When the Republican presidential candidates gather for their first debate this week, the encounter is likely to center on the legal problems of the man all of them are chasing.
Former President Donald Trump has solidified his lead in the GOP race by convincing most Republican voters to view his four criminal indictments as a politicized “witch hunt” aimed not only at him, but them.
Trump’s success in selling that argument to GOP voters has some immediate causes, key among them the choice by all of his leading competitors in the race, as well as most prominent voices in conservative media, to echo rather than challenge his contention. But the inclination of so many Republican voters to dismiss all of the charges accumulating against Trump also reflects something much more fundamental: the hardening tendency of conservatives to believe that they are the real victims of bias in a society irreversibly growing more racially and culturally diverse.
From the outset of Trump’s political career, he has channeled that sentiment into his seemingly unbreakable bond with his core supporters. Now, Trump has transformed his multiple indictments – particularly from Black prosecutors he has repeatedly called “racist” – into just the latest proof point for the widespread belief within the GOP base that the biggest victims of discrimination are the groups most of them belong to: Christians, men and Whites.
“Victimhood is embedded in every part of Trump’s campaign, personality, communications, and strategy,” says Tresa Undem, a pollster for progressive causes. “The only thing that shifts is the topic and the object of blame.”
The choice by most GOP leaders and voters alike to rally around Trump amid 91 felony charges underscores again how much protection that sense of victimhood provides him against behavior previously considered fatal for any political leader. But, as this week’s debate will almost certainly demonstrate, it also shows that Trump’s belligerent approach toward all the forces he says are threatening conservatives – from the “deep state” to the media and entertainment industry, to protesters in the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements – will remain central to the GOP message, whether he stays the party’s principal figure or not.
The broad rejection of the charges against Trump within the GOP base marks a milestone not only in its personal allegiance to him, but also in those voters’ systemic alienation from the major institutions in American life. In the Republican coalition, it is a moment that has culminated decades of change – and one that points to years of turbulence ahead.
Overwhelming majorities of Republican voters dismiss the charges against Trump. In a comprehensive recent national survey by Bright Line Watch, a collaborative of political scientists studying threats to American democracy, 15% or fewer of Republicans said Trump had committed a crime either in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, his actions on January 6, 2021, or his hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016; only one-in-four thought he had broken the law in his handling of classified documents. And in the hush money and classified document cases, over four-fifths of Republicans agreed that “Trump would not have been prosecuted…if he were someone else.” A CBS/YouGov poll released Sunday recorded similar attitudes and produced one more head-turning finding: a bigger share of GOP voters said they trusted Trump to tell them the truth than any other source tested, including not only conservative media figures and religious leaders, but even their own “friends and family.”
Some of the attitudes that have helped Trump delegitimize the charges with Republicans are recent; others are much more long-standing. Trust in the federal government plummeted for voters in both parties amid all the tumultuous events of the 1960s and early 1970s – from Vietnam to Watergate to the assassinations of leading public figures – and has never really recovered. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan added another brick to the wall of distrust among Republicans specifically with his argument that government was not the solution to our challenges, but the problem. “There’s really been this effort on the right, among Republicans, to use distrust to stoke their base and to mobilize their base,” says Amy Fried, professor of political science at the University of Maine and co-author of the 2021 book: “At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump.”
Even through the Reagan years, federal law enforcement agencies were somewhat sheltered from the rising conservative antipathy toward Washington. But, as Fried and other experts note, that changed in the 1980s and 1990s when gun owner groups led by the National Rifle Association escalated their attacks on federal law enforcement as threats to the liberty of their members. (That campaign reached a peak when the NRA attacked federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs.”) The Republican hostility to federal law enforcement took another big leap forward when Trump and his allies (such as Steve Bannon) mainstreamed the claim that a “deep state” of entrenched federal officials, particularly in intelligence and law enforcement, were allegedly plotting against conservatives.
Years of these arguments opened a gap between conservative attitudes toward local police and federal law enforcement, notes Eric Plutzer, a Penn State University political scientist who directs the Mood of the Nation poll at the nonpartisan McCourtney Institute for Democracy. “If local police are blue collar protectors of law and order,” Plutzer says, “the lawyers and others with fancy degrees in the FBI come to be seen as not much different than unpatriotic career State Department internationalists.”
