Op-Ed: Messaging, Not Indictment, Is Trump's Biggest Hurdle


Prior to 2016, conventional wisdom would tell us that a presidential candidate being indicted during the early stages of the primary would be a virtual political death sentence. But this isn’t pre-2016, and conventional wisdom has never applied to Donald Trump’s political career.

When Trump was indicted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who ran his DA campaign on going after the former president, the establishment news media was chomping at the bit. Predictions — from both the left and the right — forecasting the former president’s impending demise came flooding in.

But the political impact, at least in the near term, will be negligible.

This is the same man who survived the Access Hollywood tape to go on and win a presidential election. While president, his poll numbers were untethered to the impeachment proceedings he faced.

While there might be an occasional news story in the coming months about motions or other rudimentary legal proceedings, the Trump indictment, at least in Manhattan, won’t be front-page news again likely until December. That is when the former president is scheduled to return to court in New York.

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However, where Trump runs into a greater potential roadblock would be if he were to stare down multiple indictments.

Multiple other investigations of Trump are ongoing, including in New York state (in addition to the indictment in Manhattan), Fulton County, Georgia, and the Department of Justice. Should Trump face a barrage of indictments in multiple jurisdictions, that could prove too much for primary voters to overlook, and it would make executing an efficient and successful campaign more difficult for Trump himself.

Yet, absent being convicted and going to jail — and potentially even then — voters’ opinions of Trump and his personal life are largely already set in stone. There isn’t much that could happen that will move the needle. Perhaps the most likely outcome of the constant barrage of attacks is that it fortifies Trump’s base and causes them to circle the wagons.

Of course, there is a notable collection of Republican voters who have grown weary of the distractions surrounding Trump and believe he is unelectable in a general election following the 2020 loss to President Joe Biden, who is aging like spoiled milk with every gaffe and misstep.

Do you think Trump has a messaging problem?

And even though the string of legal arrows being fired at the former president might seem like his most likely Achilles heel, as things stand today, the thing currently doing the most to hinder Trump’s quest for re-election is Trump himself.

We saw what Trump was capable of in 2016. He had Teflon skin when it came to attacks from his opponents or incidents that would traditionally torpedo campaigns. But the big difference between the Donald Trump of the 2016 campaign and the Donald Trump of the 2024 campaign is messaging.

In 2016, we saw personal attacks and plenty of unconventional tactics from then-candidate Trump. But the 2016 version of Trump also had an agenda. He talked about issues and what he would do to solve them. Plenty of talking heads and establishment politicians rolled their eyes at “we’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it,” but that was a signal from Trump on what he was going to do to solve a very real problem — one that has only exponentially worsened since he left office.

When he can stay on message, he is largely very effective. His problem has been staying on message.

Today, discussions about relevant issues to the American public and what he would do to handle those issues are significantly fewer and far between. To be sure, there is a segment of the electorate that will support Trump no matter what. But too much of the focus is on relitigating the 2020 election and discussing things and people that are irrelevant to voters.

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Trump, along with his paid attack dogs on social media, are spending a far-too-significant amount of their energy attacking successful GOP politicians they view as a threat — a turn-off to the very voters the former president needs to be courting.

The more he deviates from talking about real issues, the more he gives those who might be on the fence a reason not to vote for him. It distracts from his approach to politics and his stance on issues that initially swayed voters in his favor.

Messaging is a larger problem for Trump than a politically motivated indictment in New York by a rogue district attorney looking to make a name for himself. If he runs a good campaign and stays on message, Trump is formidable both in the GOP primary and the general election.

The Manhattan indictment isn’t the end of the road for Trump. As we stand today, it might be staying on message, not legal issues, that poses the true threat to Donald Trump’s political future.

The views expressed in this opinion article are those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website. If you are interested in contributing an Op-Ed to The Western Journal, you can learn about our submission guidelines and process here.

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Evan Berryhill is a vice president at Firehouse Strategies and formerly served as deputy communications director for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2022 re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @EvBerryhill.