest inflection point came after the Democrats’ surprising showing in the 2022 midterms, when the headlines were awash with the takeaway that Trump was washed and DeSantis was the big winner. The Times concluded that DeSantis’s political career was “supercharged.” Others maintained that the governor was on the verge of “wrestling control of the GOP from Trump.” Conservative media was (not for the first time!) said to be on the verge of dumping Trump. Jonathan Chait noted, “DeSantis has the advantage of a unified conservative-movement apparatus behind him.”

These post-midterm predictions of Trump’s destruction followed a familiar logic: Trump’s victory in 2016 was a fluke, and once Republicans can identify a more traditional leader without the baggage, the party elites would flock to him or her, bringing the base along with them. Naturally, no such pivot has occurred: Trump’s grip on the party is firmer than ever, and every indication suggests that a critical mass of voters want the baggage and are resistant to the idea that some amount of moderation is warranted. So these prognosticators are simply searching for the latest explanation as to why they were just wrong, and “Trump’s indictments are the source of his power” is the new article faith that’s been built to replace the previously held belief that Trump was finally toast.

Ascribing Trump’s success to the indictments serves numerous purposes beyond providing psychological succor to some terminally incorrect campaign touts: It not only explains why the impending Trump implosion never occurred but also pins the blame on Trump’s political opposition. There is no narrative more adored by the political media than that American politics is a battle of extremes on both sides—what better story to tell than that reasonable Republicans were ready to throw Trump over a ledge, only for rogue, far-left prosecutors to toss Trump back into the good graces of the base?

There is, of course, one obvious story to tell about Trump’s massive lead: that Trump has always owned the Republican Party and that party is all in on his criminality and corruption—the hell with the majority of Americans who think otherwise. There is, indeed, no greater illustration of the Republican Party’s nosedive into anti-democracy and right-wing radicalism than their continued obsession with Trump. If you’re looking for an “indictment effect,” look to a Republican Party that remains utterly unaffected by Trump’s misdeeds.