Why is political support for Donald Trump so high, even as he faces 91 felony charges in four separate cases? Though polling suggests that a criminal conviction could cost him the election, observers have been surprised that the indictments themselves haven’t done more to dent his support. Put differently, why isn’t the lawfare against Trump working yet?

“Seventy-seven million Americans have criminal records.”

Part of the answer might lie in this fact: 77 million Americans have criminal records, meaning they have at least been arrested. Many of these people may find themselves identifying with the 45th president because of their own experiences of being accused, arrested, charged, and forced to defend themselves. Of course, many of these 77 million Americans have had their cases dropped, but they were all at least cuffed, fingerprinted, and photographed; some were briefly jailed.

Roughly the same number of Americans have an arrest record as have completed a four-year bachelor’s degree. That is about 1 of every 4. Disaggregate that by race and sex, and the numbers are even more jarring: Almost half of all black men and nearly 40 percent of white men have been arrested by their early 20s.

When Americans who have faced the business end of the criminal-justice system see the lawfare waged against Trump, they draw parallels to their own lives. They know what it is like speaking to a judge—in court, not at a cocktail party. They may recall trying to maintain composure, even as the judge is snide, ignorant, or haughty. They know that the police and prosecutors frequently exaggerate to make defendants look bad and thus advance their own careers.

When the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago, many formerly arrested Americans would have thought back to when police entered their homes, searched and impounded their vehicles, and dredged through their social media. When they saw Trump’s Georgia mugshot, many would have recalled the moment when they, too, looked back at the police camera. They might have remembered their own mugshot—and the likely unflattering image it produced.

Some of the 77 million Americans with arrest records, even if they don’t like Trump, will have been impressed by Trump’s composure and defiance in the face of an army of prosecutors and hostile judges. Many will see Trump in court and feel sympathy, because regardless of everything else, they know—or think they know—exactly how Trump feels. They assume that even if he hides it, Trump feels the same ever-present, gnawing stress and dread that plagues any criminal defendant or arrested potential defendant.

Fully 2.2 million Americans are in prison—generally for serious offenses. However, among the 77 million who have been arrested are many accused of smaller crimes. Maybe they fell behind on child support, drove on a suspended license, operated a motor vehicle while intoxicated, missed a court date, shoplifted a small item, hitchhiked on an interstate, graffitied a wall, got into a physical altercation, or unwittingly carried an illegal weapon like a knife with a five-inch blade or unauthorized chemical mace. Or maybe they attempted to buy or were caught in possession of a few doses of some illicit drug.

An arrested person may see their own actions as wrong or even criminal but simultaneously resent the law. One can acknowledge guilt but also experience the law as unfair, heavy-handed, even immoral.

On television, experts warn about Trump’s criminality. But on the other side of the TV screen sit the 77 million Americans who have felt the cuffs, pressed their fingers to the police-station ink pad, glared back at the camera, sat behind bars for a few hours. It wouldn’t be surprising if a sizable portion of these people conclude that the prosecutions of Trump are unfair.

Even pro-Trump pundits and politicians don’t really get it. For example, as one GOP state representative told the Financial Times: “Iowans, and everyday Americans, realize that if this can happen to a New York billionaire, it sure as heck can happen to us little guys.” True. But fully a quarter of Americans have some grounds to think, Can happen? It already did happen to me.

Even among those who have never been arrested, there are many who have nonetheless been treated like criminals. As Sohrab Ahmari details in his recent book Tyranny, Inc., the private-sector realms of work, housing, health care, and credit are frequently ruled in a punitive fashion. Many Americans have suffered inquisitions and lost their jobs because a coworker lied about them, or they failed a drug test, or some sadistic manager just wanted to ride their ass. They, too, may recall the moment of accusation, the struggle to defend themselves, the embarrassment, the worry, the waiting, the dread. When they see similar things happen to Trump, they can perhaps identify in some small way.

Then there are the millions of Americans who get wrapped up in legal proceedings due to the conservatorship of an elder or disabled adult. This number isn’t tracked, but it is believed that there are about 1.3 million conservatorships underway at any given time. There are also the families that have to deal with child protective services. On average, about 3 or 4 children out of every 1,000 are taken from their parents every year—that’s more than 200,000 families affected annually. Add to this the millions of contentious divorces that leave one or both parties feeling embittered and suspicious. All of this can produce latent hostility toward the courts.

As the prosecutions of Trump roll on, some portion of these formerly accused Americans may start to root for him just because they dislike the solemn self-importance of his detractors. Or they may decide that there are just too many charges to follow and care about. The so-called attention economy can also suffer its own form of value-destroying inflation. Far from feeling urgent, the whole spectacle starts to seem ridiculous.

Plus, President Biden spent decades in the Senate as a vocal advocate of law and order. Trump, by contrast, has among his few legislative achievements the First Step Act—the first meaningful rollback of US criminal-justice overreach in decades. When Trump denounces this or that judge on the courthouse steps and battles against gag orders, it isn’t entirely implausible for some other former defendants to feel that they at last have a champion in the ring.

You can wave this away as mere vibes. Point to Trump’s massive tax cuts for the rich. Point out the benefits that will accrue, or have accrued, to ordinary people because of some good Biden policies. But vibes matter, especially in elections where working people, buffeted by rising costs, feel the incumbent party has done little for them.

And let’s be honest, the lawfare strategy is very much about vibes. Sure, they may get Trump off the ballot. They may even convict and imprison him. The legal fees may bankrupt Trump, again. But in the months left before the election, the most important effects of these cases are the feelings they produce among voters. The point is to make Trump look guilty in the eyes of voters. If this strategy fails, it will be in part because the shot callers at the Democratic National Committee overlooked the collateral damage produced by a four-decade-long War on Drugs. It will be because they failed to factor in the unpleasant recollections and latent resentments of the tens of millions of potential voters who were once among the accused.

The choice to pursue lawfare as a central electoral strategy may turn out to be yet another indication of our elites’ detachment from reality. It won’t be the first time they seem not to know the country they govern.

Christian Parenti is a professor of economics at John Jay College, CUNY. His most recent book is Radical Hamilton.

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