I was in a bar with my husband when we learned, along with everyone else, that the FBI had raided Mar-a-Lago. We laughed at Donald Trump’s outraged statement — “They even broke into my safe,” he complained — and ordered another round. Maybe this time was the charm; the Feds would get him and perhaps even banish the specter of a second Trump administration. It’s easy to laugh at Trump; his ego makes him a risible figure. Yet as we sat at the bar, our laughter contained a note of fear. A country in which Trump retains any power, as a party figurehead or a viable candidate, is a country in trouble. The rot runs so much deeper than Trump, or even the GOP.
While we joked, Trump’s party adopted a fighting stance. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted a picture of an upside down American flag. “DEFUND THE FBI!” she added. Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham speculated upon motivations for the raid. “If the past is any indication, suspicion of Trump investigations is warranted,” he asserted. “Remember the Carter Page warrant fiasco? The endless accusations regarding Russia? The never-ending inquiry of personal and business matters?”
To a reasonable person, Trump himself might be responsible for the “never-ending inquiry,” as Graham put it. If such people ever existed in the GOP, they are disappearing. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida and a possible presidential candidate, tweeted that the raid “is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the regime’s political opponents, while people like Hunter Biden get treated with kid gloves.” Another rumored candidate, Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, joined in: “Selective, politically motivated actions have no place in our democracy.” The narrative is set. To deviate is to risk punishment, recriminations from fellow Republicans or, worse, rejection by the base. Anyone who wants a future in Republican politics knows the path to success runs through Mar-a-Lago, still.
Trump has conquered the Republican Party, as two recent books affirm. In Thank You for Your Servitude, Mark Leibovich of The Atlantic depicts a craven GOP in thrall to a presidential bully. Dana Milbank, a longtime columnist for the Washington Post, places Trump within a devastating recent history of the GOP’s pivot toward conspiratorial, hard-right politics in The Destructionists.
In both books, the former president is a derivative figure. “His promise to ‘drain the swamp’ was treated as some genius coinage, though in fact the platitude had been worn out for decades by both parties,” Leibovich notes, and adds later, “Trump served as a big mirror to the political world he was surrounding in full. He imposed his own character study, and the results were endlessly depressing.” The swamp preceded Trump, “thrived undisturbed” during his presidency, and survived him intact. Viewed from the Trump Hotel, Leibovich’s Washington is a biblical den of iniquity. Republicans jockeyed for position; critics like Graham became acolytes. The transformation happened with relative ease once it was clear that Trump would likely be the party’s nominee. Officeholders and officials moved from a hostile stance to one that tried to “limit the damage,” as Leibovich quotes former White House press secretary Sean Spicer as saying. “Okay, so maybe Trump would lose, D.C. Republicans conceded,” Leibovich writes. “Maybe they deserved it. They knew they would certainly survive.” So too would Washington’s culture of impunity. When Trump won, he fit right in, a swamp creature like any other.
Though Leibovich is at pains to puncture Trump’s boastful claims, he can at times credit the former president for disruption of another kind. In his accounting, the party of Trump is somewhat at odds with previous versions of itself. “Mitch McConnell vowed to Politico that Trump was ‘not going to change the basic philosophy of the party,’” Leibovich writes. “This turned out to be 100 percent true, except for Trump’s ‘basic philosophy’ on foreign policy, free trade, rule of law, deficits, tolerance for dictators, government activism, family values, government restraint, privacy, optimistic temperament, and every virtuous quality the Republican Party ever aspired to in its best, pre-Trump days.”
Much later, Leibovich writes of Adam Kinzinger, a rare Trump critic within the GOP. Kinzinger’s party had gone, he explains. In its place stood some new mutant. The party of Kinzinger, the one “he grew up in,” was “one of respect, restraint, and actual conservatism as defined by fiscal discipline, traditional values, and the greater cause of freedom he fought for in Afghanistan,” Leibovich says. “That party has been replaced by the permission structure of Trumpism, one that allows for, even encourages, crassness in the name of ‘authenticity,’ freedom in the name of ‘I make my own rules’ and ‘I do my own research,’ and straight-up encouragement of political violence in the name of ‘being strong’ and ‘fighting for our great country.’”
