Skip to content
Reason and the Mob
Go to my account

Reason and the Mob

Trump rivals can’t capitalize on his indictment.

A supporter of former President Donald Trump poses for a photo while holding a banner referring to QAnon outside of the Trump National Doral resort on June 12, 2023, in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Yesterday was Arraignment Day. Tomorrow will mark one week since Indictment Day. Let’s check in with some Republican voters to see how they’re processing the news.

Darlene Doetzel lives in Michigan.

“Had it not been for the witch hunt, if they’d left him alone, I’d probably be for Ron DeSantis,” said Doetzel, a retiree and a devoted GOP activist wearing a pink blazer over a black T-shirt emblazoned with rhinestones that spelled out the word “Trump.”

“Since they’re persecuting my president,” she added, “I swear allegiance to him.”

Why she can’t vote for DeSantis in the primary while supporting Trump in his legal defense is unclear.

David Marcus is a well-known conservative commentator who writes for, among other publications.

When Marcus was warned in the replies to that tweet that Trump “would abandon you for a plain McDonald’s hamburger,” he answered, “I don’t doubt it for a second. But it doesn’t alter my analysis. If this biased hatchet job works to keep him out of office it will happen again and again.”

The Washington Post managed to find a Republican voter in Miami who’s troubled by Trump’s conduct. Specifically, he’s troubled that the former president once employed people who are less than slavishly loyal to him. “In a way, I blame him for being in this mess. When you appoint two corrupt attorney generals—Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions—well, you create your own demise,” Lazaro Ecenarro told the paper, neglecting to explain what Barr and Sessions have to do with any of this.

“You’re nutpicking,” you might think after reading all of that. Am I?

One reputable national poll published since the indictment shows Trump’s lead over DeSantis widening. Another finds the share of Republicans who think better of Trump in light of the federal charges to be twice as large as the share who think less of him. Brian Kemp, a rare conservative who’s defied Trump more than once and lived to tell the tale, nonetheless felt obliged to affirm this morning that he’ll “wholeheartedly” support the GOP nominee next year, indictment or no indictment.

Meanwhile, the most powerful right-wing propaganda outlet in the United States has taken to covering the case against Trump this way:

What’s a Republican presidential candidate to do with an electorate that stands and salutes upon being told that their leader values them less than a hamburger?

How do you win a party primary when the litmus test of what it means to be a member of that party in good standing is displaying blind allegiance to one of your opponents?

Yesterday I wrote about the struggles of Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Ron DeSantis to reason with the Trump mob about the gravity of the charges against him while somehow maintaining the requisite modicum of allegiance needed to preserve their Republican credibility. Twenty-four hours later, that impossible task looks even less possible.

After timidly and indirectly criticizing Trump’s handling of classified material in brief remarks last Friday, DeSantis rolled out a more formal response on Tuesday. He plans to “tear down and rebuild” the Justice Department and FBI once he becomes president, a proposal that’s true to the Warren-esque spirit of his campaign by offering a policy solution to every last grievance his base feels.

It’s also not how the second-place candidate in a presidential race would typically react to the first-place candidate being federally indicted, I think you’ll agree.

But it might be the most rational move DeSantis can make in a party whose members have become wildly irrational in their preferences. The New York Times describes advisers to rival campaigns wrestling today with the surreal task of “trying to persuade Republican primary voters, who are inured to Mr. Trump’s years of controversies and deeply distrustful of the government, that being criminally charged for holding onto classified documents is a bad thing.” If you can’t tell your base that being indicted on 37 felony counts is a problem, what can you do?

Answer: You can live to fight another day by passing the litmus test of allegiance posed by the indictment, training your fire on the DOJ instead of on Trump. By implicitly affirming Trump’s martyrdom at the hands of the “deep state,” DeSantis will escape from this episode with his viability intact. If something unexpected happens later this year to knock Trump from the race, the governor will remain poised to inherit his supporters—which, increasingly, seems like the only way he might win the presidency.

