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Lights and staging stand on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 21, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

Will voters care about Trump abusing resources for political ends?

Maybe the electorate will shrug, or maybe they'll find it significant if the abuses spend some time in the national spotlight.


After the second day of the Republican National Convention, there's a fair amount of conversation in the political world about Donald Trump, his team, and his party abusing government resources for political ends. Politico took note of this earlier, noting that while there's ample precedent of leaders using the machinery of government to their political advantage, Donald Trump is "bending government to his advantage to a degree we've not seen before."

The same report added, however, that it's not likely to matter.

Of course, much of this is improper, and, according to most every straight-faced expert, it's a violation of the Hatch Act. It's incumbent upon the news media to point that out. But do you think a single person outside the Beltway gives a hoot about the president politicking from the White House or using the federal government to his political advantage? Do you think any persuadable voter even notices?

In the abstract, I'm reluctant to dismiss analysis like this too quickly. The fact of the matter is, most voters have never heard of the Hatch Act. What is and is not permissible under federal ethics laws is an abstraction to the vast majority of the electorate. I might wish this were different, but I'm mindful of what is plainly true.

But there's a flip side to this: Americans sometimes care more when they're encouraged to take a story seriously.

About four years ago, I was among many who asked similar questions about a different candidate for national office. Paraphrasing Politico's report from this morning, I was highly skeptical that regular, rank-and-file voters would "give a hoot" about the email server protocols a former cabinet secretary utilized several years earlier.

But they did, not because the presidency is an I.T. job, but because there was a hyper-aggressive effort to persuade the public that Hillary Clinton's email practices were one of the defining issues facing the United States in 2016. Many people cared because they were told to care. Many found it important because they were told it was important.

Four years later, the parallels are admittedly imprecise, but Donald Trump is abusing his office and public resources as part of a quest to maintain power.

If there's a consensus that the president's misconduct is "improper" and in obvious violation of ethics laws, maybe the electorate will shrug, or maybe they'll find it significant if the abuses spend some time in the national spotlight and officials are pressed for an explanation.

Update: Jon Chait reminds us that when then-Vice President Al Gore was accused of violating the Hatch Act in the 1990s, the political world treated it as a scandal for years.