There is not much of a choice for Donald Trump regarding how he will pursue re-election.
After the fourth indictment against him, the one in Georgia, the Trump campaign definitely got its hardware and software.
Courtrooms will be his main campaign ground, and the narrative will centre on a tale of a victim and a sacrifice. But that is not entirely Trump’s decision. The circumstances under which he will have to play have been forced upon him.
This combination appears to be helping Trump succeed so far. He continues to have a significant advantage among aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination (54% support) and numerous supporters on his side in the court cases initiated thus far.
According to a July survey, before the fourth indictment in Georgia, as many as 71% of Republican voters said that Trump had not committed serious federal crimes and that Republicans should stand by him (New York Times/Siena College).
Reasons for Trump's nervousness
But the indictment in Fulton County, Georgia, provoked more anger from Trump than the previous three cases before New York, Washington DC and Miami courts.
Anger was a common reaction until now, but not nervousness. It is visible now when the indictments have already piled up and, as his biggest problem, have heavily burdened his pre-election calendar. But also, the budget.
Trump has repeatedly stressed the link between the indictments and the election campaign during the first interview following Fulton County district attorney Fanny Willis's indictment - furiously and nervously.
“This politically-inspired indictment, which could have been brought close to three years ago, was tailored for placement right smack in the middle of my political campaign, where I am leading all Republicans”, he told Fox News last Monday.
He accused the prosecutor, Willis, of being allowed to “interrupt perhaps the most important election in the history of our country”.
Perhaps with the opening of one or even two cases before the Republican party primaries, Trump could optimally handle the campaign, moving from the courtroom to evening rallies or to recording video messages, which he would distribute through social media.
However, four large cases at the same time will require him to sacrifice some of that. Appearing in the courtroom is definitely not on the list of activities that he will be able to eliminate from his daily itinerary.
“Facing a felony indictment is an all-consuming experience for most people. It drains their resources, their money and their time. Donald Trump is facing four of them”, Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor told The Wall Street Journal.
The role of the victim used to be profitable
Even though prospects are still looking good for now (for Trump), as the courtroom campaign “hardware” is not yet in full swing, a much bigger problem for him may arise with the campaign “software”.
Getting votes on the story of the victim and sacrifice is extremely common in American politics. Trump is only a faithful follower of such a technique, and by no means its source.
However, now he is in danger of exploiting a victim narrative, which he has already used to win once, beyond measure, thereby making him unconvincing and having low profitability regarding votes.
This is not his choice but a circumstance in which he is forced to campaign due to serious indictments with a total of 91 counts.
Trump won the 2016 elections because he appealed to the citizens' widespread feeling of being victims - a poor economy that left them without work, unfulfilled plans that were someone else’s fault, the perception that they were governed by someone who does not listen to their voice, and a decline in reputation of the US.
Trump positioned himself as their protector, previously saying that he knew they were victims and who was to blame for their problems and that he was capable of dealing with those forces.
This messianism worked in 2016, but not 4 years later, when Trump applied it again. However, at that time, it was hard to present oneself as a protector of the oppressed from the position of someone who had already been in the White House for 4 years.
In the race for the next mandate, Trump has not changed the “software” regarding victimhood and justice, but improved it in a way that presents him with a huge risk, possibly the beginning of future defeat.
The victims are not only his voters. He is the principal victim - “I am being indicted for you”; “I am being arrested for you” - Trump keeps saying as new indictments emerge.
These messages already contain a significant amount of potentially harmful association with Jesus because they are constructed in accordance with the biblical narrative: “I sacrifice myself for you”.
Will the conservative and religious electorate easily accept this identification of their political leader with the Son of God? Or will they dismiss it as exaggeration or even blasphemy?
In 2016 and 2020, Trump presented himself as the powerful, strong, and wealthy protector who knows how to deal with bullies.
He is currently in a situation that none of his supporters would want to be in. Can a man who puts himself first provide them with protection?
The literature talks about three forms of victimhood applied by political actors in the fight for voters - legal (when experiencing criminal injustice), then socio-cultural (when mistreating a group systematically) and self-defined (Miles T. Armaly, Adam M. Enders - ‘Why Me?’ The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics, 2021/22).
We will easily find examples for each of these perceptions of victimhood in political life, but it is difficult to find all three used simultaneously, which Trump is currently applying.
Under the pressure of felony indictments, Donald Trump enters into overdose when using the victimhood and sacrifice narrative. His competitors for the Republican Party nomination have already recognised this and want to knock the only remaining propaganda trump card out of his hands in time.
“As I’m walking around Ukraine, he’s waltzing into a courtroom in Washington, D.C., to tell us that he’s being indicted for us. For us! How lucky are we! That we have such a selfless, magnanimous leader”, said Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and one of Trump’s fiercest critics.