How Trump Will Campaign As a Convicted Felon

A new crisis for the king of chaos.
Photo: Mark Peterson

Donald Trump’s most important consolation after a Manhattan jury found him guilty of 34 criminal counts is that he has anticipated this moment for a long time. He was indicted 14 months ago with subsequent criminal indictments following in Florida, in Atlanta, and in Washington. Ever since, he has been running for president as a man under criminal indictment, and coping with that fact has been central to his strategy and message. Indeed, it became clear a long time ago that Trump’s endless preoccupation with his failed 2020 stolen-election fables, a backward-facing stance that initially baffled political observers, was actually a way of conditioning voters to view his future treatment by the justice system skeptically, if not with great hostility.

During this year’s Republican nominating contest, this strategy worked brilliantly, not only insulating Trump from criticism from his rivals about his misconduct in the cases that led to his serial indictments but actually making his alleged criminality a badge of honor. His increasingly shrill attacks on the prosecutors he faced helped boost him to an easy win in the primaries as the hero of conservatives angry at the Democrats and liberal elites seeking to hold him accountable. Now that he has been found guilty in a case brought by a Democratic prosecutor in a dark-blue constituency, to the delight of those liberal elites, Trump can be expected to keep on with the same chest-thumping professions of innocence and victimization (and promises of vengeance) with the Republican Party that has already nominated him dragooned willingly into joining his crusade for vindication.

There’s no particular reason to doubt that Trump’s ongoing call for loyalty will continue to work with a Republican base that very badly wants to respond to it favorably. Pre-verdict polls have consistently shown that a significant share of Republicans would “reconsider” their support for Trump if he were convicted of any crime. But “reconsidering” isn’t the same as “abandoning.” As a May 5 AP-Ipsos poll showed, most of these voters will likely wind up right back in his camp with any encouragement at all (only 4 percent of Trump supporters said they’d drop their allegiance to him after a conviction, and that may be overstating the reaction given past experience with moments when Republicans seemed to be jettisoning the 45th president — but didn’t).

But even if Trump can confidently count on his base of supporters to stay loyal — indeed, perhaps even cling to him more fiercely than ever as the victim of a “witch hunt” — he must still deal with possible fallout among the small but potentially decisive sliver of swing voters that is open to voting for him but might seriously reconsider voting for a felon. He will need something different from tribal loyalty fed by conspiracy theories to seal the deal in November. For these voters, the key may be to double down on every line of attack on Joe Biden as a feckless incompetent and an active danger to the peace and prosperity of America. Conservative Christian activist Rod Dreher may have identified precisely the right precedent for what the Trump campaign will try to do to assuage concerns over his conviction:

Yes, supporters of the ethically challenged Edwin Edwards frontally attacked concerns he was corrupt by minimizing the significance of his corner-cutting as compared to the dire consequences of letting David Duke become chief executive of Louisiana, and what had been a close “race from hell” turned into an Edwards landslide. Nobody will ever mistake Joe Biden for David Duke, but the basic idea of suggesting that a little criminality is better than bad leadership could be fruitfully adapted by the Trump campaign. Trump’s sentencing (scheduled for mid-July) by Judge Merchan could create some serious logistical problems for him, restricting his movements while reminding voters he’s on the wrong side of the law. But he is just lucky that the clock has probably run out for any further criminal convictions prior to Election Day that might make the verdict in Manhattan harder to overlook.

Even if this strategy does not work for Trump and he loses in November, the consequences of the guilty verdict will continue, and not just for the convict. If there was any doubt that Trump will deny and reject an election loss even more vociferously than he did in 2020, it should vanish now. Not only is he deeply invested in the claim that his legal peril represents “election interference” by Democrats, but he also needs the kind of get-out-of-jail card a return to the White House might offer.

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