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Donald Trump is getting indicted and tried all the way into a third Republican presidential nomination, and perhaps a second term in office.
Trump’s court dates and legal entanglements aren’t a distraction from his campaign, as some observers predicted; in large part, they are the campaign.
We’re all familiar with the so-called front-porch campaigns of the late-19th century, most famously the Republican William McKinley who would have delegations of supporters visit him at his home in Canton, Ohio. Joe Biden built on the concept with his lockdown-compliant basement campaign during the 2020 campaign (at least McKinley interacted with real people).
Now, Trump has come up with another variant of this concept — the courtroom campaign.
It involves massive media attention before, during and after court appearances; images and statements of bold, unadorned defiance; and inflamed Republican emotions from the sense that he is being treated unfairly.
This is the potent political cocktail that Trump has used to build what appears to be a nearly unassailable lead in the Republican primaries. Perhaps GOP voters were going to swing toward Trump no matter what, or maybe the struggles of the Ron DeSantis campaign have played a big role. But everything suggests that, so far, Trump’s legal travails have been political gold.
Certainly, Trump’s opponents within the party have been thinking, “Please, make it stop,” since the initial Alvin Bragg indictment. But it hasn’t stopped, and it’s not going to stop.
Every key juncture of Trump’s legal drama has allowed him to dominate the fight for media coverage, which, as we learned in the 2016 nomination battle, is key terrain in a primary. Trump’s various indictments, arraignments and court appearances have given him an entirely new way to blot out the sun.
It used to be that candidate debates were, besides some traditional occasions (a state fair, a party dinner), the most important events on the political calendar. No more.
So there was a nice initial Republican debate in August? Well, the next day there was an instantly iconic Trump mugshot everywhere on TV and social media.
There was another, not-so-great Republican debate in September. Who cares? Trump showed up at his civil fraud trial in New York City the following Monday.
When much of the Republican Party is in a state of high alarm about the instruments of the establishment being used against the right, Donald Trump is starring in a real-life drama about partisan prosecutors and the Biden Justice Department trying to annihilate his business and jail him ahead of the 2024 election.
What else is going to generate more interest and sympathy among perhaps a decisive proportion of Republicans
than that? Promises to end the deep state, which we hear from almost all the Republican candidates, are nothing compared to Trump spitting fury at legal adversaries who are playing for keeps.
It only helps Trump that, despite his sundry deceptions and disgraceful conduct, the myriad legal actions against him are generally ridiculous at worst and ambiguous and legally adventurous at best, while almost all represent blatant selective prosecution.
Perhaps the political reaction in his favor wouldn’t have been as strong if he’d only been prosecuted for obstruction related to his handling of classified documents, a case where Special Counsel Jack Smith seems to have him nailed. But not for the first time, Trump and his enemies have a symbiotic relationship — they want to destroy him by any means necessary, and he uses their enmity as his chief political calling card.
This time, the stakes are higher than ever, and we could be heading to a true “Gotterdammerung” next year, with a major-party presidential candidate at risk of going to jail months before a national election. Republican voters would be wise to avoid finding out where this ends by nominating any of the plausible alternatives to Trump. But none of them are being charged or arraigned like the frontrunner, whose courtroom campaign is overwhelming them all.
(Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry)
(c) 2023 by King Features Syndicate