the national interest

Bridgegate Would Have Destroyed a Normal Candidacy

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The news that two aides to Chris Christie were convicted today of a scheme to punish his political enemies by creating traffic problems is the sort of story that would shake up an ordinary presidential election. It won’t, and the reasons it won’t help explain the surreal conditions that pertain to this election. Here are a few oddities:

1. Ethical and legal propriety is the most prominent theme of Trump’s campaign. The alleged abuse of power committed by Hillary Clinton by using a private email server has supplied what passes for a factual predicate for his demands to “lock her up!”

2. Trump appointed Chris Christie as his transition director. Christie’s history of illegitimately using power to reward friends and punish enemies made him an especially alarming choice for that position.

3. Compounding the ethical concerns, Christie plans to change civil-service laws, as Emily Flitter reported, so that Trump could more easily fire government employees and install his own loyalists. In particular, Christie “wants to let businesspeople serve in government part time without having to give up their jobs in the private sector.” Trump’s plan for staffing the government would open up vast new opportunities for conflicts of interest — since businesspeople would make regulatory decisions that would impact their own wallets — and it would be overseen by a man with a long history of abusing state power.

4. Normally, a scandal like Bridgegate would intersect with the presidential campaign in one of two ways. Either the presidential nominee (Trump) would cut loose the scandal-tinged hireling (Christie). Or else, less likely, the candidate would stubbornly defend his underling’s innocence. But Trump is doing neither of these things. He has openly stated that Christie is guilty. (“He totally knew about it,” Trump said publicly, “They’re with him all the time, the people that did it.”)

So, to summarize, Trump pronounced Christie guilty of legally abusing his power, then appointed him to a position where he would have immense latitude to abuse his power, whereupon he announced a plan of action that would make such abuses virtually inevitable even if an ethical politician was handling it, and then ran a campaign centered on “draining the swamp.”

5. The most amazing thing about this is that nobody will care. In a normal year, a sequence of events in which a candidate’s central theme is contradicted by a dramatic legal scandal would be a crushing blow. But the news media has figured out that Trump’s supporters’ beliefs about his ethics, and the criminality of his opponent, are not subject to amendment on the basis of evidence. Journalists have internalized this reality to the extent that, while they do try to hold Trump accountable, they’re not going to play up the Bridgegate indictments because they correctly realize it won’t change Trump’s support. Because it won’t have any impact on Republicans, it’s not a campaign-changing event, and ergo merely a second-rank news story.

Somewhere around the time he attracted a massive conservative following by promoting the birther hoax, Trump figured out that the Republican electorate was the biggest pool of suckers in America. It’s a cohort that resides within a hermetically sealed counterfactual universe. Within the world, the corruption and illegality of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or any Democratic official is a metaphysical reality. The emails, the birth certificate, the Constitution, and any other totem of this belief are merely symbolic gestures affirming this larger truth, not indictments that rest upon verifiable evidence.

It follows that if you are the champion of the Republican side, provided you have demonstrated your team loyalty, you can do or say anything whatsoever. You can be facing trial for massive fraud, you can have a crook promising a crooked governing scheme, and still be the candidate of good government. Good government, by definition, is Trump.

Bridgegate Would Have Destroyed a Normal Candidacy