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Donald Trump

'He showed us how to fight:' Why SC Republicans say they're sticking with the indicted Donald Trump

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Republicans threw a lovefest for former President Donald Trump this weekend − and don't really care how many times he's indicted.

The former president's three indictments, and counting, are actually fueling his support among many Republicans because he is perceived as under attack by "the establishment" and "the deep state," according to Palmetto State GOP members who flocked to a fairground exhibit hall for their annual Silver Elephant Dinner.

Trump "revealed to us − to the average American − the dirty underbelly of the Deep State," said Diane Peterson, 62, a researcher who lives in Edgefield County, South Carolina. "It exists. It's real. It hates deplorables."

"He showed us how to fight," she added.

In a speech that followed the traditional chicken dinner, Trump again argued that prosecutors are after his political movement, a claim that many Republicans in South Carolina and beyond are buying, at least so far in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

Donald Trump in South Carolina on Saturday

In a now-familiar mantra, Trump told his followers: "I'm being indicted for you."

Republicans say they like Trump's promises

South Carolina Republicans, who plan to vote in a key early primary next year, also said they still back Trump for a more basic reason: They liked his first term as president.

Some party members also said that none of his Republican 2024 primary challengers have been able to make a compelling case for replacing Trump.

"He is fixing a lot of the problems and the corruption that have been ingrained in this country," said Mindy Jose, 53, a retired audiologist from Charleston.

While much of his support is downright emotional, some of the South Carolina Republicans said they also like Trump's promises like lower taxes, fewer regulations on businesses, and confrontations with other countries over free trade and military policy.

Trump does not own a majority of the Republican Party, some party members said. But his base is large enough to win most primaries and the convention delegates that go with them.

Brandon Peake, 37, a resident of Fairfield County and the owner of a podcast production company, said Trump's appeal for many Republicans is the same it has always been: "He's not a politician; he's a businessman."

'Why now?'

All the indictments, in their view, are proof that a threatened political establishment is trying to stop Trump.

"I've never seen anyone persecuted like this, politically," said Lisa McCulley, 56, from Edisto Island, the owner of an environmental consulting business.

There isn't evidence that federal or state officials handling cases against Trump have sought to target his reelection bid. But speaking about the latest case against Trump, involving efforts to change the 2020 election result, McCulley noted that Trump's actions as cited in the indictment happened more than two-and-a-half years ago.

"Why now? Because it's election season," she said. "People see that and it makes them mad."

'I am going to stand by him'

Debbie Holcomb, who works in the medical field and lives in Greenville, echoed Trump's frequent complaint about a "two-tiered" justice system. "I really believe (they) are picking on him because they don't want him to run," she said.

While it's possible that some "fair-weathered people" might turn away from Trump as the primaries approach, Holcomb said that "I don't think his base is going to change."

"I am not offended by his brashness," Holcomb said. "I am going to stand by him."

The cases against Trump

The indictment unsealed Tuesday in Washington, D.C., charges Trump with conspiring to basically steal the 2020 election from President Joe Biden.

His first indictment came in late March in state court in New York, where a grand jury accused Trump of acting unlawfully in a hush money scheme.

In June, a federal grand jury in Florida indicted the ex-president on charges of obstruction of justice and mishandling classified documents.

A fourth indictment could be coming soon in Georgia. Prosecutors in Atlanta have been investigating Trump's efforts to overturn Biden's win in Georgia.

Where are Trump's challengers?

In rallying around Trump over these cases, some South Carolina Republicans said there is another reason why so many are sticking with him: No acceptable challenger has emerged.

High-profile contenders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence − a witness in the 2020 election investigation − have been unable to take advantage of Trump's troubles.

And Trump is working overtime to keep his opponents down.

During his South Carolina speech, Trump kept up his relentless attacks on DeSantis, his closest competitor. Before the event, Trump used his Truth Social media site to launch his harshest attack ever on Pence, saying his former vice president "has gone to the Dark Side" with criticism of his post-election conduct.

Two candidates from South Carolina, Sen. Tim Scott and former governor Nikki Haley, have had trouble gaining traction in their home state. Neither of the South Carolina-based presidential candidates attended the Silver Elephant Dinner.

'You can't beat something with nothing'

The candidates who are most critical of Trump's alleged transgressions, such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Texas congressman Will Hurd and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, are trying to find an audience.

Sarah Longwell, a pollster and anti-Trump Republican strategist who has conducted focus groups of GOP voters, said many party members she talks to simply do not see any of Trump's primary opponents as worthwhile alternatives.

"You can't beat something with nothing," said Longwell, executive director of a group called the Republican Accountability Project. "And nothing is mostly what we're getting from the other candidates."

At the 56th annual Silver Elephant Dinner, South Carolina Republicans had nice things to say about the other Republican candidates; they just don't see a better candidate than Trump.

Amy Florez, 46, an interior designed from Charleston, said too many of Trump's challengers are "establishment Republicans" who are too eager to "toe the party line."

"Trump isn't afraid to buck the system, and people are sick of the system," she said.

'There are so many who are so against' Trump

The other candidates are hoping that voters will ultimately tire of the Trump legal circus before the Republican nominating process begins with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15.

For example, a Reuters/Ipsos poll last week said that 45% of Republicans would not support Trump if he were convicted of a felony by a jury.

Polls also show that Trump may have problems with independent votes in a general election.

Lopez said Trump should pick a dynamic running mate, like anti-establishment businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, to help with independent voters in what will likely be a tough general election campaign, given the intensity of the anti-Trump opponents.

"There are so many who are so against him, and I don't understand it," she said.

Trump 'speaks their language'

Pollsters and political analysts who have studied the Trump phenomenon said his supporters are fueled by a series of grievances, whether it is illegal border crossings, diversity requirements for colleges and businesses, or the machination of the so-called deep state.

"He's their champion," said Clifford Young, president President of Ipsos Public Affairs in the U.S., a polling and marketing research firm. "He speaks their language and channels their frustrations."

Trump's MAGA ("Make America Great Again") movement also has a share of extremists, such as the ones who assaulted the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a failed effort to stop the Electoral College vote that elected Biden.

'Us versus them'

Rob Godfrey, a South Carolina Republican political consultant who opposes Trump, said many of his supporters have an emotional and visceral connection with him.

"He's very much a candidate who tugs at the heart strings of many of his supporters," he said, in a "very emotional and raw sense."

The indictments have, for the most part, intensified these feelings, egged on by Trump.

"He has messaged the indictments very well," Godfrey said. "He has made it into an 'us versus them.'"

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