Phil Jensen wore a bright red T-shirt with Donald Trump’s mug shot and “NEVER SURRENDER!” printed on it to the former president’s rally in Rapid City, South Dakota, last week. The longtime state legislator loved the shirt so much, he planned on giving half a dozen to his friends and family.
“He looks defiant,” Jensen said of the photo taken at an Atlanta jail after Trump was indicted over his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state.
“And I love it because he has every right to be,” the South Dakota Republican said. “He was railroaded.”
In more than 40 interviews with CNN in Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Alabama, South Dakota and Texas, Trump supporters said the 91 criminal charges in four separate cases against him have only deepened their support of the former president. They repeated Trump’s unfounded claims that he was the subject of a politically motivated “witch hunt” and said they believed the charges showed the system was rigged against him – and, by extension, them.
A majority of Americans think that the charges against Trump are valid and that he should be prosecuted, recent polls show, but Trump maintains a tight grip on the Republican Party and his front-runner status in the 2024 GOP presidential primary is undisputed.
“What they’re doing to him is persecution,” said Corey Bonner of Texas. “They’re going after an old American president, they’ve been going after him since the beginning, they haven’t stopped, and they’re not going to stop. And this is where we have to stand up and fight.”
At a summer gathering for Alabama Republicans, 81-year-old retired schoolteacher Carolyn McNeese echoed Trump’s attacks on the prosecutors who have charged him and said she thought they were “evil.”
“They want him out because they’re scared of him,” McNeese said.
Those interviewed said they believed that President Joe Biden’s son Hunter was the one who needed to be charged and that Republicans faced a different standard under the justice system. And some said that perhaps Trump did commit crimes, but it didn’t change their opinion of him because, as Texas resident Bobby Wilson put it, “We all have sinned; we all have some things that we’ve done.”
“He’s probably guilty, but it doesn’t matter,” said Jace Kirschenman, an 18-year-old in South Dakota who works in construction.
He said nothing could deter him from voting for Trump next year.
“You show me a perfect person in this world, and I’ll show you a blue pig with wings,” said Corey Shawgo, a 34-year-old truck driver in Pennsylvania who attended Trump’s rally in Erie. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
Like many other Trump supporters interviewed, Scott Akers of Alabama immediately pointed to Hunter Biden when asked about Trump’s mounting legal peril.
“We have something finally start to come out about the connection between Hunter Biden’s shady dealings and his father and then, like two days later, there’s a federal indictment,” Akers said. “The timing of it is very ironic.”
The president’s son has been the subject of investigations by House Republicans and the federal Justice Department. The House GOP probe has so far failed to surface any evidence showing Joe Biden profited from his son’s business dealings, but it has found that the younger Biden used his father’s names to help advance deals. Separately, Hunter Biden was indicted on Thursday by special counsel David Weiss in connection to a gun he purchased in 2018.
Intertwined with their outrage over the indictments, some Trump supporters are raising the specter of heightened political violence if Trump were to be convicted.
“This country’s a powder keg. You know, we’ve ‘bout had it,” said Frank Yurisic, 76, who attended Trump’s Pennsylvania rally.
“I think there could very well possibly be violence,” Yurisic said. “If they march on Washington, I’ll be one of the ones there. I don’t think they realize how upset the people are in this country about what’s going on.”
The predictions of possible violence made by some Trump supporters in interviews with CNN echo Trump’s warnings of what could happen were he to be convicted.
Before Trump’s first indictment in March, he had warned about “potential death and destruction” if a Manhattan grand jury were to indict him on charges related to a hush money payment to an adult film star. When asked in an Iowa radio interview in July how he thought his supporters would react if he did ultimately end up behind bars, Trump said, “I think it’s a very dangerous thing to even talk about because we do have a tremendously passionate group of voters.”
“There’ll be backlash, and it’ll probably be severe,” said Jim Vanoy, an 80-year-old Trump supporter who lives in Alabama. He said he thought there would be a “good degree of violence” if Trump is convicted.
Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the democracy, conflict and governance program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the US has seen “vastly increased” political violence since Trump took office in 2017.
“He unleashed some of the worst parts of the American id in normalizing violence as a way to solve political differences. And so we’re seeing neighbors killing neighbors, people killing business owners over political disputes all over the country,” she said.
But Kleinfeld pointed to the lengthy prison sentences meted out to some participants in the deadly January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol as a potential deterrent to political violence. Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right militia group Oath Keepers, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and Enrique Tarrio, the former head of the far-right Proud Boys, was sentenced to 22 years. Kleinfeld also noted the two-and-a-half-year prison sentence handed down to an Iowa man for threatening Arizona’s attorney general and a Phoenix-area election official.
“What we’re seeing now is a summer of a lot of accountability, where people are starting to be held to account for violence, and that is the best possible thing for reducing future violence,” she said.
Trump continues to defend his supporters who were part of the January 6 mob and said in a recent interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that there was “love and unity” among those who had gathered in Washington that day.
His lies about the 2020 election, which fueled the riot at the Capitol, were repeated on the campaign trail by his supporters in interviews with CNN. Many said they felt confident in Trump’s chances in a rematch with Biden in 2024.
“Unless they convict him of something, I don’t care,” said Mark Roling, 63, of Pennsylvania. “In fact, I kind of like it. Every time they indict him, he gets stronger.”
Trump has widened his polling lead over the rest of the GOP field since his first criminal charges were announced this spring, and his campaign has reported fundraising boosts in the wake of his indictments. That has vexed many Democrats, independents and more moderate Republican voters, who question how his supporters aren’t turned off by the serious and numerous criminal charges against Trump and believe the indictments should disqualify him from a second term as president.
“He’s making a psychic connection between his troubles with government and people’s troubles with government. And it’s working,” said Craig Shirley, who has written four books on former President Ronald Reagan and has been a Republican strategist for decades.
“So many Americans have had bad experiences with government over the years,” Shirley said. “They’ve had bad experiences with the IRS. They’ve had bad experiences with police forces. They’ve had bad experiences with school boards. They’ve had bad experiences with any manifestation of some form of government, and that has made them more and more anti-establishment.”
Trump has been intentional on the campaign trail about making his supporters feel like his indictments are personal to them. “I’m being indicted for you,” he says at every rally. “They’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in their way.”
“It’s very much like a family protecting one of their own,” Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster, said of how Trump’s supporters have rallied around the former president.
“He came down the escalator in 2015, saying, ‘I am doing this for you. I am your protector. I am the only one looking out for you. And an attack on me is an attack on you.’ And he has been beating that drum now for eight years, and it’s accepted as true by millions of his supporters,” Ayres said.
The day after Trump was booked at the Fulton County jail in Atlanta, his campaign said it had the highest-grossing fundraising day of the entire campaign to date, raising $4.18 million. A few days later, the campaign said it had raked in nearly $3 million off mug shot merchandise alone.
But the market for mug shot merchandise extends well beyond the official campaign store as private vendors see their sales skyrocket.
“This is the new ‘Let’s Go Brandon,’” said Sam Smith, a private vendor at Trump’s Rapid City rally, referring to the right-wing slogan used to insult Joe Biden. Smith, who travels around the country to sell merchandise outside the former president’s events, said he made solid money for two years off “Let’s Go Brandon” products.
Longtime Trump supporter Amanda Hamak-Leon bought matching mug shot T-shirts on Amazon that said “WANTED FOR PRESIDENT” for her and her boyfriend to wear to Trump’s rally in Rapid City.
“It really ticked me off,” Hamak-Leon said of Trump’s indictments. “I just feel like now for six-plus years they’ve been going after him with anything that they can, taking shots in the dark. It just makes me like him more that he just keeps going and is not letting this stop him.”