If there was any single event that would cause the Republican elite to openly revolt against the ongoing Trumpification of their party, it would be the nomination of Roy Moore for U.S. Senate in Alabama. Even prior to the allegations of child molestation, Moore had discovered innovative new realms of extremism that had never occurred to even his most ideologically fervent colleagues. He proposed banning Muslims from serving in elected office, called for the criminalization of homosexuality, and defied court rulings and declared his own biblical jurisprudence the sole valid legal authority.
And if that revolt was going to begin anywhere, it would likely be in Utah. The state’s Mormon culture recoiled from Donald Trump’s libidinous boasting, erratic behavior, and displays of extravagant consumption.
Between the 2012 and 2016 elections, Utah’s Republican presidential margin underwent an astonishing 28 percent collapse.
Orrin Hatch, who has represented Utah in the Senate since 1977, greeted Moore’s candidacy in this year’s election with skepticism. (“I have trouble with” Moore’s comments on gays and Muslims, he said in October.) Once evidence surfaced of Moore’s alleged predation of teenage girls, Hatch pulled the rip cord. “If the deeply disturbing allegations in the Washington Post are true, Senator Hatch believes that Judge Moore should step aside immediately,” his spokesman declared.
But even in Utah, there were forces at work to make Hatch reconsider. He was facing a potential primary challenge from a Trumpian candidate who had met with party insurrectionist Steve Bannon and Citizens United president David Bossie. In November, Hatch lavished praise on the president, calling him “one of the best I’ve served under.” Trump rewarded Hatch by endorsing him. Hatch then defended Trump’s endorsement of Moore, arguing that he “needs every Republican he can get so he can put his agenda through.”
Hatch’s response to Moore has followed that of his entire party, and the backtracking has usefully laid bare its power dynamics. As recently as a few weeks ago, Republicans were debating whether to shun Moore or, should he win, vote to expel him from the Senate. They have settled on a course of action that had initially been off the map altogether: endorsing their lecherous ayatollah and providing financial support from the Republican National Committee.
What mattered most was that Donald Trump has contempt for any standards of conduct. (Indeed, he reportedly has taken offense at the accusations against Moore, which remind him of his own treatment.) And no Republican who wishes to stay in office can afford to offend the president, who commands overwhelming support among the party base.
This was the dynamic last year, when a tape revealed Trump casually confessing to sexual assault, and it was briefly impossible to imagine that he could continue the campaign. Reince Priebus urged him to quit; Mike Pence reportedly offered his services to the RNC as a substitute. Then the incomprehensible became inevitable. The same thing happened in May when a Republican House candidate, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a reporter and then lied about it.
Would Republicans denounce him? Expel him? It turned out they would do nothing. By the time Moore came along, the party’s moral sensibilities had been worn to a nub.
The next step in the sequence is almost insultingly obvious. Trump is preparing to shut down Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian intervention in the 2016 election.
The administration and its allied media organs, especially those owned by Rupert Murdoch, have spent months floating a series of rationales, of varying degrees of implausibility, for why a deeply respected Republican law-enforcement veteran is disqualified to lead the inquiry: He is friends with James Comey, who is biased because Trump fired him; Comey is biased because he pursued leads turned up in Christopher Steele’s investigation, which was financed by Democrats; Mueller has failed to investigate Hillary Clinton’s marginal-to-nonexistent role in a uranium sale.
The newest pseudo-scandal fixates on the role of Peter Strzok, an FBI official who helped tweak the language Comey employed in his statement condemning Clinton’s email carelessness and has also worked for Mueller.
His alleged crime is a series of text messages criticizing Trump. Mueller removed Strzok from his team, but that is not enough for Trump’s supporters, who are seizing on Strzok’s role as a pretext to discredit and remove Mueller, too. The notion that a law-enforcement official should be disqualified for privately expressing partisan views is a novel one, and certainly did not trouble Republicans last year, when Rudy Giuliani was boasting on television about his network of friendly agents. Yet in the conservative media, Mueller and Comey have assumed fiendish personae of almost Clintonian proportions.
When Mueller was appointed, legal scholars debated whether Trump had the technical authority to fire him, but even the majority who believed he did assumed such a power existed only in theory. Republicans in Congress, everyone believed, would never sit still for such a blatant cover-up.
Josh Blackman, a conservative lawyer, argued that Trump could remove the special counsel, but “make no mistake: Mueller’s firing would likely accelerate the end of the Trump administration.” Texas representative Mike McCaul declared in July, “If he fired Bob Mueller, I think you’d see a tremendous backlash, response from both Democrats but also House Republicans.” Such a rash move “could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency,” Senator Lindsey Graham proclaimed.
In August, members of both parties began drawing up legislation to prevent Trump from sacking Mueller. “The Mueller situation really gave rise to our thinking about how we can address the current situation,” explained Republican senator Thom Tillis, a sponsor of one of the bills. By early autumn, the momentum behind the effort had slowed; by Thanksgiving, Republican interest had melted away. “I don’t see any heightened kind of urgency, if you’re talking about some of the reports around Flynn and others,” Tillis said recently. “I don’t see any great risk.”
In fact, the risk has swelled. Trump has publicly declared any investigation into his finances would constitute a red line, and that he reserves the option to fire Mueller if he investigates them. Earlier this month, it was reported that Mueller has subpoenaed records at Deutsche Bank, an institution favored both by Trump and the Russian spy network.
John Dowd, a lawyer for Trump, recently floated the wildly expansive defense that a “president cannot obstruct justice, because he is the chief law-enforcement officer.” Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett called the investigation “illegitimate and corrupt” and declared that “the FBI has become America’s secret police.” Graham is now calling for a special counsel to investigate “Clinton email scandal, Uranium One, role of Fusion GPS, and FBI and DOJ bias during 2016 campaign” — i.e., every anti-Mueller conspiracy theory. And perhaps as ominously, Trump’s allies have been surfacing fallback defenses. Yes, “some conspiratorial quid pro quo between somebody in the Trump campaign and somebody representing Vladimir Putin” is “possible,” allowed Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins, but “we would be stupid not to understand that other countries have a stake in the outcome of our elections and, by omission or commission, try to advance their interests. This is reality.” The notion of a criminal conspiracy by a hostile nation to intervene in the election in return for pliant foreign policy has gone from unthinkable to blasé, an offense only to naïve bourgeois morality.
It is almost a maxim of the Trump era that the bounds of the unthinkable continuously shrink. The capitulation to Moore was a dry run for the coming assault on the rule of law.
*This article appears in the December 11, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.