In May 2017, Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, crashing through the first of many important democratic norms. While FBI directors technically can be fired, they generally serve ten-year terms for the express purpose of ensuring their political independence and to ward off the inherent danger of an unscrupulous president turning the bureau into a partisan weapon to protect his friends and harass his enemies. There were banner headlines and special reports invoking Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre.
Conservatives uneasily justified the extraordinary maneuver as a necessary onetime response to Comey’s messy involvement in the 2016 election. “Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well,” said Senator Lindsey Graham. Comey had “made himself eminently fireable,” explained National Review.
For a while, the national emergency was averted. The figure Trump selected to replace Comey, Christopher Wray, refused to endorse conspiracy theories that the agency had plotted to help Hillary Clinton win in 2016, sent agents to Mar-a-Lago when Trump declined to return classified documents, and generally failed to follow the Trumpist precept that crimes are committed by the other side and never by his own. For this reason, Wray too became a Republican hate object. Trump, now seeking to return to the White House, has pledged to fire Wray. Trump’s leading opponent in the GOP primary, Ron DeSantis, recently told Fox News he would also fire Wray. The two have fallen into a scrap over who would fire him harder. “DeSanctimonious is now making a show of promising to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray, but DeSantis voted FOR Wray’s confirmation in 2017, praising him as ‘talented, capable & highly respected,’” Trump’s campaign charges, surreally gliding over the fact that Trump himself chose Wray. (It is MAGA canon that Trump bears no blame for being repeatedly duped into hiring the many traitors in his midst.)
The tattered notion that Republicans must have any respect for the FBI’s independence has disintegrated completely. Now every FBI director is eminently fireable. It isn’t enough that the agency be led by a Republican (as every director in its history has been) or even that it be led by a Republican chosen by Trump. That the FBI director must be a loyal MAGA apparatchik is now every bit as much party dogma as “Border weak” or “Taxes bad.”
During Trump’s first term, violations of democratic norms came in sudden dramatic bursts attracting wide news coverage, and these efforts were often undone by a lack of planning and haphazard execution. January 6 is the most vivid example. The episode dramatized Trump’s desire and determination to secure an unelected second term, but the coup attempt lacked the firepower to pull it off.
Since Trump left office, the Republican Party’s anti-democratic turn has accelerated, but it has taken place quietly and deliberately with little drama or media attention. It has had the benefit of planning and the formation of a partywide consensus. And it is more insidious than anything a reelected Trump could come up with in a fit of pique.
Toward the end of Trump’s term, he set his mind to rooting out what he called the “deep state” — what might be more accurately described as public servants unwilling to flout the law or professional ethics. He handed the task to his body man Johnny McEntee, whose previous claim to fame had been throwing a football at a series of unlikely targets in a viral video and who is currently one of the impresarios behind a conservative dating app. McEntee’s method of purging the workforce consisted mainly of quizzing various staffers on their beliefs about the great orange leader.
Trump has since formed a plan called “Schedule F,” a bureaucratic work-around that would enable him to replace thousands of nonpolitical bureaucrats with reliable partisans. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has developed a detailed proposal for using this tool to cleanse the deep state.
DeSantis has enthusiastically adopted the plan and is attacking Trump for failing to cull his staff ruthlessly enough. “That was Donald Trump’s FBI and Donald Trump’s DHS that was doing that,” he told Ben Shapiro, referring to election interference. “He didn’t have control over his own agencies! If somebody in my government were doing that, they would have been fired the next day. You’ve got to take responsibility as the candidate to shape the battlefield in a way that’s going to be most advantageous to your side winning.”
For a time in early 2021, Trump’s support for the insurrection was a black mark on his record that even many loyalists couldn’t condone. That taboo is fading from memory. Trump has said he would “most likely” pardon “many” of his allies arrested on January 6 and has turned Ashli Babbitt, a supporter who was shot trying to break into a sealed hallway while storming the Capitol, into a martyr. DeSantis has promised to pardon at least some J6-ers. “And so what I’m going to do is on day one, I will have folks that will get together and look at all these cases. People are victims of weaponization or political targeting, and we will be aggressive in issuing pardons,” he told a conservative podcast.
Most instructive of all are the rationalizations used by Trump’s erstwhile skeptics within the party. They have concluded, more in sorrow than in anger, that since the party contains a very large faction of voters who believe Trump is entitled to legal impunity, the only choice is to placate them. “Republican voters do not respond well to Republican lawmakers who make the case against Donald Trump’s legal misconduct in plain terms. I wish they did, but they don’t,” says National Review’s Noah Rothman, defending DeSantis’s position on the insurrectionists. “And since those Republican voters hold the key to Trump’s political future, convincing them of the former president’s legal and political handicaps must be a Socratic exercise.”
Republican strategist David Kochel recently explained the calculation to Politico’s Jonathan Martin in similar terms: “The conservative media ecosystem has built a giant wall of inoculation around everything Trump. All our voters have ever known about Trump is he’s constantly under attack, so he’s got these antibodies built up.” Martin says Kochel takes all this to mean Republicans cannot criticize or even acknowledge Trump’s misconduct. “To forcefully condemn Trump as a menace to democracy is to echo the other tribe, to put on the blue jersey,” he writes, summarizing Kochel’s case. “Shaming your own voters is not a recipe for victory.”
It is sobering to see such an unblinkered description of the party’s intellectual rot attached to such a fatalistic conclusion. The party’s leader is an authoritarian and a crook, and its media apparatus is rank propaganda, making it impossible to identify or correct even the grossest crimes. This is the definition of an internal culture that is beyond repair. The only possible response for anybody possessing a minimal commitment to democracy is to get out.
Yet the years since Trump arrived on the Republican scene have instilled in the party’s elite a learned helplessness. The notion that the GOP could grow so dangerous that they must abandon it for the sake of the Republic is unimaginable to them. Trump is planning a second term that can break down every guardrail that held him back the first time. The Republican “opposition,” as it were, is dedicated to bringing more planning, intraparty support, and ruthlessness to the very same project.