Yet before the GOP became the party of Trump, it was the party of Ronald Reagan, and Lee Atwater, Richard Nixon, and Barry Goldwater. The party has always had dictators it favors, oppression it tolerates, political violence it overlooks. So, for that matter, has the American government. Impunity is a two-party game. “In general, the most lucrative private-sector jobs in Washington are held by people with ‘former’ in their titles — for example, ‘former White House chief of staff,’” Leibovich writes. Never to be confused with the city it squats in, political Washington doesn’t care what a person did with the office they held. The point is that they were in power at all.
Impunity not only permits extremism, but embraces it. There’s no other way to understand either the human remoras of Leibovich’s new book or the Republican history recounted by Milbank. In The Destructionists, he traces the Republican Party’s moral downfall beyond Trump to Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove and McConnell, among others. Trump, he writes, “isn’t some hideous orange Venus emerging from the shell,” but is instead “a monster the Republicans created over a quarter-century.” The forces that created him will persist long past his presidency, Milbank adds, a troubling — and likely accurate — diagnosis.
Long before Trump came anywhere near the Republican nomination for president, there was Gingrich, the one-time Speaker of the House and a future Trump supporter. As Speaker, Gingrich fanned anti-Clinton conspiracies surrounding the suicide of Vince Foster because it was useful to him, and favored an aggressive mode of politics detached from the facts. Milbank paints Gingrich as a proto-Trump, a showman who understood precisely how to manipulate the media to his advantage. “He quickly realized that because the TV cameras filmed only those who were speaking, the viewers wouldn’t know the chamber was otherwise empty,” Milbank writes of Gingrich’s congressional speeches. “He used this to pose rhetorical challenges to Democrats, accusing them of disloyalty and communist sympathies — and used the silence in the chamber as evidence they had no response.” Gingrich, he adds, would later credit C-SPAN along with conservative media for handing his party control of Congress.
Once he was Speaker, Gingrich attacked Congress’s most basic functions. Gingrich “encouraged the seventy-four Republican freshmen not to move their families to Washington,” Milbank writes. “He imposed what was essentially a Tuesday–Thursday work week for the House.” At the same time, Gingrich cut congressional staff. “The practical effect of this loss of expertise meant that industry lobbyists wound up writing legislation,” Milbank adds. Gingrich successfully empowered the hard-line right — at the expense of his ability to govern, and, eventually, this cost him the Speakership. These days Gingrich is a party gadfly, but Milbank argues that his influence is still palpable. Trump, he writes, was “the consequence” of Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution,” adding, “Gingrich’s revolutionaries would be succeeded by ever more zealous waves — the Tea Party Republicans, the MAGA Republicans — with ever more hostility to the government they were supposed to be running. The destruction began with Newt.”
Gingrich, of course, did not introduce hard-line politics to the GOP any more than Trump did decades later. Because he begins with Gingrich, Milbank limits the scope of his inquiry and leaves other foundational figures — like Goldwater, Reagan, and their alliances — relatively unexamined. Nevertheless, it’s useful to revisit Gingrich’s methods in the wake of Trump’s presidency, which was marked by a similar combination of ineffectiveness and radicalism. Trump capsized institutions that had been hollowed out by the time he took office. Long before the Trump presidency, the GOP fostered a kind of anti-politics, an extremism opposed to any serious attempt to govern. Untethered to normal constraints, the GOP could rely on dirty tricks. They could swift-boat John Kerry and ruin his candidacy in the process. They could block Barack Obama from filling Antonin Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court seat. They could repeatedly lie, as the George W. Bush administration did to sell the invasion of Iraq.
