Trump’s criminal cases are his campaign

“Hands off Trump Tower!”

So reads a recent fundraising email from Donald Trump’s joint fundraising campaign. Most of the email is an extended whine from Trump about facing punishment for committing decades of business fraud, leading to nearly half a billion dollars in fines. Trump has long claimed to be a billionaire, but instead of sucking it up and paying the penalty after being found liable for his crimes, he’s begging his working schmo supporters to cut back on their grocery bills to help him evade justice.

“Radical Democrat AG Letitia James just said she’s ready to SEIZE MY ASSETS!” Trump’s campaign email screams. 

It’s a rare moment of honesty from Trump, at least. Indeed, money donated to this fund will largely be used to pay his lawyers, instead of traditional campaign goals like running ads or organizing voters. What is less clear is why he expects his followers to turn over their Social Security checks so that he can keep his gold-plated Manhattan penthouse as a second home.

“But remember, it’s not me they’re after. THEY’RE AFTER YOU – I’M JUST STANDING IN THEIR WAY!

His vague appeal does not explain how he’s “in their way,” much less why he needs to own skyscrapers in New York City or how donations will help him stop the imaginary bad guys in their mythical war on MAGA voters. 

Trump’s update on the famous words of John F. Kennedy might be, “Ask not what a presidential candidate can do for you. Ask how much you’re going to give to keep his sorry butt out of prison.” 

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Silly as all this is, it’s indicative of the relationship between Trump’s alleged crimes and his third run as the Republican nominee for president: They are one and the same. It’s not just that they’ve become so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. The main message of Trump’s presidential campaign is that he should be able to commit any crime he wants, without penalty. And, as he often likes to say in public and in court documents, he should enjoy “absolute immunity.” 

To be sure, Trump still regularly issues inconsequential assertions of innocence. Listen to him speak or watch his rallies, however, and it’s clear that his actual message is very different: Sure, he’s guilty, but he should be allowed to commit crimes with impunity.

With every crime Trump’s accused of, he winkingly acknowledges his guilt in between glib claims of innocence.

At the infamous “bloodbath” speech in Ohio this month, like at most Trump rallies, he kicked things off with a ritual celebration of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump called the rioters who assaulted cops “unbelievable patriots” and promised to pardon them. This isn’t just gross, but tantamount to a showy, public confession of guilt for leading the insurrection.

And it’s not just with Jan. 6. With every crime Trump’s accused of, he winkingly acknowledges his guilt in between glib claims of innocence. With the charges that he stole classified documents, he regularly gives interviews where he admits he did it, saying, “I’m allowed to do whatever I want.” He still denies sexually assaulting E. Jean Carroll, despite a jury finding he did do so, but then finds little ways to brag about doing it. During a CNN town hall, for instance, he insinuated to a cheering crowd Carroll had it coming because she’s allegedly the “kind of a woman” who would be alone with him in a dressing room. When asked about the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about sexual assault, Trump replied that “fortunately” men like him “tend to do well,” sneering it’s “unfortunately” only for the women they attack. 

As CNN reported Thursday, President Joe Biden is running the usual voter-oriented campaign, traveling non-stop to campaign events and focusing on what he can do for Americans, such as generating jobs or lowering health care prices. When Trump hasn’t been in court, in contrast, he “has remained almost entirely behind closed doors in Palm Beach,” playing golf at his Mar-a-Lago resort and having lunch meetings with rich people he hopes can bail him out of a growing pile of legal fees and his over half-billion dollars worth of civil penalties. 

Understandably, many pundits are skeptical that this “help me get away with crime” approach to campaigning will be effective for Trump. David Frum of The Atlantic argued that Trump’s egocentric campaign is “self-sabotaging.” Brian Beutler wrote in Off Message that, “Trump is scarcely running a presidential campaign.” 

Trump is almost certainly suffering from severe personality disorders that manifest as extreme narcissism, and that is a big part of the reason why his campaign message can be boiled down to “me me me.” But I suspect there is a tactical theory here, if only on the part of his campaign managers and not Trump himself: Trump’s wounded pride can be shaped into a symbol of the central MAGA complaint that straight white men’s iron grip on power is threatened by the “woke mob.” 

Trump’s wounded pride can be shaped into a symbol of the central MAGA complaint that straight white men’s iron grip on power is threatened by the “woke mob.” 

On Wednesday, Charles Blow of the New York Times likened Trump’s relentless whining strategy to the “Lost Cause,” the post-Civil War myth that the Confederates were noble warriors defending the benevolent institution of slavery, rather than traitors who rebelled so they could treat human beings like chattel. As Blow writes, the Lost Cause is a reactionary lie that gives shape to “the sense of displacement and dispossession is driven by a lost cultural advantage.”

Trump’s new version replaces the old cultural relics of nostalgic white supremacy — sprawling plantations, the Confederate flag, Robert E. Lee statues — with his own gaudy signposts of his wealth and power. Trump wants his voters to see Trump Tower not as a tacky building topped by an ugly penthouse, but as a symbol of their own social status. And he isn’t subtle about this, screeching that “Radical Democrat AG Letitia James” is threatening to take away the “ICONIC Trump Tower.” Having a Black prosecutor take away his skyscraper is being hamfistedly equated to every grievance his voters have about losing out a job to a better-qualified Black person, seeing “Barbie” beat some dude-led movie at the box office, or having your wife finally divorce you after too many years picking up dirty socks. 

Trump’s empire was build by cheating and breaking the law. But in this MAGA framework, that’s a plus. The screaming white crowds at a Trump rally also know that their lives are shaped by their unfair advantages. MAGA is, at its heart, a support group for mediocre white men who know that they wouldn’t be doing half as well if they were a woman or person of color. Trump is trying to draw a straight line between his immense privileges and their relatively smaller ones. Donald Trump is equating his desire to stay out of prison with their wish to keep pinching waitress butts without getting kicked out of the bar. 

Donald Trump is equating his desire to stay out of prison with their wish to keep pinching waitress butts without getting kicked out of the bar. 

That’s why promising pardons for the January 6 criminals is so central to Trump’s campaign. They represent the Trump supporters who are in this to protect the petty privileges of middle class white people. The talk of pardons is Trump’s false promise of trickle-down impunity. It’s certainly the most explicit space in which Trump can relate his desire to commit serious federal crimes to what his followers mostly want: reassurance that their privileges will go unquestioned. 

So yes, there appears to be a strategy there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good one. Trump’s hardcore supporters who go to his rallies are all in, clearly, seeing their trifling grievances about rainbow flags and sexual harassment codes in Trump’s rage over possibly being held to account for crimes. But whether or not this “in the end, Trump Tower is you” tactic will resonate beyond just the MAGA base is hard to imagine.

Reporting shows that Trump is lagging in fundraising, and not just from rich people who don’t see a personal benefit in paying Trump’s legal bills. CNBC reports that small-dollar donors “have slowed their support to the former president.” The typical small dollar donor is a middle or upper-middle class person who can’t write big checks but can toss $50 or $100 a candidate’s way. Those people may be struggling to connect their grievances to Trump’s rage that New York won’t just let him skate away from losing a half-billion fraud lawsuit. And those are the people who already like him! It will be even harder for Trump to win over reluctant swing voters with his navel-gazing message. 

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