Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks to the media in Atlanta after a grand jury handed down indictments against former President Donald Trump (OSV News photo/Elijah Nouvelage, Reuters).

In a live, nationally televised address forty-nine years ago this month, Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency, telling the American people that he no longer had “a strong enough political base in the Congress” to survive Watergate and serve out his term. This August, charges were brought against Donald Trump in both federal court and in Fulton County, Georgia, for his efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. At rallies, on cable TV, and in social media, Trump has railed at the charges against him, repeated the falsehoods that led to them, mocked the prosecutors who brought them, and issued thinly veiled threats against judges and potential witnesses. He has taken advantage of free media publicity to rake in millions of dollars from small donors, much of which he is apparently using to pay his mounting legal bills. Nevertheless, Trump still has the backing of more than half of Republican primary voters. Not coincidentally, he enjoys what Nixon, who faced no criminal charges, did not: a solid base of support from Republicans in Congress.

That loyalty stems from cowardice, not shared conviction. Republican members of Congress support Trump because they’re afraid of his supporters. Trump voters have long raged against Republicans deemed insufficiently dedicated to their cause, which now amounts to returning the former president to office and exacting revenge on his political enemies. Their devotion grows more cult-like by the day: a recent poll shows that they trust Trump to tell the truth more than they trust their family, friends, and religious leaders. Fear of the base had already scared GOP leaders like Sens. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham into voting against removing Trump from office after his second impeachment, following the attack on the Capitol in 2021. They justified their actions then by pointing to the courts as the proper venue for trying any crimes the former president might have committed. Fear motivates them even more today. Though Trump currently faces criminal charges in four different jurisdictions, Republican lawmakers criticize the same judicial process they earlier championed and slavishly echo right-wing nonsense about the “weaponized” Department of Justice. Now they say that voters in the 2024 election should issue the final verdict on his alleged crimes.

Trump’s main primary challengers show even less backbone. The contortions that Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott put themselves through to avoid criticizing the front-runner have prompted Chris Christie to suggest they might as well endorse Trump instead. Not that Christie deserves special credit: his fresh assessment of Trump as a dangerously unsuitable candidate comes seven years (and one previous endorsement of his own) too late. Whether Christie and the handful of other Republicans explicitly critical of Trump can affect the primaries, given the former president’s lead among Republican voters, is doubtful. As the charges against Trump have piled up, his support among the base has only grown.

As the charges against Trump have piled up, his support among the base has only grown.

The opposite is true among the general electorate. Polling shows that the two most recent indictments have compounded public concerns about Trump’s fitness for office. A majority of Americans say they would not support Trump in the election; 60 percent don’t want him to run at all. “The broader public hates Donald Trump,” writes Charles W. Cooke in the National Review. “The bringing of [these] charges has not caused them to like him more than they did before. The public’s impression of him has worsened, rather than improved, over time.” This may be music to the ears of Democrats and others who fear a second Trump presidency. But they shouldn’t be complacent: President Biden still has strikingly low approval ratings, and it is likely that most Republican voters who don’t support Trump in the primaries would vote for him against any Democrat in the general election.

And even if it seems that the legal cases against Trump are strong, nothing is guaranteed. Yes, special counsel Jack Smith and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis were right to seek charges; in this nation, the law is supposed to apply equally to everyone, including former presidents. Indictments could also have deterrent value, perhaps discouraging future would-be plotters. And voters have a right to know beforehand whether a candidate in the coming election is guilty of trying to overturn the previous one. But the number, scope, and complexity of the cases will likely prevent them from going to trial as quickly as planned. Trump’s lawyers are already trying to delay the process long enough for their client to return to office. Even if trials are held and convictions issued before the election, lengthy appeals would follow, likely pushing final rulings off beyond 2024.

It’s been said before: we might not be here had Republican leaders taken advantage of the many opportunities they had to rid themselves of Trump when they could. Their failure to do so will bring further harm to their party if Trump is the nominee and loses in 2024. But it will have far more damaging consequences for the entire country should he somehow manage to win.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the September 2023 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.