After indictment, Trump will play the victim – and the tactic will work for many Republicans | Donald Trump

Comedian Chris Rock gazed out at the audience at an awards ceremony in Washington earlier this month. “Are you guys really going to arrest Trump?” he asked bluntly. “This is only going to make him more popular!”

Donald Trump has not yet been arrested but is now the first person to occupy the Oval Office to then be charged with a crime. It also raises the prospect of the Republican favorite for the 2024 presidential race to be running for the White House while also being criminally prosecuted – something likely to bring even more chaos to America’s already deeply fractured political landscape.

It emerged on Thursday that a Manhattan grand jury has voted to indict Trump over a hush money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Florida-based Trump is now expected to surrender himself on Tuesday to the Manhattan district attorney (DA) to be fingerprinted and photographed for a mugshot – something guaranteed to delight his many opponents, appall his fans and divide the United States even more.

30 March 2023 is therefore a day for the history books. It offered an affirmation of the Magna Carta principle that no one, not even the onetime commander in chief, is above the law. The 45th president of the United States is set to stand trial and, if convicted, could find himself behind bars instead of running for re-election.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said on the MSNBC network: “Tomorrow, in terms of American history, we will be waking up in a different country. Before tonight, presidents in this country were kings.”

But while the law is clear, the politics are murky. A criminal charge or even conviction does not prevent someone running for the White House, and Trump is currently leading in opinion polls for the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

In the pre-Trump universe, an indictment over a hush money payment to an adult film star would have been career-ending. Candidates have withdrawn from election races for much less.

But since 2016, Trump has been a political judo master, turning the weight of opponents and allegations against them to his own advantage. The bigger the alleged crime, the louder he airs grievances and the more he plays the victim – and so far the Republican party has been mostly willing to indulge him.

That is the role he will play with an indictment hanging over him. At a campaign rally in Waco, Texas, last weekend, he claimed: “The Biden regime’s weaponization of law enforcement against their political opponents is something straight out of the Stalinist Russia horror show.” He suggested that it is the most serious problem facing America today.

In a statement on Thursday following his indictment, Trump said: “This is Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history… The Democrats have lied, cheated and stolen in their obsession with trying to ‘Get Trump,’ but now they’ve done the unthinkable – indicting a completely innocent person in an act of blatant Election Interference.”

Trump will now doubtless set about putting the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, on trial in the court of public opinion. He has already used dehumanising and racist language. A social media post, later removed, showed a photo of Trump holding a baseball bat and apparently looming over Bragg, raising fears of violence against him.

America’s tragedy is that the tactic will work with many Republicans. That Bragg is a Democrat from New York will trigger a Pavlovian response in Trump’s favor. That the case is seven years old, based on an untested legal theory and has Michael Cohen, a convicted criminal, as a key witness will provide further ammunition.

This pattern came into a focus earlier this month when Trump falsely predicted his own arrest. Republicans leaped to his defence and he reportedly raised $1.5m in three days; on Thursday night he quickly sent out another fundraising email.

The drama put Trump back where he wants to be: at the centre of the news cycle. Not coincidentally, it also gave him a boost in the Republican primary polls, extending a lead over Ron DeSantis, even as the Florida governor was on a book tour trying to promote his own brand. Everyone was talking about Trump.

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So it was that, after news of the indictment emerged on Thursday, Republicans again came to his aid. Trump ally Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House of Representatives, accused Bragg of “irreparably” damaging the country “in an attempt to interfere” in the election.

JD Vance, a Republican senator for Ohio, described the indictment as “political persecution masquerading as law”, “blatant election interference” and “a direct assault on the tens of millions of Americans who support him”.

But the most telling reaction came from DeSantis himself. This could have been the moment for him to break from Trump and prove statesmanlike, calling for dignity and unity in a solemn moment for the nation. Instead he went full Maga.

DeSantis said: “The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. It is un-American.” Blowing an antisemitic dog whistle, DeSantis twice linked Bragg to philanthropist George Soros, adding that Florida would not assist in “an extradition request” to send Trump to New York.

The spineless responses suggested that, in the short term at least, the indictment will provide a rallying cry for Trump and help rather than hurt him in the 2024 Republican primary. In the for-us-or-against-us binary of American politics, the party base will be for him and against the perceived Democratic elites and the deep state.

Yet again, he has thrust America into the political unknown, a twilight zone where precedents do not apply and everyone has to respond on the fly. Can the Manhattan court assemble an impartial jury, and will the timing of the trial collide with the Republican primary?

Then, what about the other major legal perils threatening Trump: over the January 6 insurrection, over election interference in Georgia and over the mishandling of classified documents? These cases are arguably more clear-cut and consequential – but not necessarily in the eyes of Republicans. Will he recklessly incite unrest among his supporters?

The lesson of the Trump era is that most predictions are wrong. The only certainty is that Thursday will go down as the day when Trump’s age of impunity, in which he was never legally held to account, is over. The man who rose to power leading chants of “Lock her up!” is about to get a taste of his own medicine.

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