Four Washington Post journalists analyzed Donald Trump’s polling numbers for the 2024 presidential election among all voters as well as personal interviews with Republicans from multiple states. They concluded that the twice impeached and four-time indicted ex-president’s “constant message of victimhood has seeped in with voters” of the GOP persuasion even though most of America understands that Trump is a bona fide criminal offender. These contradictory social realities persist in part because most voters were witnesses to many of the perpetrator’s lawless actions during his presidency.
Criminologically speaking, how does a schism exist between his 2024 supporters who believe in Trump’s persecution by the state and those who oppose the habitually corrupt former president’s third run for POTUS as Trump continues to provoke violence in violation of court orders not to?
By considering labelling theory, examining the social construction of crime theory, and taking some lessons on the myths about crime and criminal justice, I’ll attempt to explain the processes of criminal stigmatization in the midst of the competing interpretations of Trump’s predicament by locating them in the common ways in which society attempts to control deviant, harmful, and lawless behavior.
The Washington Post’s reporting contends that the GOP’s negative sentiment toward the criminal indictments and Trump’s victimhood rather than positive sentiments toward his criminalization and culpability have shaped the ways in which most Republicans as well as Trump’s challengers for the 2024 nomination have responded to the 91 felony charges against him.
While these political vs. legal interpretations of reality capture the moment in the ongoing saga of Donald Trump, I do not believe that the label of victim is “baked in” nor that his narrative of victimhood will be the prevailing one. On the contrary, this “master” label of Trump’s identity or status as victim is only temporary and will not stick as opposed to Trump’s identity or status as a criminal.
In terms of the 2024 presidential election and the so-called race for the Republican nomination, so far the politically motivated labels of the former president’s alleged “persecution” or victimization by “witch hunts” have stuck over the legal labels of “fraudster” or “criminal” in the minds of the majority of Republicans. Nevertheless, over the weekend Trump found it necessary not only to double down further on his martyrdom as he continues to beg one of his presiding courtroom judges to jail him for violating their “gag orders,” but he also felt compelled to share on social media a messianic sketched courthouse image of himself and Jesus, purportedly created by Peter Gerard Scully who was sentenced to life for rape and human trafficking last year.
At this point in time, neither the Republican majority nor his so-called rivals for the nomination are willing to acknowledge Trump’s pure and unadulterated corruption or even that the alleged criminal charges against him might be legitimate.
As a whole, the GOP is in a collective state of denial about Trump’s lawlessness. They prefer to falsely vilify the Democratic opposition and President Biden’s “crime family” while blaming an imaginary “deep state” and very real federal and state judicial departments for “weaponizing” the discriminatory wheels of law enforcement against the former president.
While Trump will in all likelihood be the GOP presidential candidate for 2024, I believe that the fraudster’s very effective culturally constructed persecution schtick and its political narrative of victimhood has already commenced to wane as his co-conspirators have begun to plead guilty. Most importantly, once the criminal allegations have become criminal convictions, Trump’s fabricated political defenses of persecution and martyrdom will quickly lose their hold on Republican voters.
Contrary to the conventional speculation, the criminal convictions unlike the criminal indictments will not enhance his “victimhood” label.
For example, in realpolitik we saw evidence of Trump’s victimhood of “rigged” elections starting to ebb in the defeat last week of Jim Jordan of Ohio for the House Speakership and in the guilty pleas of two of Trump’s attorneys and co-defendants Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro in the Georgia RICO case. Concerning the latter, attorneys like accountants in the world of Trumpian lawlessness, have always been among the expendable “fixers” for Trump to throw under the proverbial buses or to blame for his misdeeds in order to escape from accountability. Now they will be testifying not only against Trump in his two conspiracy trials, but also the other charged co-defendants who at this very moment are working on their plea deals to reduce their own punishments rather than face what could be very long prison sentences.
Unlike Trump, his political rivals for the highest office, and the Republicans in the House of Representatives who know the truth about Trump’s crimes, obstruction of justice, failed coup, and so on, there were 25 Republican holdouts last week who refused to pretend otherwise. As a result, they prevented the anointing of ‘legislative terrorist’ Jordan as former Republican House Speaker John Boehner once labeled the January 6 hidden co-conspirator and Trump’s preferred candidate to be third in line to the presidency.
So what explains why the Republicans up to now have primarily identified with the weaknesses and victimhood of their ‘strongman’ as well as with the positive images of the former president as an outlaw or revolutionary rather than with the negative images of Trump as a fraudster or criminal?
