The Jail Porch Campaign

Chief Justice Melville Fuller swears in William McKinley as president; outgoing President Grover Cleveland at right – Public Domain

The last time the Republicans had a candidate as weak as Donald Trump—and that’s saying a lot as in between we’ve had Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and George W. Bush—it was 1896, and his fixers (of note Mark Hanna) decided to run the William McKinley campaign from his front porch, which was located in Canton, Ohio.

Instead of barnstorming around the country, the Republican nominee addressed the faithful who rolled up to his porch, just as in the current campaign the voices that reach Donald Trump have convinced him to campaign from what feels like the front porch of a jail cell—whistle-stopping reconfigured as a prison riot.


It’s difficult to say where Trump would be in the current political cycle, were it not for the judgments in favor of plaintiff E. Jean Carroll or the 91 criminal indictments that are featured on the former president’s LinkedIn page, but with them, he’s having no trouble winning primaries or raising money for the general election.

For the rest of campaign, however, Trump has no choice but to carry on with his jail-house politicking, as about all that separates Trump from A Campaign About Nothing is the drumbeating of his claim that the American political system is “rigged” and “a hoax”. I am not aware of any other Republican campaign issues.

Mercifully, for Trump’s campaign staff (who must feel like parole officers), between now and election day there are an endless number of court proceedings, depositions, appeals, bail hearings, and Supreme Count judgments, so that the law-and-disorder candidate will never run out of event venues where he can air his 60-second grievance spots—all those courthouse lobbies where he can attack prosecutors and judges or deny sexual misconduct.

Such a primetime lineup assumes that Trump will be able to find enough lawyers dumb enough to lip-sync his Mad Lib defense. In the E. Jean Carrol case, dancing bear Alina Habba stuck to the MAGA talking points, and that cost her ventriloquist $83 million. In re the rest of Trump’s legal team (cf. Rudolph Giuliani, Esq. et al.), those he usually refuses to pay.*

For a long time, presidential campaigns were waged on the aft platform of a Pullman railroad car making its way through the heartland. Before that, candidates spoke in front of log cabins (everyone had one, including the plantation owners) to emphasize their connections to rural simplicity.

Now, the Republican campaign, at least, looks like a dark Netflix serial—a blend of financial, political, and sexual scandal played out in a panic room that looks a lot like the Oval Office

Trump’s starring role in this blockbuster is that of a man of endless contradictions: a plutocrat who might well be bankrupt; the candidate of evangelicals who cavorts with porn stars; a nativist politician who’s in the pockets of Middle Eastern sheiks and Russian oligarchs.


In the two Trump cases that have gone to trial (the civil fraud matter involving the Trump Organization and its senior executives and E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against the former president), the candidate has used the defendant’s table as a paid political announcement—to sigh, gesture, exhale, and nod his head in disagreement—and then during trial breaks to raise money from his donor class, as though the court session was just another shopping network, this one called Pay to Play.

The problem with confusing a presidential campaign with a courtroom drama is that it leads to a terrible defense. A few years ago Trump probably could have settled the E. Jean Carroll case out of court for about $850,000 (what Bill Clinton paid Paula Jones for taking his own liberties).

Then, when it was transformed into a paid political announcement to rally his voting bloc of old white men, the Carroll case cost Trump $5 million in defamation damages. Finally, after Trump decided he needed to take the witness stand and proclaim, “And I approve this slander,” the damages moved up to $83 million.

We have yet to hear the decision of Judge Arthur F. Engoron in the civil fraud case against the Trump Organization, although clearly, from his bench rulings and asides, he didn’t think much of the Trump team redecorating his court to make it look like a casting room on The Apprentice.

At stake is about $370 million in fines and the banning of the Trump family from doing business in New York state—a fairly stiff price for organizing a Trump rally in a state courtroom.


 In the false elector racketeering case being heard in Fulton County, Georgia (Atlanta), Trump has only screened one brief campaign spot, when he pleaded “not guilty” to the counts of the Fani Willis RICO indictment.

Overall, however, his approach to these charges has been to go negative, as he joined with one of his co-conspirators in alleging prosecutorial misconduct over an alleged love affair involving Willis and a senior colleague.

It’s a lawyer Roy Cohn tactic straight out of the New York tabloids, to out-slime a political opponent with lurid headlines, but given Trump’s own sexual transgressions, a consensual office romance hardly equates to the Nordic noir set in that Bergdorf-Goodman changing room.

In Georgia, most of Trump’s attorneys have already flipped. Next up is the newly-declared bankrupt, unpaid personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani, who might well have come to the conclusion that his free legal work for Trump was the costliest decision of his life (leaving aside his Borat Subsequent Moviecameo or his press conference in front of Four Seasons Total Landscaping and that porn shop with “viewing booths”).


Trump’s antics in New York state courts might cost him money but win him votes and boost fundraising, so perhaps it’s a wash–unless the two fines add up to $450 million.

In federal court—the Jack Smith charges in Washington and the purloined letters at Mar-a-Lago—Trump’s only chance for acquittal is by running a disciplined, well-scripted defense based entirely on a careful reading of federal statutes and by keeping his mouth shut, neither of which he has managed to do in any of the other cases.

In the Mar-a-Lago case, I suspect that the in-house judge, Aileen Cannon, would give Trump leeway to convert the trial into a virtual studio, although for the moment her strategy is to grant the defendant every imaginable delay so that the courtroom drama doesn’t air until after election day.

I doubt that D.C. District Court Judge Tanja Chutkan will tolerate soapboxing in her courtroom, although I am sure Jack Smith would love nothing more than the chance to cross-examine Trump, should his ego overcome his counsel’s objections and he take the stand, assuming it was another press gaggle.


Which brings us to the biggest flaw in Trump’s jail-house campaign strategy, which is that it might work to rally far right-wing support in the primaries and secure him the Republican nomination, but it’s death in the general election, especially when the great middle of undecided voters has to weigh potential Trump convictions for financial fraud, stealing state secrets, and conspiring to overthrow a lawful election—nothing that evokes McKinley’s upbeat “Patriotism, Protection, and Prosperity” or Cal’s “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.”

What will Trump’s slogan be: “She Wasn’t My Type…”

On the campaign witness stand, Trump has positioned himself as Herr K., in Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, who said: We’re only being punished because you reported us. Otherwise nothing would have happened to us, even if they found out what we did. Can that be called justice?”

I suppose it’s also possible that Trump will go full-on Chicago 7, as in this scene from the 2020 film:

Judge Julius Hoffman: [bangs his gavel] Mr. Hoffman, are you familiar with contempt of court?

Abbie Hoffman: It’s practically a religion for me, sir.

Maybe after a few such outbursts in Judge Chutkans courtroom, Trump will be bound and gagged like Bobby Seale, although not before he has said: “Martin’s dead, Malcom’s dead, Medgar’s dead, Bobby’s dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully, we’re gonna try something else.”

It’s what his rabble wants to hear.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.