Conventional wisdom holds that the indictment of Donald Trump by a grand jury in New York over so-called “hush money” made to the adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016 will help him become the Republican presidential candidate, but then sink his chances of actually winning the presidential election in 2024.
This may well turn out to be the case, though Trump’s political career and the history of past American presidential elections suggest that there is nothing certain about this outcome. It is a long time until election day in 20 months time and political pundits in the US have a track record of joining up the dots too early in a premature bid to detect trends.
The disadvantage of the indictment – along with others for business fraud likely to be disclosed later – for Trump is that it focusses attention on him as a seedy character and dodgy businessman. But the charge does not reveal anything to American voters that they did not know already and such accusations notably failed to damage Trump in the 2016 presidential race to anything like the extent that his Republican rivals and Democratic opponents hoped and expected.
What the indictment will do is to redouble media focus on Trump, whose legal troubles are likely to stay at the top of the news agenda for the next couple of years. This plays very much to Trump’s strengths as a skilled and experienced attention-grabber.
He is reported to be interested in only two sets of figures: the stock market indices and the television rating of himself and others. In the past, he has dismissed a negative public reaction to some action or pronouncement by himself so long as it enabled him to dominate the news on a daily basis. He derides CNN and other relentlessly anti-Trump channels for being parasitic on his notoriety to raise their ratings and hence their advertising revenues.
It is not true to say that mud does not stick to Trump, but he is already so coated in it that some more may not matter very much. Republican voters with a strong sense of smell – generally the better off – are likely to have already deserted him. The great number of Republican leaders sitting on the fence now feel they have no choice to side visibly with Trump and denounce the Democrats for a politically motivated assault on their leader.
“The weaponisation of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s most dangerous Republican rival, in a tweet overnight. The indictment has cut the the ground from under the feet of those Republican leaders who have sought to portray Trump as yesterday’s man and argue that it is time for their party to move on. In one stroke, it has made Trump’s current troubles, rather than his old ones, the centre of attention and something that even the most anti-Trump will be unable to leave alone.
In the past, the Democratic Party leaders persistently convinced themselves that one more scandal would finally capsize Trump and they were not over particular in what wrong doings they attributed to him. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claimed that she lost in 2016 because she was the victim of dark plots by President Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence. There was never much credible evidence for this, despite prolonged investigations. Insider books on her presidential campaign show her to have had exceptionally poor political judgement which was quite sufficient to lose her the election without any interference by others.
President Joe Biden, assuming he is the Democratic candidate in 2024, will not be such an easy target as Clinton. Many American voters do not particularly like him, but they do not necessarily hate him – as many really do detest Trump. Anti-Trump Republicans and much of the American media portrayed the mid-term elections last year as a rejection of Trump – and there was some truth in this. Many of the candidates endorsed by Trump lost in part because of their association with him, but also because many of them were weird even by Trumpian standards.
But there is a further more general point about American presidential politics which seldom gets enough attention. It is a fast paced business and much will happen between now and election day that may well up-end present day calculations. Go a little further back and it was probably the Covid-19 pandemic that lost Trump the White House in 2020 because he mishandled it – and it led to a short term economic recession.
American politics is full of wild cards, not least the real state of health of Biden and Trump, both elderly men who will be physically taxed by a presidential campaign. What if either of them dies or suffers from some serious ailment between now and the election? What will be the impact of the war in Ukraine on American politic by the end of next year? Probably the Democrats are right to be pleased that they might face a re-run between Biden and Trump with the likelihood of a gratifyingly similar result to last time, but they may be rejoicing prematurely.