This is all history that Milbank incorporates into his account of the GOP’s “crack-up.” Though the average liberal greeted Trump’s candidacy with shock, Milbank’s account suggests that this was the wrong response. Trump himself was not a new phenomenon; rather, he manipulated forces that were already in play. Earlier figures and events primed the GOP for what Trump became, to our collective detriment. As Milbank put it, “Trump made the bigotry in the Republican Party far more overt, but he didn’t invent it. As with his assault on facts and science, he merely exploited the animus in the GOP that predated his run.”
Considered together, the Milbank and Leibovich books provoke a question: What does it mean for our political norms when a major party rejects reason? No one can answer this without scrutinizing norms themselves. In the Trump era, to speak of norms was to fan a certain nostalgia: Not so long ago, presidents respected the rule of law. They exercised restraint and refrained from endorsing violence to settle disputes. When they lost, they conceded the election, and they and their supporters didn’t sabotage crucial governmental functions. Institutions functioned. To accept these assertions as fact is to misunderstand the Trump crisis. The norms were never that robust. This is partly the fault of the GOP and its assault on government, but the problem is bigger than one party. America suffers from faulty construction.
For proof, look to Washington. The events of The Destructionists are possible because their perpetrators routinely escape punishment. Bush-administration veterans enjoy the usual sinecures in the private sector and even the press. Some, like Colin Powell, managed to impress resistance liberals with their criticisms of Trump. Others, like torture-memo author and Berkeley professor John Yoo, fell into line under the new Republican president. In this permissive atmosphere, Trump’s enablers cling to power. In Thank You for Your Servitude, Leibovich considers Paul Ryan, the Republican former House Speaker who allegedly wept during the January 6 riot: “I couldn’t help wondering, as I thought of Ryan sitting there watching and weeping, if he felt any guilt,” Leibovich writes. “That maybe he was one of the people who protected Trump. What if he had taken a harder line against him when he was Speaker? Or even now, as Ryan sat on the board of the parent company of Fox News, which had contributed so much to the creation, perpetuation, and continual rehabilitation of Trump, and the events that preceded January 6?” Ryan still sits on the board of Fox Corporation, as network stars lay the foundation for another Trump run.
Impunity may yet prevail. “Whatever else one might think about [the] Trump raid, it’s not clear to me how it ends up strengthening American democracy,” tweeted Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, for example. “Instead, it raises the existential tenor of political competition, which isn’t a good thing. Something can be right or just without being ‘good.’” The alternative, of course, is potentially to let Trump do what he pleases without consequence, which is hardly beneficial for democracy.
Washington is a class protecting itself. In doing so, it reflects deeper political dysfunction, much as Trump himself holds up a mirror to the GOP. “It was quite an achievement: not only had McConnell managed to destroy the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest deliberative body,’ but he had also destroyed the credibility of the highest court in the land,” Milbank writes. McConnell, however, can only bear so much blame for the situation. The Supreme Court itself must bear the rest. The very structure of the institution is undemocratic to the extreme; see also the Senate to which McConnell belongs. The GOP is unscrupulous, but it merely exploits weakness in the system.
Even if there are signs that Republican voters wish for another candidate in 2024, to break with Trump is still an act of political heresy. As my husband and I laughed at Trump in the bar, the party circled around him. The GOP knows how lenient Washington can be, how rotten the whole sorry structure is, and whatever they do next will be hell. The party’s critics will have to do more than mock or tabulate the last quarter-century’s offenses. If people are losing faith in our institutions, so be it: They’re right to do so. The institutions failed. The norms did not hold. Replacements are required, and with them, a comprehensive vision for a better future. That will require steps many within the Democratic Party are not yet willing to take, like court-packing or ending the filibuster. Some Democrats long for the days when the GOP resembled a functional party, but that desire was always based more on nostalgia than on history. Liberals can’t wait for the GOP to recover its senses.