The political scientist James Stimson wrote that public opinion changes in response to new information. That is not a groundbreaking statement. What is important to remember, Stimson went on to write, was that new information is filtered through our own understanding and biases. That means that if you have already made up your mind on a political issue or campaign, you interpret new information in that light. Information that makes your preferred candidate look bad is either explained away or simply dismissed.
Stimson used this argument to explain why political debates do not matter. They happen so late in the process that by the time they occur the people who watch them have already made up their mind on who they are going to vote for. So we interpret our favorite candidate in the best possible light and the one we aren’t voting for in the worst possible light.
All that to say there is not much to say about former President Trump’s indictment this past week.
President Trump is probably the most polarized figure in American politics today. By that I mean that he is beloved by a portion of America and despised by the rest. Very few of us have a middling opinion about the man. That was true last month and last year.
So when Trump was indicted we saw what Stimson would have predicted. People who hated Trump saw it as a victory for the rule of law in the United States. People who loved him saw it as prosecutorial overreach. They decried that we were trying to throw our political opponents in jail. It was all so predictable.
Perhaps that is why my feelings weren’t satisfaction or anger. I have largely felt exhausted since the indictment was announced.
Is this what the next few years are going to be filled with? Former President Trump is still running for president. Smart people on both sides have argued about whether this is going to affect his polling numbers, but ultimately I think that it will make no difference. Because ultimately we have already made up our minds. When he ran for president in 2016 Trump once famously said that, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” The thing about that is he may not have been wrong.
It may seem counterintuitive to think that being under indictment would not affect Trump’s chances of becoming president again, but really, why would it? After four years as president, the pandemic, and Jan. 6, why would it change anything? Either you like how Trump handled those things or you do not. In the scheme of things what he was indicted for is small potatoes. Why would an indictment matter at this point?
That gets me back to a feeling of exhaustion. Politics should be an exchange of ideas. An argument where policies and issues are discussed and debated until a consensus emerges. We don’t have debates about Trump. We shout at each other and accuse the other side of being un-American. It is exhausting. It is the same thing! I cannot call it a debate because that term assumes that both sides come into it open to the other side. Former President Trump is not a topic for debate anymore. He is either the savior or the destroyer of American democracy. It is not politics in the traditional sense of the word. Instead it becomes a competition over which side can make its supporters madder and louder.
The fact of the matter is that this will probably not matter. A subset of American voters are unaware of it and those who are paying attention made up their minds a long time ago. If one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, then it is not a stretch to say that one man’s rule of law is another’s politically motivated prosecution. We all made up our minds about where we stood before the investigation even began.
David Searcy holds a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University and a PhD in political science from Southern Illinois University.