The FBI’s role in the investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016, and its decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her handling of emails as secretary of state, made the bureau a particular lightning rod for the former president and his followers. In the latest Mood of the Nation survey, Republicans expressed far more skepticism about the FBI than did Democrats, with two thirds of GOP voters saying they trust the bureau hardly ever or not at all. That’s a remarkable shift from a generation ago, when conservatives largely viewed the FBI as the crew-cut defenders of “the silent majority” against leftist militants.
“Efrem Zimbalist Jr. must be turning in his grave,” said Plutzer, referring to the star of the adulatory ABC television series “The F.B.I.” that ran from 1965-1974.
Once that domino fell, Plutzer believes, it became easier for Trump to turn his voters against the broad sweep of federal law enforcement agencies. “If the FBI is viewed as a weaponized arm of the liberal deep state, the entire Justice Department, election officials and judges are much easier targets,” Plutzer says. “The MAGA base has lost confidence in bedrock institutions that ensure the rule of law.”
Republicans now express more skepticism than Democrats not only about institutions within the federal government, but almost any group that can be categorized as an “elite.” In polling by the Pew Research Center, Republicans expressed much less confidence than Democrats about scientists in general and medical scientists in particular. In Gallup’s latest annual survey of trust in institutions, Republicans expressed less faith in 10 of the 16 measured. Trust in institutions has declined in both parties over time, Gallup has found, but Republicans are now more skeptical than Democrats not only of expected targets, like the media, but also public schools and the criminal justice system.
All of this has occurred against a backdrop of demographic and political transformation. For most of American history, White Christians and Whites without a four-year college degree have each constituted a majority of the US population. In the 21st century, though, each group has fallen below 50% of the population for the first time. Yet, even as they are declining in society overall, both groups remain a clear majority within the Republican coalition.
Among Republican voters, anxiety about this demographic and cultural change appears to have heightened alienation from institutions in the same way that the warming of ocean waters in the changing climate has intensified hurricanes. Multiple polls in recent years have found that Republican voters in general, and Trump supporters in particular, believe they are more likely to face discrimination than groups that historically have confronted more tangible evidence of bias, including racial and religious minorities, women and the LGBTQ community.
In Undem’s polling over the past few years, over four-fifths of Republicans have said that discrimination against Whites is now as big a problem as bias against minorities; three-fourths have described discrimination against Christians as a significant problem in US society; about seven-in-ten have said society now punishes men just for acting like men; and about two-thirds have described White men as the group most discriminated against in the modern US. Half of Republicans in her polling agreed with all four of those assertions, seven-in-ten agreed with at least three of them. Only one-in-20 Republicans rejected all of those ideas.
Undem says the Republicans who agree with those propositions are much more likely than others in the GOP to hold strongly favorable opinions of Trump and to believe he stands up for “people like me.”
Trump has hit those notes hard in trying to rally GOP voters against the indictments. He’s accused each of the Black elected officials pursuing cases against him – county prosecutors in Manhattan and Fulton County, Georgia, and the New York state attorney general (on a civil investigation) – of being “racists” or “racists in reverse.” And he has said that those investigating him are really attempting to silence and sublimate his supporters: “They’re coming after you — and I’m just standing in their way,” he’s frequently asserted.
In that way, Undem and others see Trump’s response to the indictments as merely extending the arguments that have proven so compelling to his supporters from the outset of his career.
Trump’s portrayal of conservatives as the real victims of bias “is intoxicating for his base,” she says. “Issues that have arisen in the past seven years related to race and gender (George Floyd, #MeToo) are very uncomfortable. People don’t like to feel discomfort. They don’t like feeling blamed or at fault. Trump cures those feelings. He’s the magician who makes their discomfort disappear and then gives them something to be angry and righteous about, which makes them feel superior. It’s not their fault, it’s someone else’s.”
Robert P. Jones, president and founder of the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute, likewise believes Trump has successfully folded the indictments into his larger effort to portray himself as the last line of defense for White Christian conservatives fearful their influence is waning as America grows more diverse. “Since his rise to power, with winks and nods to white supremacists and claims such as ‘I am your voice,’ Trump became the symbol of white Christian entitlement and power in a rapidly changing country,” says Jones, author of the new book “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy.” “MAGA, with its siren song of loss and nostalgia in that final word ‘again’, was crafted as a rallying cry for this sentiment.”
Jones notes that majorities of Republicans and White evangelical Protestants each agree in polls with the sentiment that “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that would be an example to the rest of the world,” while two-thirds of other Americans reject that idea. “Seen against this backdrop, Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of elections he lost, a federal government that is persecuting him and his followers, and racist Black prosecutors all derive power from this world view, where the white Christian inhabitants of the promised land are being denied their rightful divine inheritance by those who were meant to be subservient,” Jones says.
