Trump ’24: On Running for President from Prison-He Wouldn’t be the First

Michael A. Genovese serves as the President of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University and is the author of over fifty books including the forthcoming THE MODERN PRESIDENCY (Columbia University Press). 

There is a joke making the rounds that goes like this: Donald Trump recently said that he’d “like to see Joe Biden in prison,” to which Biden responded, “Why would I want to go visit Donald Trump in prison?”  But is the prospect of Donald Trump spending time in prison all that funny or farfetched?  And why would that deter Trump from running for president in 2024? After all, it has been done before.

Trump is facing mounting legal problems from the January 6 Committee in Congress, to Georgia officials looking into election-tampering charges, to several prosecutors in New York looking into shady business transactions. And Mr. Trump is facing these investigations without the benefit of a supportive Justice Department such as he had while serving as president. Any or all of these investigations could land Mr. Trump in prison. 

But worry not Trump supporters, Mr. Trump can still run for president in 2024, even if serving in a federal penitentiary. And he wouldn’t be the first.

Eugene V. Debs, labor leader and 5 time Socialist candidate for president was no stranger to our nation’s jails. Arrested several times for labor unrest, Debs became a national figure, advocate for worker’s rights, and would-be president. On April 6, 1917, the US declared war against Germany and several months later, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which targeted Americans who were deemed “disloyal”. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918 broadening the federal government’s powers to punish opponents to the war. 

Debs was not deterred. He led the anti-war crusade in the US, and was soon arrested. A jury found him guilty of violating both the Espionage and Sedition acts and on September 18, 1918, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. 

In 1920, while in prison, Debs was nominated as the Socialist Party candidate for president (his fifth run at the presidency). From prison, Debs was allowed to release one political statement per week. Supporters of Debs presidential bid wore campaign buttons with a picture of Debs in a prison jumpsuit, adorned with the words “For President: Convict No. 9653”.  In the election, Debs received over 910,000 votes (about 3.4%). In December of 1921, Debs received a post-war pardon from President Warren G. Harding, who invited Debs to the White House where he told Debs that “I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally.” (to hear actor Mark Ruffalo read a portion of one of Debs’ campaign speeches, go to Voices of a People’s History of the United States).  

Thus was the precedent Mr. Trump could follow. Just how Trump might conduct a campaign from behind bars is still an uncertainty. It is hard to imagine Mr. Trump being limited to merely one statement per week, but what would Trump do? What would he be without his raucous campaign rallies? He would not be able to play off the crowd or lead them in their chants such as “Lock [fill-in-the-blank] Up”. Where is the fun in that? 

To make things more complicated, it is hard (but not impossible) to imagine one of the nation’s major political parties actually nominating someone who was behind bars as their standard bearer. Remember, Debs was the candidate for a small and unelectable party. His race may have been interesting, but there was no chance he would garner enough support to be a serious contender. 

The logistics of running a modern day campaign while the candidate is locked away would be a challenge, to say the least. This would be made more complicated by the larger-than-life personality of Trump.  Surrogate campaigners – Don Jr., Rudy Giuliana, General Flynn, Steve Bannon, for example –  would not do the trick, and might even backfire. No, Trump is the main event to his base, and they would accept no substitutes. 

The road ahead promises to be quite bumpy for Mr. Trump. With or without a conviction, the distractions and the cost (politically and financially) of the potential charges against him might prove too onerous a burden for the aging (he will be 78 during the 2024 campaign) and twice impeached and always embattled former president.  But just imagine what it would be like if an imprisoned Trump actually did receive his party’s nomination. Now think of what it would be like if he won? Then, the question asked during Trump’s two impeachment conviction cases would once again become relevant: can a president pardon himself? As the great American philosopher Bette Davis once said, “Hang on boys, we’re in for a bumpy ride”.  

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