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If you believe that politics carries more than a passing similarity with theater, as the late activist Harvey Milk argued, then it’s worth dusting off a classic 1975 script from John Kander and Fred Ebb to explain this current moment in Republican politics. Toward the end of the first act of Chicago, celebrity murderess Velma Kelly reaches an uncomfortable realization: her star power is limited by the churn of news, and to stay on top she needs a fresh schtick to capture the fickle public’s attention. What she needs is a collaborator. “I simply cannot do it alone,” actresses like Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, and Catherine Zeta-Jones have sung in a mix of panic and defeat.
At this moment, Donald Trump is America’s real-world Velma Kelly: boxed into a corner, his ability to command headlines fragile, and his future contingent on allying with the news story that poses his biggest threat. And, in this case, his Roxy Hart isn’t one person, but several—all those in New York and Washington and Georgia working to make Trump the first ex-President in history indicted on criminal charges. Without the dancing partner of legal threats, Trump’s return to power is less certain; with prosecutors like Alvin Bragg as his foil, Trump might be able to take his vaudeville act all the way to the top once again thanks to a public that cannot look away from a figure willing to play fast and loose.
The legal circle around Trump appears to be tightening, with the Manhattan District Attorney apparently the nearest to issuing an indictment over alleged fraudulent bookkeeping that bought an adult film star’s silence about an affair just before the 2016 election. Elsewhere, Georgia prosecutors are continuing their investigation into Trump’s hamfisted efforts to undo Joe Biden’s win in the state. Federal prosecutors are digging into Trump’s handling of classified documents after he left the White House, plus his role in the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
With characteristic pluck, Trump has harnessed those campaign-ending-for-anyone-else threats into rallying cries. Other candidates would see them as daunting obstacles on the path to power; for Trump, they’re a useful asset that can further convince his flock that he—and they—face victimhood at the hands of the elites. Candidates facing far less serious peril would speak of these challenges in a sotto voce; Trump turns them into his 11 o’clock belt from center stage.
“Either the Deep State destroys America or we destroy the deep state,” Trump said Saturday evening at his rally in Waco, Texas, whose timing and location were hard to ignore. As Americans remembered—and some even mourned—the U.S. government’s deadly siege of a cult compound in Waco exactly 30 years prior, Trump was nursing his supporters’ distrust of government and even fact-based history.
For a spell earlier this year, Republicans seemed at least open to exploring other alternatives to a third Trump nomination for the White House. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed the most likely contender. But the urge to be RonCurious has faded, and his poll numbers similarly took the hit. Trump’s precarious position has forced Republicans—and even some independents—to rethink their antipathy for the ex-President. They may not love Trump, but they can’t help but to feel some suspicion at the prospect that a payment to save a married businessman the embarrassment of having a porn star detailing their alleged sexual encounters would be what ends Trump. The potentially attached bookkeeping crimes and maybe even the under-valuing of Manhattan properties to dodge tax liabilities isn’t great, but also probably not disqualifying in the minds of a lot of Republican voters.
Hence, the rallying moment behind Trump. Much like an anti-hero—in politics, theater, and Taylor Swift lyrics alike—the public finds the draw to cheer for them strong.
Without the legal threat staring down Trump, he would have to lean even more heavily on his record, his grievances with other corners of the government, or maybe even outline what exactly he would do if elected to a second term. (Besides bringing “vengeance” against his enemies, of course.) Even then, those aren’t exactly enough to keep a skeptical GOP set salved against more Trump blisters that, two years after he left the White House, are just starting to heal. The uncertainty over indictments and the subsequent drama carries with it much the same anxiety that accompanied both of Trump’s history-making impeachment trials, events that forced many Republicans to defend Trump lest they find themselves excommunicated and recast in this production.
To be sure, as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie observed, indictments don’t help anyone. But Trump may prove they don’t exactly hurt, either. The former President has raised millions so far from his self-announced pending arrest. The threat to his candidacy has drawn support from even some who flirted with NeverTrumpism. The stubborn streak inside the GOP that Trump fed for years is tough to shake, and the defiance incumbent with Trumpism has changed the political DNA for a lot of these voters.
Trump is unlikely to have been as strong at this point heading into the second quarter of this calendar year without the unexpected boost from prosecutors. His mainstream defenders don’t much like it, but they’ll take anything that helps the Republican Party’s chances of making Joe Biden a one-term President. Much like Trump’s realization that he needed something to jazz up his act, the GOP is casting about with its own Velma Kelly-esque “act of desperation,” to borrow from the script, to find a new partner. Yet no one in the wings has anything like Trump’s star power. At least not at this point in Act One of 2024.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org