By Joseph Backholm
Joseph Backholm is senior fellow for Biblical worldview and strategic engagement at the Family Research Council. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on August 11, 2023.
Understanding why indictments help Trump’s campaign
When Special Council Jack Smith indicted President Trump for fraud and conspiracy against the government, it represented President Trump’s third criminal indictment since March. Adding to the intrigue is that President Trump is also the leading Republican candidate for president in 2024 with more support in the polls than any other candidate—and by a big margin. While this suggests that almost half of Republican voters would prefer someone other than Trump, the non-Trump vote is being split many ways. Ron DeSantis is in second place with only 14 percent, down significantly from a high of 40 percent in January. It’s still early in the primary process, but the New York Times noted that “no candidate who led his or her nearest rival by at least 20 points at this stage has ever lost a party nomination.”
Paradoxically, each criminal indictment appears to strengthen Trump’s support. This might seem unusual, but Trump’s disdain for political conventions has always been part of his appeal. Trump’s supporters don’t want someone to get along with the system; they want someone to change it.
The social justice warrior left is fond of saying, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention,” but the statement could just as easily apply to many in Trump’s base as well. Crime rates, especially in urban centers, are escalating, and cities are rotting from the inside. We effectively have an open southern border which allowed, in 2022 alone, more than 2.3 million illegal immigrants to cross the border. We have a crisis of depression, and school shootings feel tragically routine. Inflation is eroding already meager savings. On top of that, America’s elementary schools are showing cartoon pornography to young kids and telling them they can choose their gender. If you grew up in middle America sometime between 1960 and 2000, “outrage” does not begin to capture the shock of today’s moral revolution now being the new normal.
Many Republicans can appreciate Tim Scott’s affability, but they don’t want affable in the White House. They want someone who, as my teenage daughters would say, can “match my vibe,” and their vibe is angry. Trump matches their vibe. In this context, the repeated indictments against Trump prove how important Trump is. They see indictments against Trump as evidence that Trump is the greatest threat to the system. I’m not writing to defend or criticize this phenomenon, only to describe what my sense of the political landscape, in fact, is. Anyone who lurches too far in either direction of dismissing concerns about leftism or dismissing why Trump’s appeal is so deep, shows that they do not understand today’s climate.
To be sure, there is merit to the belief that these indictments are politically motivated. Special Counsel Jack Smith, who has now twice indicted Trump, previously brought bribery charges against Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell when he was widely considered a serious Republican Presidential candidate. Eventually, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Smith and for McDonnell, but the political damage was done.
Is this yet another political assassination by Jack Smith? Was he appointed to this position by Merrick Garland because of his willingness to use the justice system to take down high-value political targets? Maybe. But there’s something else going on as well. The Democrats want to run against Donald Trump. President Biden’s approval rating fell to 41 percent in June, according to a poll by CNN.
If Biden is the candidate, he won’t be able to rely on an enthusiastic support base because it doesn’t exist. So, his best chance will be to rely on disdain for Donald Trump. It worked in 2020, and it could work again. After all, even 25 percent of Republicans say they are not open to Trump if he becomes the nominee.
While national polls show Trump competitive with Biden, there is significant evidence Trump cannot win Georgia or Arizona, two states a Republican candidate, for all practical purposes, must win. That’s why people like radio host and WORLD Opinions Contributor Erick Erickson, who is also a Georgia resident, has taken to saying that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Joe Biden, and the Democrats seem to agree.
It would be ironic if the Republican response to Trump’s indictments has effectively given Democrats a way to hack the Republican primary and choose their Republican opponent. Of course, Trump supporters are quick to remind us that Trump has shocked the world before and could do it again. They may be right. It would be a mistake to make ironclad predictions when someone like Trump is in the mix. What will be the outcome? No one knows for sure, but if the polls in the Republican primaries are correct in giving Trump the nomination, we will find out.