As you know, this morning ex-President Trump announced that he’d received a target letter from prosecutor Jack Smith. While nothing is certain, this means there’s a strong likelihood that Trump will be indicted for his attempted coup in late 2020, culminating on January 6th, 2021. Yesterday Georgia’s Supreme Court unanimously rejected Trump’s Hail Mary bid to shut down Fulton County (Atlanta) DA Fani Willis’ investigation into Trump’s election tampering in Georgia. Indictments there seem likely as well. Trump has of course already been indicted for his theft and refusal to return classified documents in federal court in Florida as well as fraud in New York City. It now appears all but certain that Trump will A) receive the Republican presidential nomination with little real opposition and B) face four separate batches of felony indictments in four separate jurisdictions for crimes ranging from comparatively minor fraud to the greatest crime of all, attempting to overthrow the state and the constitution itself.
Those two almost certain probabilities — seemingly facts in utter contradiction — are in fact mutually reinforcing. A normal candidate would be driven from the race. For Trump they become just more evidence of a larger battle that validates his status as not simply the head but the inevitable leader of the Republican Party. His role as victim effectively boxes out any serious challenger for the nomination.
One effect of Trump’s probable January 6th indictment is removing a good bit of the centrality and leverage held by Judge Aileen Cannon in Florida. She can effectively slow roll Trump’s case through 2024 in time for Trump to shut down the case and promote her if he is reelected. But with another federal case in DC and two other state cases underway, her moonlighting on Trump’s legal team just matters a lot less.
Such as I’ve noted above is Trump’s version of reality. But for all his bravado and “multiple indictments, I’m Loving This!” protestations, the reality is that this amounts to an unmitigated disaster for the GOP.
Perhaps 20% of the electorate believes Trump is above the law and that any legal entanglement that might constrain the man is on its face illegitimate. That substantial slice of the electorate all but guarantees him the Republican nomination. But they aren’t nearly enough to win a general election. What’s more, the events of January 6th (which includes the probable state charges in Georgia) are damaging to Trump in a way the ones in New York and Florida simply are not.
This isn’t merely taking the obvious gravity of the crimes and assuming a commensurate public response. We have lots of evidence. The nadirs of Trump’s public support and the only times GOP elites have toyed with the idea of abandoning him came when January 6th was at the center of public attention. That was on January 6th itself and during the public airing of those events during the January 6th committee hearings in summer and fall of 2022. Elected Republicans are happy to defend Trump on the charges in New York City. They are never wobblier than when called to defend Trump’s actions in the winter of 2020–21.
This isn’t to say all but a handful of Republicans want Trump to suffer any consequences. They want to memory hole it. Their main goal is simply to forget it ever happened. When it comes up, all but a few refuse to defend it on the merits and say that it’s time to move on. If you can’t move on then it’s simply inappropriate for a current President’s administration to prosecute his predecessor. Each argument is simply a new path to end the conversation and stop talking about it. They tell their story in spite of themselves by their palpable discomfort whenever they’re forced to grapple with the actual facts of what happened.
I make no assumption that Joe Biden will be reelected. I think he will. But modern presidential elections are simply too close to have even a relative certainty about the outcome. There are too many chance factors in too many states that could shift the outcome in one way or another. Yet there’s no denying having a candidate fighting felony charges in four separate jurisdictions in less than ideal. Having one set be for a violent attempt to overthrow the government is quite bad.
But it doesn’t only affect Trump.
In some cases of Trump wrongdoing we know what happened. It’s just what you make of it. There’s no drama on that front. In the case of January 6th, we don’t fully know what happened. Some facts of the case are known only to those closely following the details. Many likely remain unknown for the simple reason that Jack Smith’s investigation is the first able to compel testimony and secure cooperation from co-conspirators. There’s probably a lot that we’ll learn.
It would be foolish to think that even the gravest revelations will break Trump’s lock on the GOP. But that’s not the question. Every Republican candidate will carry those facts through the election. They’re the kind of impossible-to-answer questions that could easily knock a few percentage points of support from a number of Republican candidates. In a closely divided country, with closely divided houses of Congress, those small shifts can make all the difference.
The final point is that Trump is far, far more unhinged now than he ever was during his presidency. His exile to his lifestyle social network Truth Social plays some role in this. The fact that he mostly sticks to Fox and the startup Trumpite networks also plays a role. Beyond his diehard supporters most people don’t have a sense of the level of violence and threat toward basically everyone outside of the MAGA movement that are now just part of Trump’s normal speech. Facing years in prison brings out his most feral and peristaltic tendencies.
Whatever the outcome, the outlines of the 2024 presidential election are now fairly clear. The GOP and every candidate running under its mantle is handcuffed to Donald Trump. There’s no turning back.