I guess it’s possible that Republicans really don’t care about Donald Trump’s run-ins with the law.
Maybe, despite the numerous allegations, investigations and charges against him — for rape, for defamation, for seeking to subvert the 2020 election, for his role in the Jan. 6 assault, for falsifying records about hush money payments — he will maintain his position as the front-running GOP candidate and once again persuade his tens of millions of zealous supporters to vote for him.
It’s a stunning and depressing display of the lowering of national expectations, a remarkable nadir we’ve reached, that a candidate accused of multiple criminal acts is a perfectly credible contender for the presidency. No sitting or former president has ever been charged with a crime until Trump. It’s one of his many historic firsts, along with being twice impeached.
Yet that’s where we are. His legal difficulties, which could conceivably land him in prison, appear to be having no effect on his popularity with Republican voters — except perhaps to increase their support. Last week, even as E. Jean Carroll was accusing him in a Manhattan courtroom of brutally raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room, Trump was off stumping in New Hampshire, gleefully citing polls that showed him with a large and expanding lead over his GOP primary competitors.
And it was just a month ago that, in a separate case brought by Manhattan Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg, Trump was indicted on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels. What happened then? His popularity spiked. A Yahoo News-YouGov poll conducted just after the indictment showed Trump leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 57% to 31% among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents — up substantially from February, when the same poll had DeSantis leading Trump.
What’s more, Trump received a burst of new donations after the indictment.
It’s true, of course, that he hasn’t yet been convicted of anything; Carroll’s sexual assault allegations are for the moment just allegations, as are the New York grand jury’s 34 felony counts. Trump, who has denied wrongdoing, deserves — in the courtroom, anyway — the same presumption of innocence that any accused person is entitled to.
But it’s shocking nevertheless that in the outside world the reaction of Trump supporters has been a deafening “So what! Who cares?”
Trump seems unsurprised.
“This witch hunt, like all the others, will only BACKFIRE on Biden,” Trump said in a fundraising email after his arraignment in the business records case. (It’s unclear why he would blame Biden for either the Manhattan D.A.’s case or Carroll’s civil lawsuit.)
So how did we get to such a point in our politics? Wouldn’t such allegations have been instantly disqualifying in a previous era? President Nixon began his second term in January 1973 with a 68% Gallup approval rating, but by August, after the congressional Watergate hearings and much discussion of his role in the cover-up, his approval rating had fallen to 31%. A year later, he resigned rather than face impending impeachment.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) withdrew from the 1988 presidential race when he was accused of having had an extramarital affair with Donna Rice. Then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) also withdrew from the ’88 race a few months later, after being caught plagiarizing a speech and embellishing his academic credentials.
And none of them had even been arrested!
Yet Trump’s supporters rally around him, even as the Justice Department continues to investigate his role in the Jan. 6 melee, Georgia prosecutors probe his efforts to undermine the 2020 election and the New York state attorney general examines his business practices.
What accounts for his seeming invulnerability? Partly it‘s just the je ne sais quoi of Trump: his hard-to-explain, sui generis brand of persecution politics, the tactical brilliance with which he’s persuaded his conspiracy-minded followers that he’s a long-suffering victim of repeated, unfair, politically motivated “witch hunts.”
Even those supporters who see his flaws have long since accepted him for who he is: a norm-breaking huckster with insatiable personal appetites, a self-serving attitude toward public office and an unhealthy disdain for the rules. They’ve factored that in.
Also protecting him is the loyalty he commands from craven GOP politicians who worry that breaking with him will harm their own careers. They give him cover.
Another part of this has less to do with Trump and more with America’s evolving political attitudes. Over the years, voters have adopted a less judgmental standard for what’s acceptable in a candidate.
Up to a point, that’s a good thing. Americans were shocked by Nixon’s use of profanity on the White House tapes — until we got used to it. We were shocked when President Clinton admitted smoking marijuana (but not inhaling), which previous candidates hadn’t done — until we got used to that too. Clinton survived sexual misbehavior revelations that would’ve sunk some of his predecessors, but by the end of that scandal, many Americans had decided that whether he cheated on his wife was his own business.
In 2023, we’ve clearly decided as a society that we’re going to treat our candidates’ personal foibles and flawed behavior with a measure of generosity, at least some of the time.
But Republicans, please. There’s got to be a line.
If Trump had a consensual extramarital affair with Stormy Daniels, that’s not admirable, classy or exemplary behavior. But Americans might reasonably decide they don’t care.
Rape, on the other hand, is something else. If he did it, that’s beyond the pale.
Hiding a hush-money payoff through false business records — that’s unacceptable too. But far more egregious than that (and we’ll soon see what the Justice Department and the Georgia prosecutors conclude) were his efforts to subvert the perfectly legitimate 2020 election.
By all means, wait and see where the investigations end up and what the prosecutors decide and what the juries have to say. But sooner or later, Republicans everywhere need to come forward and say that breaking the law and undermining American democracy is simply not OK.
But will they?