The Political Weaponization of Criminality
Science & Environment Editor
Photo via Fulton County Sheriff’s Office.
Former President Donald Trump recently found a new way to leverage voters in the upcoming election by weaponizing his piling criminal record. His recent campaign, NEVER SURRENDER, is gaining traction amidst his indictment in Georgia after becoming the first president in history to have his mugshot taken.
On Thursday August 24th, 2023, Trump expanded his list of felony charges after receiving 13 counts in Fulton County, including violating Georgia’s RICO act and solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer. Trump has currently received 91 felony charges in total after a historical four indictments.
These charges have not deterred his campaigning efforts for the upcoming 2024 presidential elections; the recent mugshot taken in Georgia helped surge newfound support for the former president. Trump's first post on X since his move to Truth Social was “ELECTION INTERFERENCE, NEVER SURRENDER,” accompanied by a picture of his mugshot and a link to his website. His online store is selling merchandise, from t-shirts to mugs, with his mugshot and the "NEVER SURRENDER!" tagline printed on it. While many Americans thought of the mugshot to be surreal and saddening, Fox News anchor Jesse Walters shared a rather lighthearted feeling about the baffling image, stating on his broadcast that the former president looks “good and he looks hard." In a video posted by Trump, he alleges that his campaign raised over $10 million since his mugshot was released. According to POLITICO, Trump's campaign raised $4.18 million the day after he visited Fulton County jail, the most earnings for his campaign in 24 hours.
Trump’s weaponization of his criminal charges has also helped skyrocket support for his 2024 election campaign. In a survey conducted by The Wall Street Journal with 600 Republican primary voters, Donald Trump accumulated 66% of their support, with 59% stating he would be their first-choice vote. This number is staggering, as Ron DeSantis, a presidential candidate and current governor of Florida, is in second place with only 48% of votes, with 35% of them stating he would be their second choice. Trump's legal troubles have not affected his ability to win over other Republicans or potential nominees from other parties. The split is close yet alarming, as another survey by The Wall Street Journal stated that, out of 1,500 registered voters, 40% would currently vote for Trump, and Joe Biden, the current president, received 39% of the votes. The running was almost equal, with a crucial 17% of people stating they were undecided. Trump is using his felony charges to gain support in his campaign, presenting them as a political asset and persuading Republican voters that criticism is an attack on their constitutional rights.
Trump declined the opportunity to join the Republican presidential candidate debate held on August 23rd, 2023. His polling numbers were unaffected by this decision, despite being a topic of discussion at the debate. Before it began, the eight candidates participating were required to sign a loyalty pledge to support the eventual representative of the party in the presidential election, in which Trump has a considerable lead among voters for this position. After being asked if the participants would support Trump as the Republican nominee even if he is convicted on criminal charges, six out of the eight candidates present confidently raised their hand. According to Steven Cheung, a political advisor and spokesperson for Trump's 2023-24 primary, the other candidates are constantly vying for second place. He stated in June, during the extensive media coverage of Trump's Florida arraignment: “There’s no oxygen for other candidates”. Trump always remains in the spotlight, while the other candidates are rarely considered the leading GOP nominee.
The topic of criminality and the justice system is an ongoing debate in the United States, and Trump’s unprecedented conviction raises many questions about his ability to run for president. The Constitution does not clearly state that a criminal record or indictment affects eligibility. A person convicted of a felony can still run for president, creating an exploitative loophole for the upcoming election on November 5th, 2024.
Another takeaway from Trump’s possible conviction will be his voting rights. Presently, only three states allow felons to vote despite incarceration. Florida, the state Trump is registered to vote in, does not allow felons to vote until they have completed their sentence. While he could, if convicted, petition for clemency to his state governor and cabinet members, it would be disquieting to have a potential sitting president who could not vote in the election he ran in.
The current state of numerous polls and chatter among Republican candidates seems to indicate that Trump’s 2024 election campaign is thriving. It remains to be determined if the next president of the United States will be enforcing laws written by Congress from behind bars.