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The Shifting Politics of a Trump Indictment
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The Shifting Politics of a Trump Indictment

A test for conservative media.

Donald Trump. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Have you seen Murdoch media today?

By “Murdoch media,” I mean the cluster of right-wing properties owned by Trump frenemy Rupert Murdoch. The Wall Street Journal. The New York Post. And Fox News, most influentially.

After Tuesday night’s debacle, they suddenly sound as keen on a Trump 2024 run as I do.

Here was the cover of New York City’s conservative tabloid.

That headline graced a stemwinder of a column by John Podhoretz accusing Trump of having sabotaged the GOP in the midterms. In Wednesday’s Post, Trump stalwart Michael Goodwin pronounced Ron DeSantis the future of the party and mused that Trump no longer looks inevitable as nominee. Today the editorial board published its own tribute to the governor, encouraging him to “Run, Ron, run!”

If that seems like overkill in ushering Trump toward the door, go look at the Journal’s op-ed page. They’re not so much ushering him toward the door as shoving him with both hands.

“Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser,” reads the lead editorial. In a column warning about “the Trump liability for the GOP,” Daniel Henninger declares that the 2024 election will be over the day you-know-who declares his candidacy. Karl Rove laments that Trump left the red wave out at sea by endorsing “nuts or knuckleheads.” Other pieces celebrate DeSantis’ Florida tsunami and wonder what it might mean for Trump’s aspirations.

There’s even an excerpt from Mike Pence’s new book reminding readers how Trump pressured him to try to overturn the election.

Fox News got in on the act, too. Here’s a little something that aired this afternoon.

Last night Jesse Watters, the network’s usually Trumpy 7 p.m. guy, wondered why Trump’s “massive war chest” wasn’t used to help get Republican candidates over the finish line. Populist sycophants elsewhere have devoted the last 48 hours trying to scapegoat Mitch McConnell for not spending more on the election, never mind that McConnell’s PACs combined spent more than 10 times as much as Trump’s did. Watters, notably, was having none of it.

And then there was Laura Ingraham offering these comments about no one in particular.

Going to 2024, the Republicans are going to be looking for candidates who are focused on winning – not just making a point or settling a score. So, to really change it, we’re gonna have to win and we have to win over voters outside our traditional base. That means young people, too.

That’s got to be the goal for the next presidential election. The populist movement is about ideas. It is not about any one person. If the voters conclude that you’re putting your own ego or your own grudges ahead of what’s good for the country, they’re going to look elsewhere, period.

It’s been a long time since conservative media cared about persuading voters “outside our traditional base” rather than keeping voters within our traditional base blind drunk on rage-ahol.

Progress is a journey, though, and all journeys begin with a single step. Even seems ready to take that step.

Other mainstream conservative outlets have the knives out as well. National Review, which went from “Against Trump” in 2016 to mostly anti-anti-Trump during his presidency to “enough already” post-insurrection, has columns out in the last 48 hours titled “Pick Now: It’s Trump, or Winning” and “Donald Trump’s GOP Establishment Has Failed.” Notably, Andy McCarthy has a piece touting the silver lining in Tuesday’s disappointment, that it gives the American right an opportunity to wean itself off of Trump.

It’s notable because an even better opportunity is about to arrive, maybe sooner than we think.

How Republicans and the media outlets that cater to them respond to that opportunity will tell us much about whether that weaning is likely to happen or not.

Donald Trump is probably going to be indicted.

Whether he’ll be indicted by the Justice Department or the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, or both, I don’t know. And whether he’s likely to be convicted if he’s indicted is above my pay grade. For insight on that, ask the real lawyers on the Dispatch staff, Sarah Isgur and David French.

Criminal or not, it’s clear from the available reporting that the behavior for which he might be charged was corrupt. His attorneys warned him last year not to hold on to the sensitive national security documents he brought from the White House to Mar-a-Lago. He ignored them. And Trump surely knew when he dialed up Brad Raffensperger after the 2020 election and asked him to “find” an extra 11,000+ votes in Georgia that that might be understood by some to constitute tampering with the election. He did it anyway.

At a moment when Republican voters have cause to wonder, some perhaps for the first time, whether Trump has become a drag on their party with swing voters, watching him get indicted—twice—might be the final straw that persuades them he’s unelectable in 2024.

I say “might” because that sure wasn’t the reaction after the FBI searched his home at Mar-a-Lago in August.

