How to Talk about the Trump Indictment
Trump's pending arrest is going to dominate conversation, here are some thoughts on how to talk about it
Well, it finally happened. Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States and leading contender for the 2024 GOP nomination, has been indicted for paying hush money to cover up an affair. We don’t know the specific charges or the strength and timing of the legal case, but this is a historic event with wide-ranging, still-evolving political implications.
One thing we do know — the Trump indictment is all anyone will talk about for the foreseeable future. Forget the debt ceiling, inflation, the TikTok ban, and everything else. Political coverage and conversations will be dominated by the legal and political (but mostly political) consequences of the grand jury vote. Whether you are in office, running for office, working on a campaign, or simply trying to persuade the people in your life to vote the right way in the next election, you will be asked about your reaction to the indictment. With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how to talk about it.
1. Don’t be Afraid to Discuss It
The usual voices are already chastising Democrats for taking the bait. “Don’t talk about the indictment; talk about inflation.” In theory, that advice might make sense. Voters — particularly the ones we need — care more about the cost of groceries, gas, and housing than Donald Trump’s efforts to cover up an affair seven years ago. But the media environment operates differently — we don’t (yet) get to pick the issues that drive clicks and trends on social media. We respond to issues that the press and the algorithms force upon us. And not for nothing, but the indictment is a big deal for Trump, the Republican Party, and the state of politics in America.
Polls conducted before Thursday’s grand jury vote predicted the public would have a complex reaction to the news. One thing is clear; they think it’s a big deal. In a Quinnipiac poll, 57% of Americans believe “criminal charges should disqualify former President Donald Trump from running for president again” and 55% percent believe the accusation that Trump falsified business records to conceal the affairs to be serious.
I am not arguing that every Democrat should go out of their way to talk about the indictment, but polling shows they need not run away from it. The MAGA media is in overdrive. We need people making the counter-argument in the press and on social media.
2. No One is Above the Law
As always, how to talk about it matters. The folks at Navigator Research tested a number of messages about the indictment and there was a clear winner.
The key is to turn the conversation towards accountability for the rich and powerful. The following message was tested against the conservative message, which claimed the indictment is a political witch hunt:
No one is above the law, not even a former President. When someone breaks the law, they should face repercussions. There shouldn’t be one justice system for everyday Americans and another for the rich and powerful where they pay no consequences for their crimes.
The “above the law” message was more convincing by a margin of 22 points.
3. Brand All Republicans as MAGA Extremists
Many cynical political observers argue that nothing matters regarding Trump. Now, that is abject idiocy. If Trump really was “Teflon Don” he would still be President (he’s not). Viewing him as a corrupt cad is already priced into the baseline with a lot of voters. The fact that he committed a crime will be unsurprising to many people. It could even provide him a short-term boost in the GOP primary. The Quinnipiac poll found that news of possible indictment has no effect on the primary. Trump’s ten-point lead over Ron DeSantis was the same in their previous poll.
There is, however, a real opportunity to use the Trump indictment to brand the entire Republican Party as MAGA extremists trying to protect the rich and politically connected. Every elected Republican leapt to Trump’s defense. As Michael Bender and Maggie Haberman wrote in the New York Times:
Up and down the Republican Party, anger and accusations of injustice flowed from both backers and critics of the former president, even before the charges had been revealed.
These Republicans are once again operating out of a toxic combination of cowardice and short-term thinking. They are afraid Trump and his base will turn on them, so they adopt politically unpopular positions. This mindset caused them to fumble the 2022 elections. They are in danger of compounding their problems. And that can only happen if Democrats call them out.
This is a rapidly evolving situation. More details will come out very soon. At some point, Trump will be arrested and fingerprinted. More indictments could follow. The messaging and strategy will need to be updated, but for right now, these are my best thoughts on how to navigate the conversation.
This indictment -- and all the potential indictments, even the classified papers stuff -- are about Trump in various ways subverting free and fair elections. People like their elections ...it never hurts to remind folks Trump doesn't want them to have them.
Indeed, "all Republicans are MAGA Republicans" needs to be said. For readers here... I discovered that Rachel Maddow was on Friday night. She was subbing for Alex Wagner. (I listen via podcast) Half the show is about the Agnew prosecution and the reality that a sitting Vice-President might have been indicted but for the plea deal he made. (I barely remember this.) So she's saying, "This HAS been done before." Worth knowing.