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Democrats, here’s my advice for tackling Trump’s indictments: just ignore them

Comment Editor, Matteo Cardarelli, analyses Donald Trump’s recent indictment in Georgia and suggests a counter-intuitive response for the Democrats to follow.

Until 2023, America had never seen one of its Presidents indicted or legally processed. Within the span of a few months, Donald Trump broke both of those records. In June, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida indicted Trump on forty counts relating to his mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. Then, late last month, Donald Trump handed himself in to authorities at Fulton County Jail in Georgia after he was indicted for attempting to interfere with the results of the 2020 election in the state. As the culmination of the protracted legal whirlwind that had engulfed the Trump campaign, these indictments (which total four, two at the federal level and two more filed in state courts) were not an entirely unexpected outcome. Still, it’s not every day that a former President’s mugshot goes viral on the internet. There was an inevitable shock factor, a ‘what next?’ quality to Trump’s Georgia arrest, even an unshakable feeling of entirely justified schadenfreude about the whole thing. This complicates the next step. Democrats are faced with an extreme test of self-discipline; tempting as it is, to win in 2024, they must steer clear of propagandising Trump’s legal troubles.

Ultimately, in an election that is likely to be decided by a handful of independents in a few swing states, who have far more pressing issues. The ‘Blue Wall’ voters decided in the last two elections to demand action on the cost of living, the opioid crisis, access to healthcare and functioning public services. In the hard calculations that govern most Americans’ everyday lives and choices, Trump’s jailhouse blues hundreds of miles away barely register. This doesn’t mean that Democrats shouldn’t check Trump or his allies’ attempts at denigrating the courts’ impartiality. Where Republicans fancifully allege judicial malfeasance, it is important that they are called out on it. But should Democrats actively choose to prioritize the debate over the indictments’ relative deserts, they would surrender the opportunity to focus on the issues that actually win elections.

Trump’s indictments are unlikely to cause an earthquake at the polls. Sure, his bevy of legal issues have played a role in propelling him out of sight in the Republican primaries, but in the context of a general election, the indictments are unlikely to change many minds. It is no longer 2016, where Trump had the advantage of running as a political newcomer. In 2023, he is very much a known quantity. What do the indictments reveal that voters don’t already know? That Trump is a crude, strident, would-be-if-clumsy strongman? Those are the things that make him adored or reviled. By now, the electorate knows what to expect with Trump on the ballot. Most voters already know whether they will vote for or against him in next year’s election. A trial may inflame Trump’s base, but it is doubtful that it will yield a fresh boost among the hitherto-uncommitted.

Though some are willing to write off Trump before the first ballot is cast, 2024 is no sure thing. At the centre of Democrats’ difficulties ahead of next year lies Joe Biden’s branding issue. Despite his administration’s accomplishments, public opinion has not changed noticeably since the catastrophic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. His team may bank on Trump’s unpopularity to win in 2024, but this is a risky strategy, perhaps too risky for an incumbent who is deeply unpopular in his own right to count on. If they want voters to buy into four more years of Biden (or avoid four more years of Trump), Democrats must first be able to sell them the last four. Next year’s vote will almost certainly shape up to be a low-turnout election. While Trump’s base will inevitably turn out in their droves, there are serious questions over Biden’s ability to re-energize the same coalition that swept him into the White House in 2020. To avoid sputtering out, his campaign must go positive, and soon.

Pouring more gasoline on Trump’s indictments prevents that. Not only is it an admission by campaign strategists that Biden’s curriculum is too weak to win on its own merits, but it detracts time and attention from the promotional job the President badly needs. Moreover, by shifting the emphasis on the indictments, Democrats would surrender home court advantage to their opponents. Cultural and cosmetic grievances have become the GOP’s niche: everywhere a conspiracy, everyone a traitor, barbarians not just at the gates, but inside the palace walls. Trump’s high-profile Georgia indictment fits seamlessly into the GOP’s litany on the ‘Deep State’, Biden’s supposed politicisation of the DoJ, and the Drain-the-Swamp People’s Crusade. Even if it is only Trump diehards who buy any of it, doubling down on the indictments undermines attempts at engineering a ‘cleaner’ race, where each candidate must bring their assets to the fore rather than emphasizing their competitor’s liabilities.

At the same time, should Democrats stoop to sensationalizing the indictments for political gain (justifiably or not), they would pass up a valuable opportunity to point out the deep cracks in the Republican Party’s façade. Trump-era Republicanism has devolved into a continuous lament of the hazy, ill-remembered American idyll’s cultural decay. In contrast, the party’s approach to substantive economic, social, and foreign policy is surprisingly ambivalent. At the very least, it’s hard to tell where the GOP’s priorities lie; only rarely have its exponents been forced into a position where they’ve had to actually propose policies (Republicans have mostly spent the last four years contentedly tearing down those proposed by their Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill). Even at the recent Trump-less Republican debate, there was little consensus between the candidates on key issues, indicating how deeply the party establishment is split between traditional conservative and populist agendas. Democrats should force Republicans into the open, not play to their strengths. That means talking shop on green subsidies and foreign investment, a broken immigration system, and the war in Ukraine—all issues likely to divide the Republican primary. It also means talking past Trump’s legal woes, fertile ground for MAGA apologists to let loose on everything from Hunter Biden to Jack Smith, and one of the few things most Republicans can get behind.

Trump’s indictments should be a big deal. There should be a time and place to discuss them. But America, prostrate on the bed of nails that makes up Donald Trump’s list of scandals has been lured into a deep feeling of apathy. What is one more allegation of gross misconduct anyway? Like a needle in a haystack, it barely leaves a trace. Trump’s opponents must acknowledge this and keep sight of their goal; if they hope to exorcise Trumpism from the nation’s soul once and for all in 2024, they must begin by staying well clear of the circus in Georgia.

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