The problem for him and the rest of the field is that there’s always another litmus test. The next one they’ll face to demonstrate that they’re really, truly on Trump’s side in his dispute with the DOJ is whether they’ll pardon him if elected president.

Nikki Haley has already been forced to take that test. She passed. Sort of.

“I think we all need to let this trial play out. We need to see exactly what happens. When you look at a pardon, the issue is less about guilt and more about what’s good for the country. And I think it would be terrible for the country to have a former president in prison for years because of a documents case,” Haley said on “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show” when asked if she’d commit to pardoning Trump if elected.

“That’s something you’d see in a Third World country. I saw that at the United Nations, so I would be inclined in favor of a pardon. But I think it’s really pretty mature at this point when he’s not even been convicted of anything,” she added.

A Third World country?

Trump’s former attorney general has called the indictment “very, very damning.” His former secretary of state believes the evidence it lays out shows Trump wasn’t protecting America’s troops. His former running mate and VP says he can’t defend the conduct described in the document. When an opposition leader is charged by the governing party in a Third World country, his own cronies don’t typically vouch for the prosecution, do they?

And those charges don’t typically issue from a duly empaneled grand jury, I’m guessing.

A few months ago I wrote about the tricky politics of pardoning Trump in the Stormy Daniels matter, for which he was indicted in Manhattan. (Those were state charges, not federal ones, but still.) Legal experts are all but unanimous in finding that case to be a weak one, resting as it does on a dubious theory involving some “second crime” that Trump supposedly facilitated. It might be better for American law and American politics if he were spared a questionable prosecution with a pardon.

But I can’t think of a reason for Nikki Haley or any other Republican to spare him from prosecution in the classified-documents matter apart from the obvious one: It’s now a litmus test in the GOP primary and if they fail it they’ll be anathema to the Republican base.

It’s so much of a litmus test, in fact, that other candidates have begun to push it on the competition before Trump himself has had a chance to do so.

To grasp how abnormal and unhealthy the right has become, contemplate that the frontrunner’s own opponents see a surer path to advancing within the party by insisting on impunity for the crimes he’s allegedly committed than by demanding accountability for them.

And not just any crimes but crimes against national security. And not just any crimes against national security but the stupidest crimes imaginable. Crimes that never would have happened had Trump not needlessly claimed government property as his own and then kept on concealing it despite 18 months of low-key federal efforts to persuade him to give them back.

There’s not even a “for the good of the country” argument for pardoning him, as there was for Richard Nixon. Nixon was a disgraced figure who would have been removed from office by Congress on a bipartisan vote had he not resigned. His political career was over when he was pardoned by Gerald Ford. Those circumstances are ripe for issuing clemency in the name of national reconciliation: The chapter is closed, practically everyone in a position of influence admits that he did wrong, let’s move on.

This time is different.

There’s no moral argument for pardoning Trump on the federal charges.

He and his fans won’t admit that he did wrong, for one thing. The past five days have seen a sweaty mishmash of explanations and excuses for his behavior flung at the wall in hopes that something will stick. Some apologists have insisted that the relevant question is whether he shared state secrets, not whether he failed to secure them, which isn’t the standard anywhere else in government. Others have taken to misreading the Presidential Records Act on his behalf. Ben Shapiro took to suggesting that, in order to restore public faith in the justice system, only Republicans should prosecute Republicans.

Trump himself has begun to emphasize the alleged “banana republic” nature of his prosecution in hopes of appealing to Latino refugees, never mind that no president has cultivated the persona of a caudillo as lavishly as he has and that we’re two years removed from him attempting to stage an autogolpe.

Trump wouldn’t move on if he were pardoned, either. If clemency were granted in 2025 by President Haley or DeSantis—or Biden—he would resolve to reenter politics immediately and contend for the 2028 nomination. The most gratitude one could expect from him if he were freed by Biden would be a half-baked conspiracy theory that Sleazy Joe must have committed crimes of his own and only released him because he’s worried about a precedent in which former presidents get prosecuted by the opposing party.

