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Trump can run for president from prison. Just ask Eugene Debs.

The socialist leader was jailed for opposing World War I. It didn’t stop his presidential campaign.

American labor leader, US presidential candidate, and prominent socialist Eugene Debs waves to supporters following his release from prison in 1921.
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Ben Jacobs is a political reporter at Vox, based in Washington, DC. Ben has covered three presidential campaigns, as well as Capitol Hill, the White House, and the Supreme Court. His writing has appeared in publications including New York magazine, the Atlantic, and the Washington Examiner.

If there is any American politician who Donald Trump resembles the least, it’s Eugene Debs.

Debs ran for president five times for the Socialist Party in the early 20th century, and was a dedicated union leader who helped organize his fellow railway workers into the first major railroad union in the United States. (It was eventually crushed, and he was jailed in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike of 1894.) Debs also was a dedicated opponent of US entry into World War I, convicted of sedition in 1918 and jailed for speaking out against the war. And, from the Atlanta federal prison, he ran for president in 1920 and received over 3 percent of the national vote, with almost a million votes cast for him as Convict No. 9653.

Debs has long been the most prominent American to run for president from prison. But if New York prosecutors have their way, former President Donald Trump may soon follow in Debs’s footsteps, and finally give the ideologically committed socialist and the politically transactional real estate mogul something in common.

The unlikely comparison between Trump and Debs shows how unprecedented Trump’s indictment is in American politics. It’s not that there haven’t been more than a few American politicians who have campaigned under legal scrutiny, but they are often local heroes like Marion Barry in Washington, DC, who was caught smoking crack in a hotel room, or James Curley in Boston, who won one of his four mayoral victories while under indictment for corruption. Instead, the idea of an aspiring head of state — or former president — facing such legal jeopardy and soldiering ahead is foreign to American politics. After all, even Debs was not in prison for any great sin or moral failing but for speaking out against World War I and saying decisions of war and peace were not made by the working class — which was crime enough amid the jingoistic paranoia of the time.

Trump preempted a potential indictment with a post last Saturday on Truth Social, his personal social media network, saying, “will be arrested Tuesday next week.” Although Tuesday passed without Trump in handcuffs, the post still spawned prolific punditry even before news of the indictment finally leaked out on Thursday. Trump is expected to be charged by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg with falsifying business records over his efforts to conceal a hush money payment made on the eve of the 2016 election to porn star Stormy Daniels to ensure her silence about a 2006 sexual liaison.

There were questions whether the Manhattan DA’s indictment could detract from other major Trump investigations, including his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and mishandling of classified documents. There’s the question of whether anyone would care about allegations that had been cable news fodder since 2018 when Daniels first hired Michael Avenatti to represent her.

From a legal perspective, an indictment doesn’t matter in the slightest for Trump’s presidential campaign. As Derek Muller, a professor at the University of Iowa School of Law, told Vox, “there’s nothing in the Constitution that would disqualify him for [being indicted] and as a result states have no power to exclude from the ballot [on] that basis or make life more difficult for him if he wants to be on a ballot.” After all, Trump meets all the qualifications that the Constitution requires for the presidency. He is over 35, a natural-born citizen, and he has not twice been elected president per the added restriction of the 22nd Amendment.

From the political perspective, who knows? Debs doesn’t offer much of a precedent. After all, he was a third-party candidate running in an election before the advent of radio where the key campaign issues were Prohibition and the League of Nations. Trump’s third presidential campaign has been totally unprecedented from the start. No former president has even mounted a serious comeback after losing an election attempt since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and, needless to say, Roosevelt had never been impeached nor had he seen an attack on the Capitol while he was in office. An indictment adds an entirely new level of uncertainty to the campaign and a further confounding variable in what is already shaping up to be a bizarre presidential primary.

Yet, in some ways, Trump’s indictment doesn’t change anything. It’s not simply that the Stormy Daniels-related allegations against Trump have been litigated since before Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine, but that the possibility of a Trump indictment has long been baked into presidential politics. Trump’s indictment is as present in the dynamics of the 2024 election as Trump’s spray tan or his almost compulsive need to give rivals petty nicknames. The drama was not whether he would be indicted, but if Bragg would win the race to be the first prosecutor in American history to bring charges against a former president.

It’s hard to game out quite how this ends; the legal maneuvering around a trial, let alone an appeal, is likely to drag on and on and on. And there is no way to know how both Republican primary and general election voters will process the news — after all, Americans are used to seeing former presidents unveil their official portrait, not their mugshots.

However, Trump should take some heart from Debs. Even though Debs lost the presidential race in 1920, he quickly had his sentence commuted by the winner, Warren G. Harding. The question is whether Sleepy Joe Biden or Ron DeSanctimonious would be as magnanimous.

Update, March 30, 6:20 pm: This story was originally posted March 23 and has been updated to reflect reports of Trump’s indictment.