After news broke Monday evening that the FBI had executed a search warrant of Mar-a-Lago, it did not take long for pundits to arrive at a savvy consensus: Federal authorities raiding Donald Trump’s house was excellent news for Donald Trump.
For months, Trump has been leaking support in polls that pit him against other potential 2024 Republican candidates, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a less volatile alternative who still hits all the right buttons with the contemporary Republican base.
But, the thinking goes, the raid on Mar-a-Lago will erase all that. Trump’s perceived harassment at the hands of Dark Brandon’s goons will stop the bleeding and keep the party arrayed behind him.
When news of the search broke, every Republican—especially those considering challenging Trump in 2024—was politically obligated to be outraged. DeSantis described the raid as “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents,” and referred to the United States as a “Banana Republic.” (This has been a popular term.) Mike Pence insisted “the appearance of continued partisanship by the Justice Department must be addressed.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that “using government power to persecute political opponents is something we have seen many times from 3rd world Marxist dictatorships.” Then, following a line break pregnant with gravitas: “But never before in America.”
Trump, too, thought this was good politics for Trump. His potential 2024 rivals were rushing to renew their vows of obedience. The fundraising emails have been coming out hot and heavy. And though Trump wasn’t at Mar-a-Lago, it surely heartened him to be able to watch footage of supporters flocking to his gilded manse in solidarity.
“Trump is winning the FBI-raid caucus going away,” National Review editor Rich Lowry tweeted Monday night. “We’ll learn more, but this is his best day in pursuit of the 2024 nomination in a long time.”
I get it. There’s no doubt that GOP primary politics have gotten hinky. Once we get past the midterms and the presidential primary gets underway, though, a switch is going to flip that could turn what now appears to be useful martyrdom—Trump’s supposed persecution from the FBI, the Jan. 6 committee, and fellow haters—into standard, run-of-the-mill political baggage: Republicans are going to start running against him.
Consider the circumstances. Since Trump won the GOP nomination for president in 2016, Republicans have lived in a steady state in which Trump has been the unchallenged leader of the party. You either defend him and follow his orders, or you lose your primary.
But if Trump runs in 2024, he will probably be unable to fully clear the field of opponents. Then, it will be the first time in eight years that other Republicans will have tried to defeat him. And one of the most interesting questions, as that primary develops, will be whether Republicans, at long last, choose to pick up any of those weapons against Trump they’ve so far been forbidden from using.
We’ll see soon enough what polling data shows about public perceptions of the raid on Mar-a-Lago. But there’s a strong chance the American public is going to have a more nuanced opinion of its appropriateness than that of the MAGA base. Rather than seeing it as a crooked persecution, the public at-large might not be so shocked that federal authorities would find reasons to investigate Trump for crimes. They might even be interested in learning whether he did commit crimes.
Similarly, Republicans might be duty-bound to defend their existing leader against the Jan. 6 committee as a witch hunt, a hoax, a scam, etc. But the public at large thinks the committee’s findings make Trump look terrible. Much of Trump’s base has rallied behind the stolen-election conspiracies he’s pushed for years, the theories that sparked the Jan. 6 riots. The public at large thinks the conspiracies are crazy.
Maybe an attempted violent overturning of an election and rampant activity worthy of criminal investigation from federal authorities don’t register as problems—or realities—to the Republican base. But in a general election, it’s all gunk that makes Trump less electable.
And that will influence the dynamics of the 2024 presidential primary. You don’t want to nominate someone who can’t win.
Sure, it’s true that Republican primary voters don’t respond to electability concerns the way that Democrats do. When Democratic primary voters see just one New York Times primary poll suggesting a candidate might be a risk, they immediately settle for a sentient bowl of water-flavored ice cream with a military background. Republican primary voters are much more inclined to nominate long shots when dared to do so. They nominated Trump in 2016, and it worked.
But it didn’t in 2020, when Trump blew a very winnable election by being who he is. “Who he is” became an even riskier future general-election prospect between Nov. 3, 2020, and the inauguration of President Joe Biden a few months later. Is Trump a risk worth taking again when we’re trying to save America from the left? will be a central question in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. And maybe, just maybe, even in our dumb political reality, a simple conclusion will be simple enough: Being investigated by the Justice Department doesn’t actually improve your future political prospects.