Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson tells USA Today that former president Donald Trump should abandon his 2024 campaign to re-take the White House if he's indicted: "It doesn't mean that he's guilty of it or he should be charged, but it's just such a distraction that would be unnecessary for somebody who's seeking the highest office in the land."
Is Hutchinson right? Maybe. Does Hutchinson -- who's been talked up for years as a possible presidential candidate -- have ambitions that Trump's departure from the field would serve, or is he just doing the "elder statesman" thing out of concern for his party's prospects? Either could be true.
If there's probable cause to believe Trump committed crimes, he should be charged and prosecuted. Prosecutors in New York and Georgia may make their moves soon, and special counsel Jack Smith could conceivably recommend charges relating to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
But, buyers beware: That's exactly what Trump wants.
After a presidency full of outcomes ranging from mediocre (for example, tax policy, desultory stabs at deregulation, mostly unfulfilled lunges toward a less interventionist foreign policy) to disastrous (his trade wars and border wall schemes come to mind), and with an unprecedented two impeachments under his belt, Trump has only one trump card left in his hand to keep his considerable base energized and mobilized.
That trump card is the victim card. The martyr card. The "stolen election" card. The "witch hunt" card.
He's played that card to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in fundraising and cataclysmic effects on the Republican Party's fortunes, nearly single-handedly turning a 2022 "red wave" into a "red trickle."
If he continues to play at all, his only available strategy is to keep waving that card around and asking his supporters to double down with their bets on it.
Will that strategy work?
If past trends indicate future performance, probably not. He barely beat an exceedingly weak opponent in 2016, lost in 2020, and cost his party dearly in the 2018 and 2022 midterms, playing that card every time as his vaunted supporter rally turnout shrank from stadium overflows to a half-filled room at CPAC in early March.
But he's been under-estimated before, and actual criminal indictments will likely affect that trump card the way gasoline affects a bonfire. Even if he can't win the presidency, he can turn 2024 into a circus the likes of which we've never really seen.
Personally, I find that kind of appealing.
Yes, he's a crook.
So were his predecessors.
So is his successor.
Having it out with Trump may not bring our rotten, corrupt political class crashing down, but exposing him exposes them, too. And it's better to get such things out in the open.
Thomas L. Knapp is director of the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).
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