It took barely a flick of Donald Trump’s wrist to set the whole circus back into motion.
“WITH NO CRIME ABLE TO BE PROVEN, & BASED ON AN OLD & FULLY DEBUNKED (BY NUMEROUS OTHER PROSECUTORS!) FAIRYTALE, THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE & FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK,” Trump wrote, or “Truthed,” on his personal social-media site, Truth Social, on the morning of March 18.
By the time the Manhattan grand jury finally voted to indict Trump on March 30, all the GOP’s old reflexes had kicked in again. As if by muscle memory, Republican officeholders and candidates fell all over themselves to air their indignation at the supposed victimization of a politician being prosecuted for allegedly paying off a porn star, using money donated to his campaign, on the eve of a national election, to conceal an extramarital tryst. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called for an investigation, and three House committee chairmen demanded the Manhattan D.A. testify before Congress about the “politically motivated prosecutorial decision” that had yet to occur.
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While the historic indictment of a former President marked a turning point in the nascent 2024 campaign, it was the scramble to come to Trump’s defense that might ultimately prove to be a more pivotal moment. Just a few months ago, Republicans’ disappointing performance in the midterms marked the third straight national election Trump tanked for the GOP, and a new consensus began to form: he was weak, a loser, yesterday’s news. With at least five civil and criminal investigations percolating and a new generation of candidates in the mix, it was finally time for Republicans to cut the cord.
But when the time came to actually stand up to him, Trump’s primary rivals and political enablers were too cowardly or calculating to throw much of a punch. Nikki Haley, Trump’s major declared opponent and former U.N. Ambassador, dismissed the potential indictment on Fox News as “more about revenge than it is about justice.” Another active candidate, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, went further, blasting the “disastrously politicized prosecution” and calling on other Republicans to condemn it. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is openly considering a run, told an interviewer the probe “reeks of the kind of political prosecution we endured in the days of the Russia hoax.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has yet to declare his candidacy, came closest to a swipe, taking care to excoriate the “Soros-funded prosecutor” overseeing the Manhattan case while also impishly referencing the underlying conduct. “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said, at a March 20 news conference. “I just, I can’t speak to that.”
But Trump gleefully seized on this political straddle, exultant at finally having baited his would-be rival into the ring after months of attacks. Trump issued a 327-word statement lambasting DeSantis as, among other things, “an average Governor” whose appeal to GOP voters was “HARDLY GREATNESS.” The statement was Trump’s usual word salad of innuendo and ad hominem, a nonsensical and largely baseless critique. But in Trump’s perpetual game of dominance, there can be no question who is the alpha.
One Florida-based GOP strategist not tied to either man’s camp told me Trump seemed to have “found his stride” by monopolizing attention around the incident, while DeSantis appeared rattled. “The moment DeSantis poked his head up, that’s where Trump wants to be,” says the strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity. DeSantis, he says, is “in the process of getting bloodied like he’s never gotten bloodied before. We’ll see if he can handle it.”
If the pattern holds, the 2024 primary could be over before it has even begun, with the GOP once more dominated by the toxic demands of its chaotic leader. Polls show Trump is getting stronger: A national survey conducted by Monmouth University and released March 21 showed Trump beating DeSantis by 14 points among Republican primary voters—a reversal from December, when the same pollster found DeSantis leading Trump by 13 points. Suddenly the party appears imprisoned in a familiar trap: unwilling to stand up to its own base voters’ loyalties, and stymied yet again by Trump’s well-worn divide-and-conquer strategy.
“It is amazing to me that the party that talks about masculinity continues to belly-crawl for this man, a bully who hides behind the walls of a Florida mansion,” says Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman from Virginia. His former colleagues, Riggleman says, remain deathly afraid of the sway Trump still holds over many of their voters. “They have so permanently lowered the standard that we’re somehow not even talking about whether he’s guilty of using an illegal tax pass-through to pay off an adult-film star—instead, we’re debating whether the indictment is political and how it will affect his popularity. This should be about the rule of law: did he do it or not?”
For nearly eight years now, Republicans have struggled to move on from Trump, despite being afforded countless opportunities to cut him loose—from the outrages of the 2016 campaign, to the scandal-fest of his Presidential term, to the impeachments and insurrection that punctuated its end. Evidence from the voting-machine company Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox News has proved what the political world already knew: that even Trump’s most ardent propagandists privately despise him and wish he would go away. Out of office for the past two years, he finally seemed to fade somewhat, popping back up in the news from time to time with the occasional weird endorsement or dinner with white supremacists and Holocaust deniers. The launch of his third campaign, in November, was widely derided as low-energy, and his campaign seemed to limp along while DeSantis gained ground.
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It is, of course, early in the process, with most potential Trump rivals yet to declare their candidacy. But in a party whose ideology and leadership appeared up for grabs not long ago, a familiar dynamic is setting back in. In a January survey GOP pollster Whit Ayres conducted for the center-right Bulwark publication, Ayres found the party split into three factions: about 10% who do not support Trump; about a third who are reflexively, devotedly loyal to the former President; and a majority, 52%, of fair-weather voters who supported Trump in the past but now yearn for an alternative who can win in 2024. It’s still possible, Ayres says, that the latter group will view Trump’s indictment as more evidence that he is too burdened by political baggage to be the best nominee. “The ultimate impact of any indictment depends completely on what the charges are, how much evidence there is, and what the ultimate trial turns out to be like,” Ayres says. “No one can reliably anticipate the reaction to something that’s never happened before.”
Even some Trump opponents worry that the legal uncertainties surrounding the case may be shaky and therefore serve to boost him. “We’re going to indict a former President for, essentially, misdemeanor falsification of business records?” says former Michigan GOP congressman Peter Meijer. “We’re crossing the Rubicon for that? That seems like f—ing weak sauce.” Trump, Meijer points out, succeeded in whipping up a media frenzy before any arrest actually occurred. “He is an absolute savant when it comes to getting reactions,” Meijer says. “That’s not a shame on him so much as it’s a shame on the rest of us.”
Since seeding rumors of his imminent arrest, Trump has warned of “potential death & destruction” if charges are brought and repeatedly called on his supporters to protest, a vague-for-now summons that nonetheless harks back to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. It was a reminder that for a broad swath of Americans, Trump has succeeded in delegitimizing virtually all the institutions of democracy—from elections to the courts to the current White House—and he may well retain the ability to summon a violent army to a time and place of his choosing.
“There are tens of millions of Americans who believe that government institutions are aligned against the true and rightful President, ordained from on high, and as far as they’re concerned the ends justify the means in an apocalyptic battle of good against evil,” says Riggleman, the former Virginia congressman. “This seemingly inexhaustible grift, raising money based on fear, is really all Trump has. But the formula works.”
With reporting by Leslie Dickstein
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