Daniel Cox, a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, agrees that Trump’s bedrock base of conservative Whites without a college degree has grown more likely in recent years to view themselves rather than traditionally marginalized groups as the true victims of discrimination. But he argues those views are at least “partly rooted in reality.”
“My sense is that the folks who are most loyal to Trump—White non-college conservatives—see powerful cultural, political and economic institutions as no longer representing their interests or values-or worse, actively working against them,” Cox says. “It is not demographic alienation that drives their politics so much as the belief that media orgs look down on them, that the legal system and financial sectors operate to marginalize them, and the political system works to diminish them.”
“Prestige educational, legal and media organizations have very few white, noncollege conservatives,” Cox continues. “There’s a reason the education divide is so stark in views about Donald Trump. It’s white Americans without college degrees who feel most acutely that there are no powerful interests looking out for them.”
More immediate tactical factors also explain why the indictments have not hurt Trump more with Republicans. Many are receiving their information largely from inside a conservative media bubble that has almost universally disparaged and dismissed the charges. And, apart from Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson and Will Hurd, three candidates on the periphery of the GOP presidential race, hardly any GOP elected officials have defended the investigations. That means hardly any voices Republicans trust are contesting the drumbeat of denunciation about the charges coming from Trump allies in the House and Senate – and even his principal rivals in the 2024 nomination contest.
Many Republican elected officials have dismissed the indictments by arguing that the Justice Department is treating Hunter Biden more leniently than they are Trump. Yet many analysts believe it strains credulity that large number of GOP voters would suddenly consider the charges against Trump to be justified if federal prosecutors threw the book at the current president’s son. “The Hunter Biden thing is fundamentally irrelevant,” says Cox. “If it wasn’t Hunter Biden it would be some other thing” that Republicans would use to claim a double standard against Trump.
Veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres points to another, more personal, reason so many GOP voters have discounted the charges against Trump. “Many of them had conflict with siblings, with parents, sometimes with children, sometimes even with spouses about their support for Donald Trump,” Ayres says. “And they are very defensive about it. That makes them instinctively rally to Donald Trump’s defense because if they suggest in any way that he is not fit for office then that casts aspersions on their own past support for him.”
But the breadth of the Republican rejection of the Trump indictments signals a level of alienation and alarm that extends beyond his personal appeal. Trump’s rivals for the 2024 nomination vary in the language they use, but most of them also express variants of the idea that major institutions in American life are now advancing a liberal “woke” ideology that is trying to erase what conservatives consider the nation’s enduring values and traditions. Even without Trump present, that claim is likely to be a major theme in Wednesday’s debate.
Fried notes that the contemporary Republican politicians advancing these arguments are painting a much more ominous picture than Reagan did when he called government the problem and not the solution. “There’s more of an emphasis on the harm that’s being done to you and your family and your communities,” she says. “That’s whether it’s the ‘replacement theory’ kind of thing, which is xenophobic and racist, or the trans messaging [which uses] the language of grooming – these people are out to get your children. That’s a much harsher version than ‘you have to pay higher taxes because there are people on welfare.’ It’s much more personal.”
The widespread dismissal of Trump’s indictments, like the preponderant Republican agreement with his discredited claims of fraud in 2020 and the growing tendency of GOP partisans to defend the January 6 riot as legitimate protest, makes clear just how many conservative voters consider themselves under siege in a changing America. When Trump and other elected GOP officials assert that he cannot receive a fair trial in any jurisdiction that mostly votes Democratic, they are expressing what might be called a form of “soft secession” – the conviction that all the institutions tied to blue America are so hostile and malevolent that conservatives must fundamentally deny their legitimacy.
Trump is the Republican most effectively riding that wave now, but it seems unlikely to recede whenever he fades from the political scene. Cox believes the claim that major institutions are now biased against conservatives will be “more pronounced” in the GOP while Trump is the party’s most powerful figure but agrees the alienation he’s drawing on will remain “pervasive” in the party with or without him.
Long before Trump enters a courtroom, Republican voters, in their near-uniform dismissal of the charges, are rendering a clear verdict not only about his lasting imprint on the party, but also their estrangement from much of the modern US. Whether or not Trump is ever convicted, that corrosive discontent among his followers is likely to continue eroding the foundations of American democracy and straining the fraying ties that bind an increasingly divided nation.