Former President Donald Trump is set to stand trial on March 4 of next year. That is the Monday before Super Tuesday when the Republican parties of fifteen states have their primaries or caucuses. Trump and his legal team had asked for the trial to be postponed until 2026, so as not to interfere with the 2024 election. The New York Times described Judge Tanya S. Chutkan’s selection of the doomer Monday date as “an early victory for prosecutors”—an almost charming bit of understatement from the Gray Lady. Interference is the point.
It’s not shaping up to be a normal primary election. So why are Trump-weary Republicans and their candidates expecting a normal general election next year? They might see this lawfare chicanery as a convenient way to take the commanding front runner out of the competition, or even as well-deserved, but they are fools if they don’t think a brazen thumb on scales can’t or won’t be applied to them.
Think about what the March 4 date means, for a moment. If this is a “short” trial of just longer than a month—and it is the trial of the century, so it will not be—then two-thirds of the RNC delegates will be awarded before a verdict. The Times’s chief political analyst Nate Cohn wrote Monday, “A March trial could easily become the center of gravity of the primary season — the fact that structures the opportunities available to Mr. Trump and his rivals. It could even start to affect the calculations of the candidates today.” There is no “could” about any of it. It is happening. And if this trial date is allowed to stand, then a Barack Obama-appointed federal judge has upended the Republican nomination process.
Republican primary voters do not want one of the candidates acceptable to the establishment. FiveThirtyEight puts Nikki Haley’s average at 5 percent this week. Chris Christie is at less than 4 percent. Asa Hutchinson less than 1. Vivek Ramaswamy is surging in polls because he sounds like Trump and speaks directly to Trump voters. Ron DeSantis is in (distant) second place to Trump because he was widely seen as offering a MAGA agenda without the man himself. Trump remains the guy. As Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson has concluded, Republican voters not only think Joe Biden and his miserable record are eminently beatable in November 2024, but they think Trump is the man to do it: “Republican voters see the same polls that I do, showing Mr. Trump effectively tied against Mr. Biden even though commentators tell them that Mr. Trump is electoral poison. And they remember that many of those same voices told them in 2016 that Mr. Trump would never set foot in the White House.” Moreover, the indictments, the treatment of them by corporate media, and now the mugshot, have all made this election a matter of political persecution and martyrdom. Voters believe Donald Trump when he says, “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you—and I’m just standing in their way.”
There is a moderate Republican type inclined to think that the Democratic establishment knows they have helped Trump solidify his support with these indictments and is in fact trying to pick him as their opponent for 2024. That is itself a concession that these prosecutions are a strategy of election interference, as credibly so as anything Trump is accused of, and all out in the open. But it is also “cope,” as they say online, a pseudo-comforting rationalization. The trial date announcement makes clear there is not a concerted effort to make Trump the nominee; at least some Democrat officials simply want the man ineligible for office, and preferably in prison. Giving Trump limitless air time backfired on them in 2016, and your betters are not making the same mistake again. The “Shadow Campaign that Saved the 2020 Election” continues, as concerned about 2024 as it is about the Republican primary. It is just that they cannot help themselves. Recall, if you can, the deranged hysteria of the Russiagate collusion narrative—in 2018 the New York Times ran a piece of short fiction that fantasized about President Trump being assassinated by a Russian hitman with the assistance of a Secret Service agent.
All our managers can do is double down. They have no playbook but the one they have run, and they will run it until the country is in the ground. Consider, for another not totally unrelated example, the recent trial balloons from the legacy press and the Biden administration for further COVID responses. The pandemic is over; the virus is endemic. But we now have headlines about new variants and new boosters, and the table set for measures to come. “I signed off this morning on a proposal we have to present to the Congress a request for additional funding for a new vaccine that is necessary, that works,” the president told reporters while on vacation in Tahoe. “It will likely be recommended that everybody get it no matter whether they’ve gotten it before or not.” COVID-19 allowed for altered election procedures in states across the country in 2020. It also let Biden, old and tired and confused, do minimal campaigning. I trust the American people to reject locking down again, and it is difficult to imagine anyone advocating shutting down schools, now that the consequences have become so obvious. But a lot can happen between now and March, and no amount of squinting can make this election cycle look normal, or the GOP like it has a plan.