Trump Would Not Be the First Presidential Candidate to Campaign from Prison

Socialist Party 1920 presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, Convict #9653

Donald Trump recently announced that he was eager to go to jail for violating the gag order in his criminal trial in Manhattan.

Trump has whined about the gag order on a daily basis since before the trial began. But on May 6, 2024, in his daily televised courthouse address to his cult, he added a note of false bravado to the whine. “And frankly, you know what,” he said, “our Constitution is much more important than jail. It’s not even close. I’ll do that sacrifice any day.”

Trump is notorious for hiding behind the Constitution when it can be construed to support his scams but shredding it when it gets in his way, as he did on January 6, 2020, in his uncountable ethical violations as president and in other areas.

The fact is he is a career criminal conman who has lived a life of luxury for nearly 80 years. There is zero chance he’d give up his solid gold toilets for an lid-less aluminum basin on Rikers Island.

If Trump were to go to prison, he would be the first U.S. ex-president to get locked up, but he wouldn’t be the first presidential candidate. That title goes to Eugene V. Debs, who campaigned for president from prison on the Socialist ticket in 1920 and received more than 1 million votes. He was serving a ten-year stretch in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for violating Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s World War I Sedition Act of 1918.

Historian Thomas Doherty describes the Act as “an anti-free speech measure … that made it illegal for a U.S. citizen to ‘willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States government’ or to discourage compliance with the draft or voluntary enlistment into the military.”

Debs is forgotten now, but he was a potent political force a century ago. Doherty wrote that Debs was “the face of socialism in America. He ran for president four times, in 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912, garnering around a million votes in the last cycle.”

He later became a leader in the opposition to the United States entry into World War I and was arrested for protesting the war in June 1918. In a political dynamic that is familiar to us today, Doherty found that “imprisonment only enhanced Debs’ status with his followers. On May 13, 1920, at its national convention in New York, the Socialist Party unanimously nominated ‘Convict 2253’ as its standard bearer for the presidency. Debs was later given new digits, so the campaign buttons read ‘For President, Convict No. 9653.’”

Debs’ opponents that cycle were Ohio Republican Sen. Warren G. Harding and Ohio Gov. James M. Cox, a Democrat. Harding won, of course, and went on to lead the most corrupt presidential administration up until that time. The infamous Teapot Dome Scandal occurred on his watch. Democrat James Cox lost in a landslide, but his vice-presidential running mate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Pres. Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy, went on to serve as president for four terms. He is the only losing vice presidential candidate to eventually win the presidency.

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