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The Political Malpractice of Glossing Over Trump's Legal Woes
It's not enough for Trump's political rivals to portray the former president's court drama as a mere distraction.
There was a story in the Politico last week about a conservative group that produced multiple TV ads aimed at weakening Donald Trump’s dominant lead in the Republican primary. The ads focused on the former president’s legal troubles, but as the piece describes, they backfired with Republican test-audiences.
“Three of the four actually boosted Trump’s support among the participants,” the Politico reports, and the fourth had “no measurable impact on Trump’s numbers.”
I’m not terribly surprised that Trump’s criminal indictments haven’t, thus far, damaged him with the base. That’s because the prevailing right-wing media narrative on this matter, in accordance with the wishes of the Republican front-runner (and the loyal following he commands), has been that the charges are a diabolical effort by the Biden administration to prosecute and eliminate a political opponent.
Trump has even used the situation to present himself as a martyr, campaigning on the message that our justice system isn’t coming after him, but rather his supporters… and he’s just “standing in the way.”
Of course that’s nonsense, and even more laughable than Sen. Bob Menendez’s recent claim that the bribery charges against him are racially motivated. But unfortunately for Bob, he doesn’t have the luxury of an enormous personality-cult to take such statements seriously.
No, in Trump’s cases, the only other people that prosecutors have been “coming after” are the former president’s alleged accomplices and co-conspirators — mostly elites (lawyers and political figures), a number of whom have already plead guilty, admitted to breaking the law, and been thrown under the bus by Trump himself.
The only thing Trump has been “standing in the way” of are Republicans winning winnable seats.
Yet, if Trump has proven anything over the last eight years, it’s that Abraham Lincoln was one-hundred percent correct when he said you can fool “some people all the time.” And with the bulk of the party refusing to hold Trump to any standards at all, every attempt to seek accountability for even his most serious wrong-doing has been reflexively cast as an act of pure treachery.
Still, I get why the conservative group would give the ads a shot. What I didn’t get is why the ads actually elevated support for Trump. That didn’t make any sense… until I actually watched them… at which point it was all too clear.
Whoever wrote the ads had adopted the same silly balancing-act approach as most of Trump’s GOP primary rivals. They described Trump’s court drama as an enormous distraction that amounted to serious political baggage, while also suggesting that he is being unfairly targeted by our justice system, and therefore isn’t responsible for the actions — his actions — that brought on the indictments.
A character in one ad, an older gentleman, states that he has stood by Trump from the beginning, but now worries about how a conviction will effect Trump’s political prospects against Joe Biden. Another character, a middle-aged woman, presents similar MAGA bona fides before lamenting that Trump “was never given a fair shot”; she expresses her worries that “they” (presumably referring to Democrats and/or the media) will “sensationalize” Trump’s trials to the point that the former president won’t be able to pull off a victory. Another woman shares her concern that “all of the things that have come at him, from impeachments, to indictments, to trials” have worn Trump down.
No wonder the ads backfired. The actors may as well have been describing the Hollywood version of William Wallace as he gallantly battled overwhelming odds against the King of England and his army.
I’m pretty sure no one watching Braveheart for the first time rooted for Mel Gibson to throw in the towel, or for his Scottish compatriots to sideline him, when the going got tough. On the contrary, we cheered on the scrappy underdog who fought imperial forces for his country’s freedom.
There was a time not so long ago — back when stuff like policies, experience, and personal integrity mattered to most of the electorate — that political candidates could only fantasize about their opponent being prosecuted for a crime (let alone 90-something crimes). I get that times have changed, especially within the Republican party, but not taking advantage of such a situation is nothing short of political malpractice. From the beginning, Republicans and conservatives who were serious about defeating Trump should have driven home the theme that Trump is not the hero of this story.
I understand that it’s easier said than done. I get that this is how millions of Americans on the right view Trump:
But Trump is the antithesis of a hero. He’s someone who stands not for truth, justice, and the American way, but rather the glory of his own sense of personal greatness and benefit. His monstrous ego takes lead on every decision he makes, which repeatedly allows for breathtakingly stupid, reckless behavior. He’s the guy who steals top-secret documents detailing U.S. nuclear and war efforts, refuses to give them back when repeatedly asked, and shows them off to random people at his country club. He’s the guy who tries to overturn U.S. democracy because his feelings got hurt, and causes an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He’s the guy who cheats on his wife with a porn-star, and then pays that porn-star off for her silence.
Sure, there are valid arguments that a couple of the indictments may be a stretch from a prosecutorial standpoint, but the most serious charges are supported by the strongest of evidence, and virtually no one is arguing that Trump didn’t engage in the activities he’s being charged over.
The line of political attack on Trump’s legal troubles should never be that he’s a victim of circumstance who’s too burdened with trying to clear his good name to be able to wage an effective political campaign. That narrative concedes a falsehood that portrays Trump as a sympathetic figure.
The message should be that Trump invites this drama on himself through his actions. He expects his supporters to bear the huge political burden of his careless disregard for the law, which in turn illustrates just how little respect he has for them.
Imagine a character in an ad saying something like: “Mr. President, I voted for you in the past, but how can you keep claiming to be a “law and order” candidate when you keep putting yourself above the law. We need a Republican nominee who practices what they preach.”
Or maybe something like this: “Listen, we all know there were times during Trump’s presidency when he got a raw deal. But we also all know that you can’t take top-secret nuclear plans home with you when you leave office, and show them off to strangers like they’re a personal baseball card collection. Trump says we live in a dangerous world, and I agree with him. So why on earth would he treat our national security like a joke, and invite a raid and criminal charges on himself when all he had to do was give the documents back? They weren’t his. We need someone who puts the country first.”
Now, it’s entirely possible (probably even likely) that these types of ads wouldn’t have helped either — not with Trump seemingly exempt from every standard the base still readily applies to everyone else. But such ads sure as heck wouldn’t hurt the effort, and coming from a Super PAC not even associated with Trump’s political rivals, they’d have their best chance of being effective.
Yet, with the current pathetic state of the GOP, I’m willing to bet such approaches haven’t even been considered.