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Trump’s mugshot miscalculation?

The former president’s focus on the 2020 election could alienate the moderates he needs to win

The Aug. 24 booking photo of former President Donald Trump Fulton County Sheriff’s Office via Associated Press

Trump’s mugshot miscalculation?
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There are no heroes in the saga of the Trump mugshot.

The former president’s booking photo, taken in Georgia after his fourth indictment, is already iconic. For his haters, it is a sign that he is finally being brought to justice for his many misdeeds. For his devotees, it symbolizes how their champion is being relentlessly persecuted by a hypocritical and corrupt establishment. They’re both right and, therefore, both wrong.

None of these people respect our historical norms, the rule of law, or even the Constitution. Trump’s behavior following the 2020 election was atrocious, even by his low standards. Yet Trump’s enemies have consistently used his awfulness as an excuse for their own. For example, though the 2020 election was not stolen insofar as it was not decided by fraudulent votes, Democrats undoubtedly played very dirty—just look at Big Tech’s suppression of the bombshell Hunter Biden laptop story. And now they are bringing a spate of legally dubious indictments against Trump as he runs for president again. The strongest of these charges, related to mishandling of classified material after he left office, is reminiscent of what Hillary Clinton was let off the hook for.

And they are filing these charges as the details of President Biden’s involvement in his son’s influence-peddling racket slowly trickle out. The double standard is obvious and odious, but it does not mean that those of us who consider the Democratic Party’s agenda unacceptable should rally to Trump as our champion.

MAGA has miscalculated. Hyping the mugshot may pump up Trump’s most loyal fans, but it may also further alienate the swing state moderates he needs to win a general election. The mugshot could remind these voters of everything they hate about Trump—the chaos, the rule-breaking, the lying—and they will not be persuaded by a campaign focused on Trump as a victim. As Henry Olson has put it, voters will not care if an investigation is a partisan witch hunt if they believe the target is a witch.

The more the 2024 election is about Trump’s claims and conduct regarding the 2020 election, the worse his odds are.

The more the 2024 election is about Trump’s claims and conduct regarding the 2020 election, the worse his odds are—perhaps even in the primary. Thus far, criminal charges have rallied many GOP voters to Trump as they signal their displeasure with the indictments, but a Trump campaign focused on his claims of victimhood may not sustain the enthusiasm needed to win. Trump himself is much lower-energy than when he first ran in 2016, and his court schedule and legal fees are already consuming his time and campaign resources. And the voters who will decide the primary may grow tired of a Trump campaign that avoids debates and endlessly complains about how unfair everything is.

This slippage will accelerate if GOP voters perceive Trump’s chances in the general election as worsening. Some GOP voters will stick with Trump no matter what, but a majority may recognize that raging against the corruption of the elites/deep state/establishment/whatever-you-want-to-call-them is impotent without a winning political coalition led by competent politicians.

Trump loyalists may love the image of him as a persecuted political martyr, but highlighting Trump’s losses and troubles is not a message of triumph. To the contrary, Trump is undermining his own campaign as he neither offers proof of his stolen election claims, nor provides a plan for how to keep a supposed steal from happening again. Indeed, there is a despair at the heart of Trump’s message. After all, if Trump allowed an election to be stolen from him—by Joe Biden, of all people—while he was president, how will he possibly prevail when out of power? And, if it was not stolen from him, then shouldn’t the party find a new leader rather than rerunning a known loser?

Trump and his cheerleaders have no good answers for these questions, and mugshot merchandise for his fans will not help. The problem for Trump is that a lot of Americans are weary of the man and they will not be moved by complaints that he is being treated unfairly. They want to move on from the lawlessness and incompetence that has characterized both Trump and his enemies. If Republican voters are wise, they will give their fellow citizens that opportunity, rather than betting on a mugshot bonus somehow putting Trump over the top this time.

Nathanael Blake

Nathanael Blake is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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