As we know, Donald J. Trump was not arrested last week on charges of—well, we’re not really sure what they will be—by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The former president kicked off his official 2024 campaign with a rally in Waco, Texas. The theme was “witch hunt.” His fans lapped it up like beer at a monster truck rally.
Many of the pundit class expected the golden elevator Trump to come down spewing invective on inflation, Joe Biden’s decrepitude, our foreign policy blunders, China, and the southern border. But not this time around. Trump, with an open collar and blue blazer, handed out signs reading “witch hunt” to the crowd of thousands, though the exact crowd size has not been determined.
The former president had his personal jet do a flyover of the crowd before landing for the rally, and provided the red meat for the crowd, not dealing with national issues, but his own existential war with those who are looking to lock him up. On the surface, this kind of cult service seems like the chief nut preaching to the choir nuts, and largely it is, but it does serve a purpose for Trump.
First, it’s a grift. As I was slamming this out on the keyboard, Erick Erickson’s takeposted to Substack, and he also said it’s a grift. Trump has a war chest somewhere in the vicinity of $150 to $200 million and he’ll need a good chunk of it for his legal defense. Since his Leadership PAC, which takes up to 90 percent of donations to the joint RNC fundraising effort, cannot be used to actually spend money on Trump’s campaign, it can be used for practically anything else, including lining Trump’s personal pockets. Rallies are relatively cheap compared to advertising, data services, door knockers, consultants, and all the other necessary elements of a campaign.
Trump loves rallies, and lets the RNC deal with the other stuff (with their own funds). His rallies generate thousands of small donations by the fully involved minds who share his belief that Trump did nothing wrong, “they have nothing,” and pending charges or investigations against him are mere “weaponization.” Most of that money goes into Trump’s hip pocket, not his campaign fund.
How much legal representation can $100 million buy? Quite a bit. Trump’s lawyers (the ones he doesn’t lie to) are great at dragging out procedures, vexing judges and generally making a tangled mess—if not a mockery—of our legal system in every jurisdiction they touch. The problem with the Manhattan DA’s case, as David Frenchexplains, is that it’s a weak case, stretching the law to try to pin anything other than a misdemeanor on Trump, battling federal primacy on election law, competing statutes of limitation, untested legal theories, and a string of prosecutors, both state and federal, who have declined to advance the case in the last five years.
There are much stronger cases against Trump, first his deception and intent to keep and hide classified government files at his Mar-a-Lago home. Second, Fulton County, Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis’ special grand jury report on election interference. The Georgia case is flailing since some of the report has been released, and Trump’s lawyers are once again asking the courts to disqualify Willis. Emily Kohrs, the grand jury foreperson, really made a mess with her mouthy media tour, and Trump’s lawyers claimed she “poisoned the case.”
Second, Trump, as he did in 2016, is focused only on the “next thing” to do. He isn’t forward-looking in the sense of making a strategic plan and following it through. He’s impulsive, reactive, and endlessly opportunistic, and the Waco rally was a shot against the one person who is going after the same voter base as Trump: Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis lacks the personality (any personality) to really fight Trump one-on-one. Trump is playing on this theme and has been chewing on that bone for a while.
But what DeSantis lacks in personal charm, he makes up for by being governor of Florida, and taking the lead in fighting the “woke” war. It’s popular in Florida (well, parts of Florida), and it gets him headlines. Trump is using the left-leaning media to apply hammer and tongs to DeSantis, to try to neutralize him or take him out of the race early. That would leave Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswarmy (who’s not going to be a factor), and potentially Mike Pence, Tim Scott, and—maybe—New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu to take out next.
None of those other candidates would be going after the same voter base as Trump’s cult members. Mike Pence has the added issue of having served four years at the feet of Trump’s orange throne, defending him and his policies, right up until the bitter end, when Trump branded him a “traitor.”
Trump’s rally was aimed at energizing his voters to get away from DeSantis, and to try to bait his rival into engaging in a tit-for-tat. DeSantis’ strategy is the same as President Joe Biden’s in 2020—let Trump talk himself into a loss. But Biden only had to convince a majority of all voters; DeSantis’ audience is limited to Republicans, which is a much harder nut to crack.
The Waco nut-fest exposed Trump’s continuing strategy, which he’ll use until it doesn’t work anymore, or until it does and he moves to the next challenger. He isn’t interested in the long game right now. His goals are to take in as much money as possible for himself, and to smear DeSantis, while making the news about himself, which really what he literally thinks about every second of the day.
Republicans face a problem: without Trump’s cult votes, no candidate has a lock on winning any given primary. As long as Trump is under threat of indictment, his cult votes will likely accrue to him. Many Republicans still defend Trump, even as they try to distance themselves from January 6th. They still attack efforts to bring accountability and justice as “weaponization.”
The best way to end this cycle is to just arrest Trump, one way or the other. I don’t care if Bragg’s case is garbage. If he intends to indict, just get it over with, make that the spectacle. Then have the federal case against his Mar-a-Lago classified, and Willis’ case against “find 12,000 votes” proceed. Maybe these cases will all move forward at once, in coordination. But Trump’s lawyers are doing their best to keep that from happening. Trying to make the timeline perfect works in Trump’s favor. Just do it and keep him off the rally trail, I think is the best move.
Trump is counting on indecision among prosecutors, the need for lawyers to make things as perfect as possible, and indecision among his political rivals, none of whom want to be the first to get sacrificed. Deny him that wish.
One prediction: We’re going to see more of the nut gatherings.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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