In case you’ve forgotten, it was Trump himself who confirmed that news on social media, not the feds. Normally human beings aren’t prone to announcing to the world that they’re under criminal suspicion, but there was a method to his madness. He understood that being investigated by Joe Biden’s DOJ would be an asset for him politically, not a liability, the capstone on five years of shrieking about the “deep state” running a political vendetta against him. Republican voters who were drifting away from him and toward DeSantis would come racing back to defend him, convinced that nominating him for president a third time would be the only proper way to own the crooked deep state libs.

In the Before Times, a presidential candidate having his home searched by the FBI would be a career-ending scandal. In this, the darkest timeline, it was so obviously helpful to Trump’s ambitions that his advisers couldn’t hide their delight when asked about it by reporters. One pronounced the Mar-a-Lago search “the end of the DeSantasy.” Another agreed that the search had made it effectively impossible for DeSantis to challenge Trump.

And the polling suggested they were right. That month, Trump reached the apex of his support in Morning Consult’s periodic surveys of whom Republicans prefer as nominee in 2024. That being so, if the GOP had had a big night on Tuesday, I’d guess there was a roughly 100 percent chance that Trump being indicted this fall would have all but clinched the nomination for him. “They want to throw me in jail on phony charges because it’s the only way to stop us from winning!” he would have told his fans. They would have believed him.

But the GOP didn’t have a big night on Tuesday.

How many Republican voters, newly troubled by the party’s underperformance and dazzled by DeSantis’ landslide, will now greet criminal charges against Trump ambivalently? How much of mainstream conservative media, which otherwise would have greeted the charges ambivalently, will now trumpet them enthusiastically as the last nail in the coffin proving that Trump is unelectable and the DeSantis era has begun?

The populist right just got a hard lesson that some of the traits they valorize in Republican politicians, like believing in conspiracy theories, repel swing voters. Some populists will inevitably wonder how that lesson might apply to nominating someone in 2024 with felony charges pending against him.

The red wave fading into a “red ripple” means that the politics of a Trump indictment have shifted.

Obviously, no one knows yet how much they might have shifted. But the latest data from Morning Consult is intriguing.

Trump’s August “FBI bounce” has faded. He’s now approaching his post-insurrection low while DeSantis has reached his highest level of support to date. Let me stress: This poll was conducted before Tuesday, at a moment when Republicans still believed that a Trump-led red wave was inbound. It’s anyone’s guess what the polling will look like after their excitement over DeSantis’ victory and their disappointment over MAGA candidates is fully priced in. Or what it will look like if Trump announces his 2024 candidacy as scheduled this coming Tuesday and Herschel Walker promptly gets schlonged in Georgia’s Senate runoff next month.

Or what it will look like if and when an indictment of Trump is handed down.

No, I haven’t forgotten the cardinal rule of being a Never Trumper. Only suckers have hope, I know. But there are reasons to think This Time Might Be Different. There’s now a popular populist alternative to Trump in the figure of DeSantis, with an electability pitch so stellar that it might even penetrate the thick heads of “Stop the Steal” true believers. And if there’s any priority that MAGA cultists hold higher than loyalty to Trump, it’s the urgent need to crush the libs by winning power. Until Tuesday, Trump had them convinced he was their last, best hope of doing that in 2024. After Tuesday, some are destined to reconsider.

And another thing. The Republican base does seem to believe that it lost fair and square this time, at least if the reaction of their favorite candidates is any indication. David French is right that a party that can’t accept when it’s lost won’t be moved to change course. But the GOP may, at long, long last, have finally reached the acceptance phase.

For right-wing media, all of this is treacherous ground.

If you want to be a big shot in conservative media, memorize this: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

Rule one for right-wing influencers is to never, ever get on the wrong side of your audience. And if you do happen to find yourself there, you’d better haul ass to get back on the right side. No matter how big and supposedly influential you are, there’s always someone right behind you in the ratings eager to gobble up the alienated portion of your audience once you’ve failed an important litmus test and turn you into a has-been.

Which is how Mr. Conservative, Rush Limbaugh, ended up hedging on whether his listeners should back small-government Ted Cruz or Democrat-turned-big-government authoritarian Donald Trump in 2016. Rush saw which way his people were going and so he followed them.

For he was their leader.

Not crossing your audience is especially important in populist media, which most of its consumers view as an arm of information warfare against the left. However insightful your takes may be, if you’re criticizing the right’s excesses then to these people you’re little better than a soldier fragging his own troops. In their minds, the first duty of right-wing platforms isn’t to inform or entertain. It’s to “fight.”

