The federal indictment of former President Donald J. Trump has left the Republican Party — and his rivals for the party’s nomination — with a stark choice between deferring to a system of law and order that has been central to the party’s identity for half a century or a more radical path of resistance, to the Democratic Party in power and to the nation’s highest institutions that Mr. Trump now derides.
How the men and women who seek to lead the party into the 2024 election respond to the indictments of the former president in the coming months will have enormous implications for the future of the G.O.P.
So far, the declared candidates for the presidency who are not Mr. Trump have divided into three camps regarding his federal indictment last Thursday: those who have strongly backed him and his insistence that the indictment is a politically driven means to deny him a second White House term, such as Vivek Ramaswamy; those who have urged Americans to take the charges seriously, such as Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson; and those who have straddled both camps, condemning the indictment but nudging voters to move past Mr. Trump’s leadership, such as Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.
The trick, for all of Mr. Trump’s competitors, will be finding the balance between harnessing the anger of the party’s core voters who remain devoted to him while winning their support as an alternative nominee.
Mr. Trump is due to appear in court on Tuesday in Florida. The danger for Republicans, after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, is that encouraging too much anger could lead to chaos — and to what pollsters call the “ghettoization” of their party: confined to minority status by voters unwilling to let go of the fervent beliefs that have been rejected by the majority.
That point was laid bare Sunday by a new CBS News/YouGov poll that found 80 percent of Americans outside the core Republican voter base saw a national security risk in Mr. Trump’s handling of classified nuclear and military documents, while only 38 percent of likely Republican primary voters discerned such a risk.
In the same poll, only 7 percent of Republicans said the indictment had changed their view of the former president for the worse; 14 percent said their views had changed for the better; and the majority, 61 percent, said their views would not change. More than three-quarters of Republican primary voters said the indictments were politically motivated.
A separate ABC News/Ipsos poll showed that 61 percent of Americans viewed the charges as serious, up from 52 percent in April when pollsters asked about the mishandling of classified documents. Among Republicans, 38 percent said the charges were serious, also up, from 21 percent in this spring. But only about half of Americans said Mr. Trump should be charged, unchanged from April.
“Base voters see the double standard in politics. I continue to hear, ‘When are they going to indict the Bidens?’” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman and senior adviser to Ms. Haley, a former South Carolina governor and Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. But, he added, “65 percent of our primary voters are just tired of all the drama and I think are looking for a new generation of Republicans to take us out of the wilderness.”
Ms. Haley has embodied that balancing act, saying in one statement, “This is not how justice should be pursued in our country,” and also, “It’s time to move beyond the endless drama.”
Mr. Trump’s closest rival for the 2024 nomination, Mr. DeSantis, the governor of Florida, captured the same spirit when he mused on Friday that he “would have been court-martialed in a New York minute” if he had taken classified documents during his service in the Navy. He was referring to Hillary Clinton — who has returned as a Republican boogeyman this week — and her misuse of classified material as secretary of state, but the double meaning was clear, just as it was when he said, “There needs to be one standard of justice in this country. Let’s enforce it on everybody.”
Those urging voters to read the charges facing Mr. Trump — the mishandling of highly classified documents on some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets and his subsequent steps to obstruct law enforcement — are a lonelier group in the broader Republican Party. Just two former governors running for president — both former prosecutors — Mr. Christie of New Jersey and Mr. Hutchinson of Arkansas, are aligned with a scattering of other leaders like Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who was the only Republican senator to vote to remove Mr. Trump from office twice.
But their voices are likely to be amplified in the coming days by a media eager to give them a microphone. Mr. Christie will hold a town-hall meeting on CNN on Monday night, while Mr. Hutchinson, the longest of long shots for the nomination, has given a flurry of interviews.
“The Republican Party should not dismiss this case out of hand,” Mr. Hutchinson said in an interview. “These are serious allegations that a grand jury has found probable cause on.”
On Sunday morning, Mr. Trump’s former attorney general, William P. Barr, weighed in on Fox News Sunday, saying he was “shocked by the degree of sensitivity of these documents and how many there were.”
“If even half of it is true, he’s toast,” Mr. Barr said. “It is a very detailed indictment, and it’s very, very damning. This idea of presenting Trump as a victim here — a victim of a witch hunt — is ridiculous.”
The critics of Mr. Trump also have an appeal that goes to the center of the party’s identity: law and order. Republicans are still attacking Democrats on the rise of street crime after the pandemic even as they attack the F.B.I., the Justice Department, the special prosecutor and the federal grand jury system.
“If Congress has the ability to have oversight over the Department Justice, I encouraged them to do it vigorously and fairly and ask all the questions they need,” Mr. Christie said on CNN. “But what we should also be doing is holding to account people who are in positions of responsibility and saying, if you act badly, there has to be penalties for that. There has to be a cost to be paid.”
But voters eager to believe the dark tales spun by Mr. Trump of a nefarious “deep state,” of “Communists” bent on the destruction of America, are receiving encouragement from candidates who are ostensibly Mr. Trump’s rivals. For them, the calculation appears to be capturing the former president’s voters if his legal troubles finally end his political career.
“I am personally deeply skeptical of everything in that indictment,” Mr. Ramaswamy, a wealthy entrepreneur and author, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, adding, “I personally have no faith whatsoever in those vague allegations.”
Other candidates were less blunt but equally willing to challenge the integrity of the justice system, a system, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said, “where the scales are weighted” against conservatives.
In truth, the conservative world is divided. Some figures have, predictably, rallied around Mr. Trump with irresponsible rhetoric that appeared to call for violence.
“If you want to get to President Trump, you’re going to have to go through me, and 75 million Americans just like me. And most of us are card-carrying members of the N.R.A.,” said Kari Lake, the failed candidate for governor of Arizona.
More surprisingly were the voices on the Trumpist right who have voiced their concerns — over the charges and over their impact on the Republican Party’s future. When Charlie Kirk of the pro-Trump Turning Point USA called for every other Republican candidate for the presidency to drop out of the race in solidarity with Mr. Trump, Ann Coulter, the right-wing bomb thrower, responded, “That’s nothing! I’m calling on EVERY REPUBLICAN TO COMMIT SUICIDE in solidarity with Trump!” — acknowledging that rallying around the former president could send the party to oblivion.
Mike Cernovich, a lawyer and provocateur on the right, criticized the indictment as a “selective prosecution,” but also said, “Trump walked into this trap.”
How the party, and its 2024 candidates, respond will matter, to the country and to the party’s political fortunes. The core Republican voter might stand with Mr. Trump, but most Americans most likely will not. It is a dilemma, acknowledged Clifford Young, president of U.S. public affairs at the polling and marketing firm Ipsos.
“For the average American in the middle, they’re appalled,” he said, “but for the base, not only is support being solidified, they don’t believe what is happening.”
“Heck,” he added, “they believe he won the election.”