Despite what you may have heard about the federal charges against Donald Trump, there is actually nothing shocking or unprecedented about a former head of state facing criminal charges. It has happened several times in other democracies, and it would have happened in the United States but for Gerald Ford pardoning Richard Nixon.
What is shocking, and carries the ominous reek of banana-republicanism, is the response by the opposition party to the news. Kevin McCarthy, the highest-ranking Republican leader, depicts the charges as a personal plot by Joe Biden — “It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him” — and a “grave injustice.” Trump’s leading Republican opponent denounces the charges as “political bias” and “the weaponization of federal law enforcement.”
What is distinctive about these remarks is how little fear these leaders have of embarrassment by the facts. They are dismissing out of hand an indictment they have not seen, the known contours of which suggest persistent criminal misconduct. Trump, according to news reports, repeatedly defied orders to return classified documents, repeatedly lied about what he held, and appears to have engaged in a cover-up, evidence of which may include surveillance-camera footage, potential testimony by his underlings, and a recording of Trump contradicting his best legal defense. Trump’s attorney confirmed he is facing seven criminal counts, including conspiracy.
A reasonably healthy party might give its indicted leader some benefit of the doubt, while calling for judgment to be withheld before he has his day in court. But Republicans correctly understand that their party will consider Trump an innocent martyr regardless. The sickness of the Republican Party as it is presently constituted is that there is no conceivable set of facts that would permit it to acknowledge Trump’s guilt.
What has brought the party to this point is the convergence of its decades-long descent into paranoia with its idiosyncratic embrace of a career criminal.
Without belaboring the point, consider each of these dynamics in turn. The Republican Party’s internal culture has been shaped by what Richard Hofstadter famously described as “the paranoid style” in American politics. Hofstadter specifically attributed this description to the conservative movement, which, at the time, was a marginalized faction on the far right but has since completely taken control of the party and imposed its warped mentality on half of America. To its adherents, every incremental expansion of the welfare state is incipient communism, each new expansion of social liberalism the final death blow to family and church. Lurking behind these endless defeats, they discern a vast plot by shadowy elites.
In recent years, the Republican Party’s long rightward march on policy has ground to a halt, and it has instead radicalized on a different dimension: ruthlessness. Attributing their political travails to weakness, Republicans converged on the belief that their only chance to pull back from the precipice of final defeat is to discard their scruples. A willingness to do or say anything to win was the essence of Trump’s appeal, an amorality some Republicans embraced gleefully and others reluctantly.
Trump, by dint of his obsessive consumption of right-wing media, grasped where the party was going more quickly than its leaders did. This aspect of Trump’s rise was historically necessary. All Trump did was to hasten it along.
But there was a second aspect of Trump’s rise that was more or less accidental. The party was searching for a strongman to crush its enemies, and it could have found him in a politician, a general, a movie star, or an athlete. Instead, Republicans located their warlord in a crooked real-estate heir.
Trump was not raised in a traditional conservative milieu. He came into a seedy, corrupt world in which politicians could be bought off and laws were suggestions. He worked with mobsters and absorbed their view of law enforcement: People who follow the law are suckers, and the worst thing in the world is a rat.
That ethos ultimately explains Trump’s approach to classified information. He casually discarded all the rules concerning government secrecy as president — using an unsecured mobile phone, tearing up official documents, sharing highly classified information with Russian officials, and conducting state affairs at his loosely secured Florida resort. After leaving office, he naturally assumed he could continue flouting regulations about government secrecy. If the government was demanding its documents back, that was not an order but a negotiation. And why should he give up his leverage? He had something they wanted.
You can imagine the futility of trying to explain to Trump the seriousness and national security implications of the laws he was brazenly flouting, if any of his aides even bothered trying to get it across to him.
It is the interplay of the two forces, the paranoia of the right and the seamy criminality of the right’s current champion, that has brought the party to this point. Trump’s endlessly repeated “witch hunt” meme blends together the mobster’s hatred of the FBI with the conservative’s fear of the bureaucrat. His loyalists have been trained to either deny any evidence of misconduct by their side or rationalize it as a necessary countermeasure against their enemies.
The concept of “crime” has been redefined in the conservative mind to mean activities by Democrats. They insist upon Trump’s innocence because they believe a Republican, axiomatically, cannot be a criminal.
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