Now here we all are at a crossroads, one road leading to Indicted Trump 2024 and the other to DeSantis 2024. And like everyone else, conservative media has no idea yet which way the people, whom they must follow in order to lead, will go.

You may perhaps recall that we’ve been at crossroads like this one before—many times. In some cases, notably after January 6, conservative influencers began marching down the road away from Trump believing that Republican voters would surely soon be marching in that direction too, only to end up scrambling back once they realized the painful truth.

I was thinking about all of this today after watching Ben Shapiro take a baby step on the “DeSantis 2024” road.

Do we think The Daily Wire, one of the most successful platforms in populist conservative media, will keep up the warnings about nominating erratic, possibly criminal candidates if the huge Daily Wire audience decides that it must support an indicted Trump again for the sake of spiting the libs? How many readers is DW prepared to lose to Gateway Pundit or whoever in the name of pressing its case for Ron DeSantis?

Do we expect Murdoch media will insist on siding with Merrick Garland and the DOJ against Trump to help DeSantis if Fox News’ ratings start to slip while ratings for Newsmax, which is positioning itself as Team Trump in 2024, soar? That’s no hypothetical. Remember how Newsmax benefited the last time Fox angered Trump fans by showing “disloyalty.”

Major populist media sites could try to lead for once by making a sustained case that nominating a would-be felon is a bad idea, even if doing so costs them audience share, dollars, and stature. Take it from a guy who found himself unemployable in most of conservative media after 16 years because of his own sustained case against Trump: Some things are more important than money.

But I’m not optimistic that they’ll follow through. For one thing, Trump is reportedly planning to go scorched-earth on DeSantis in hopes of leading Republicans down the Trump 2024 road, forcing populist media to decide soon whether to follow them or risk being left behind. From Rolling Stone:

Trump has been asking his advisors to keep tabs on high profile Republicans’ 2024 posturing, monitoring for signs that they’re moving away from the former president and toward DeSantis or other potential rivals, the first source tells Rolling Stone. And Trump has for months regularly insulted DeSantis behind his back, accusing him of being, among other things, a MAGA rip-off artist who constantly steals from Trump and the ex-president’s family.

As he prepares to announce his own 2024 run, Trump has been soliciting dirt on DeSantis and other potential primary rivals, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Trump has also spread gossip about DeSantis, including unverified allegations about his private life. Rolling Stone is declining to repeat what Trump has said.

“Trump or DeSantis?” will become the ultimate MAGA litmus test. Some Republican politicians are already scrambling to pass it, knowing what might happen if they wait too long to choose.

Trumpers will doubtless also try to reframe DeSantis as the candidate of the “elites,” the GOP donor class, the eggheads at National Review, and the out-of-touch establishment at Fox, the sort of guy whom our corrupt Justice Department would never fear enough to try to sabotage with a phony indictment. And that pitch might work. As Peter Wehner notes at The Atlantic, the Republican base of 2022 is quite different from the Republican base of 2016. Untold numbers of Trump-skeptical normies have fled the party over the past six years, leaving a rump primary electorate that’s “radicalized and anarchic.” Never forget that the nuttiest major candidate on a ballot this year, Doug Mastriano, was more than 10 points ahead in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary even before Trump endorsed him.

If you were running The Daily Wire or Breitbart or whatever and your bottom line depended on catering to people like that, how much would you gamble that your readers will be receptive if you align yourself with the “deep state” against Trump on electability grounds?

We’ll see. Hope springs eternal that This Time Might Be Different. But I had to laugh at one HuffPost reporter’s reaction to the excited chatter about conservative media turning on Trump. “Real ‘but we can still stop Trump at the convention!’ vibes among GOP elites right now,” Igor Bobic wrote. Indeed.

Let me leave you with another thought from Wehner, which I fear will get lost in the shuffle in the unlikely event that conservative media really does revolt on DeSantis’ behalf. “If the Republican Party does break with Trump now, it will be for only one reason, which is that he’s costing it power,” Wehner notes. “Everything else he did—the relentless assault on truth, the unlimited corruption, the cruelty and incitements to violence, the lawlessness, his sheer depravity—was tolerable and even celebrated, so long as he was in power and viewed by Republicans as the path to more power.”

Failing to own the libs is the only mortal sin known to MAGA’s perverted morality. (“Diseased” is how Wehner describes it, aptly.) Trump failed badly to own them on Tuesday night. For the first time in a long time, the future is suddenly uncertain.

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.