It should also go without saying that there won’t be any national reconciliation with people who value spiting their opponents more highly than they do responsible government and who insist that they owe Trump their allegiance in the same breath that they admit he’d trade them for a hot dog. Pardoning him would be less a matter of “healing the country,” as was the case with Nixon, than appeasing a faction of feral populists whom everyone fears might turn violent if their crooked leader suffers too much hardship. It would amount to rewarding and incentivizing illiberal intimidation tactics, not reuniting America.

When a party isn’t willing to admit that its leader has done wrong, to learn from his mistakes, and to seek a new direction, there’s no argument for excusing him. But if DeSantis, Haley, or any other Republican were to say that, their careers would be over instantly. “Every campaign right now that is not Donald Trump is receiving pressure from donors to go harder against Donald Trump,” an aide to a non-Trump campaign told NBC. “The pressure is there. Is that where the larger Republican [electorate is] as a whole? Look at the comments from these various campaigns. You would see that none of them are taking that advice.”

Who would want to lead a party in which asserting that no one should be above the law amounts to professional suicide?

Jonah Goldberg touched on an important irony of the cultish “we can’t abandon Trump when he’s being persecuted” faction in a tweet last night: “He doesn’t think enough of his supporters to behave in a remotely responsible way precisely because he knows his supporters are such cheap dates.”

That’s an underappreciated aspect of his comment from 2016 about not losing any votes if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Typically that remark is cited as a gloss on the fanaticism of his supporters, but rarely is it pointed out that he’s more likely to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue because he’s confident that his fans will make excuses for him if he does.

Show a sociopath that you’ll never hold him accountable and he’ll behave ever more sociopathically. Go figure.

A few DeSantis-friendly commentators have made that point in a roundabout way. Even if you think the “deep state” is out to get Trump, they’re prone to say, he’s an idiot for having made it easy for them. If he hadn’t handled classified material so irresponsibly, they wouldn’t have had grounds to come after him. Wouldn’t you rather have a nominee who doesn’t sabotage himself by acting with reckless impunity?

To all appearances, most of the party would not. Republicans are sticking with him for now. And because they are, because he knows they’ll vote for him even if he trades them for a hamburger, he’ll go on behaving recklessly and thrusting them—and us—into ever more embarrassing and destabilizing political crises.

Unless, that is, he destroys the party’s chances of recapturing power first. One wonders if the cumulative effect of his indictments will be to make the Republican nominee unelectable in 2024, no matter who it is.

The idea that they might make Trump unelectable is straightforward. The more charges pile up, the more appealing a Weekend at Bernie’s Biden second term might seem to swing voters compared to a Trump crime spree organized from the White House. Some of those swing voters might even be Republicans, as 38 percent say Trump’s retention of nuclear and military documents created a national-security risk. Joe Biden might sleep 18 hours a day, but those are 18 hours in which he’s not needlessly exposing classified information to malefactors.

What if DeSantis ends up prevailing in the primary, though?

As Trump faces more charges, possibly soon in Georgia, the “we can’t abandon him when he’s being persecuted” faction will grow even more embittered and dig in. If they can’t hold off the wing of the party that wants a more electable nominee, inevitably they’ll come to see DeSantis’ victory as a form of dirty pool. It’s not the governor who defeated Trump, they’ll insist, it’s the DOJ. Republican voters let the latest “hoax” from Washington choose their candidate.

DeSantis didn’t win, the “deep state” did.

I’ve always been skeptical that many Trump voters would boycott the general election if the governor beat their guy in the primary, but if the perception sinks in that DeSantis was the beneficiary of the feds putting their thumb on the scale for a candidate who’s already been attacked by MAGA populists as “controlled opposition,” I’d want to revisit that. The “Fifth Avenue” mentality among them, already so destructive for everyone not named “Donald Trump,” might end up dooming their party to another four years out of power. If it does, it’s what they deserve.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.