Political scientists tell us that most of these voters identify with Trump because they think that it is in their self-interests to do so. Psychologists reduce identification with Trump to his satisfying various aspects of these voters’ deep-seated emotional needs. While political scientists and psychologists are correct about these accounts, they have not really addressed or reconciled the contradictory responses of those other Republicans (or Democrats for that matter) with the same political interests or psychological needs.
They have simply suggested why these Trumpian voters have ignored or dismissed his dastardly deeds, but not why they are capable of rationalizing Trump’s antisocial behavior, or why up until now they have been internalizing rather than externalizing Trump’s odious behavior. In other words, they have nothing to say fundamentally about why voters legalistically are able to accept or reject Trump’s social deviance or non-conformity.
By contrast, sociologists and criminologists discuss these matters in terms of “primary” and “secondary” deviants as first articulated by Edwin Lemert. They suggest, for example, why the GOP’s identification with Trump as that of a patriotic outlaw, revolutionary insurrectionist, or persecuted target will be transformed into an anti-identification Trumper only when the legal system begins to criminalize or has successfully labeled Trump a convicted criminal not once but multiple times.
Primary deviants are those persons who have intentionally violated a custom, a norm, or a rule of law without either being stigmatized by a social group as deviant or by a court of law as criminal. After some five decades of violating customs, norms, and laws in addition to being held liable multiple times for civil complaints, Trump remains for most Republicans a primary deviant.
Secondary deviants are those persons who have been: (a) informally stigmatized as deviant by social groups for violating customs that do not rise to norms or for the violations of civil and administrative law as well as torts that do not constitute criminality, (b) formally stigmatized as liable for violations that are considered to be infractions of civil, administrative or tort laws which may induce others not to identify with someone as a lawbreaker, or (c) formally stigmatized as one who has violated one of two kinds of criminality — misdemeanor or felonies – that almost always induce others not to identify with those officially labeled as criminals.
With respect to Trump he remains a primary deviant when it comes to ordinary customs as he has not been successfully stigmatized or shamed by others and certainly not by himself. At the same time, Trump has been held liable on many occasions for fraud or for violating civil laws and torts. However, as these conflicts are subject to fines and not loss of liberty most people view these white-collar or corporate illegalities committed with spread sheets, fountain pens, or campaign dollars as not really criminal like those felons who hold up Seven Eleven stores or gas stations with a firearm of some kind.
As I have detailed in Theft of a Nation: Wall Street Looting and Federal Regulating Colluding with the exception of those who participated in the Organized Wall Street protests, most people in America as well as the Obama Administration and the DOJ in particular did not view more than 5000 securities fraudsters to be engaged in criminality. Hence, not one of these violators was criminally prosecuted like more than 1000 of their control fraudster predecessors had been during the Savings & Loans’ scandals of the late 1980s that comparatively caused far less harm and injury both to the economy and the American people.
As the now criminally indicted and former Teflon Don likes to say, “come on, everybody does it,” “everyone is corrupt,” “look at the Biden crime family,” etc.
Folklore, Bad Boys, and One Faithful ‘Gal’
Americana as evidenced in books and films alike have often celebrated and romanticized various outlaw figures beginning in the mid 19th century. From Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Bonnie and Clyde to D.B. Cooper to Donald J. Trump, regardless of their crimes, these iconic outlaws have all been viewed popularly as “thumbing their noses” at the establishment or “flipping off” the elites of society on behalf of the ordinary or little people who can only fantasize about doing the same kinds of transgressive things as these mythic figures in U.S. history.
While these outlaws are on the lam and resisting capture, everyday folks are often rooting for them “to get away with it” as they try to defy or escape the legal system. Their fanbases in real-time have identified with these antiheroes usually but not always until such time as they meet their demises typically at the hands of law enforcement. Similarly, once the former president has been officially stigmatized as a criminal vis-à-vis adjudication and conviction by a jury of his peers, then his support for the presidency more likely than not will soften in its emotional attachment and subsequently the number of Trump’s Republican supporters will decline significantly.
Trump intuitively understands this phenomenon better than most people. He knows he can only get away with his fraudulent lies and criminal behavior as well as with his 50/50 chances of winning the 2024 election so long as he has not been criminally convicted. Should he be convicted once let alone twice before next November, Trump knows that he will be politically doomed. He also knows that he cannot possibly win any of these criminal lawsuits so his only legal strategy has become to delay the trials until after the election which fortunately for the USA is not going to happen.
Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University, co-founder of the Journal of White Collar and Corporate Crime, and the author of Criminology on Trump (2022) whose sequel, Indicting the 45th President: Boss Trump, the GOP, and What We can Do About the Threat to American Democracy will be published April 1, 2024.