Donald Trump’s supporters, as you might expect, have not taken his latest indictment in stride. Charlie Kirk, writing in the Federalist, proposes a list of Democrats or liberal groups to charge in retaliation, proposing Hunter Biden, James Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorka, Black Lives Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or “literally any Democrat, for anything.” Trump’s indictments, Kirk argues, “aren’t the product of a reasoned criminal inquiry. They are the product of years of work that started from the premise of ‘investigate Trump for literally anything, and bring whatever charges you can come up with, even if they’re invented.’”
What is perhaps more surprising is that Republican supporters of Trump’s erstwhile rivals are saying more or less the same thing.
“This may be the last indictment of Trump, but it won’t be the last indictment of its type. Expect to see this scenario repeat itself any time a conservative who rattles the establishment cage gets too close to winning,” said Laura Ingraham. “Whatever you think of the Trump indictments, one thing is for certain: the glass has now been broken over and over again. Political opponents can be targeted by legal enemies,” Ben Shapiro proclaimed, “Running for office now carries the legal risk of going to jail — on all sides.” In a column headlined, “Republicans must fight dirty — or America is finished,” Nate Hochman urged Republicans to start bringing legal charges against their political rivals.
Ingraham and Shapiro have both plumped for Ron DeSantis, and Hochman left a job at National Review to work for him (before being forced out after making fascistic, white supremacist memes for the campaign’s social media accounts). You might think they would depict Trump’s legal jeopardy as, if not fair punishment for his crimes, then at least a political vulnerability. It’s too bad prosecutors keep targeting Trump, but maybe the party should nominate a non-incarcerated candidate for president seems like an obvious case to make for DeSantis.
Instead, they are insisting all Republicans — or at least all Republicans who pose a real threat to the left — are equally vulnerable to prosecution. They are throwing away a strong rationale, perhaps the only remaining viable one, to nominate the candidate they prefer. Why?
The answer is that Republicans are genuinely obsessed with the potential for using the criminal-justice system as a political weapon. They are so obsessed they don’t even wish to imagine leaving behind a world in which prosecution is linked with political identity. “Victory or prison” is the political environment they affirmatively wish to inhabit. Trump’s predicament hands them permission to do what they have always craved. And now the campaign, which will be anchored around a series of criminal trials, will be framed around their desire not only to keep Trump out of prison, but to lock up as many of their political opponents as they can.
If you haven’t drunk deeply from the fetid waters of the conservative fever swamp, this impulse might seem incomprehensible. Trump’s legal jeopardy is easily explained: His private sector record was a long history of shady associations with gangsters and running scams. His presidency was a continuous procession of his own advisers pleading with him not to do illegal things while he complained that his attorneys weren’t as unethical as Roy Cohn, the mob lawyer he once employed.
If Trump were being charged because he was a Republican, rather than because he were an incorrigible crook, then why weren’t George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan hauled into court by their successors? Why are other liberal hate objects like, say, DeSantis, Tucker Carlson, or Marjorie Taylor Greene not facing criminal investigations right now?
But conservatives have constructed an alternative reality that obscures these facts. Right-wing news sources serve up a curated version of events that ignores or justifies misbehavior by conservatives and magnifies or invents crimes by their opponents, creating a belief system resting upon a foundational premise that Democrats are evil and criminal and always get away with it.
The whataboutism allows even Republicans who recognize Trump’s failings to justify supporting him. Because Democrats are allowed to commit crimes and walk away scot-free, Trump should be allowed to commit crimes. Because Trump is being prosecuted unfairly — it’s unfair even if his crimes are real, remember, because Democrats get away with it all the time — Democrats should be, too.
Trump, of course, made “Lock her up!” a prominent theme of his first campaign. DeSantis is now attacking Trump for having failed to make good on that threat.
“I went to the rallies in 2016, Laura,” he told Ingraham. You remember them, ‘Lock her up, lock her up,’ about holding Hillary accountable. And then, two weeks after the election, he said, ‘Never mind that I said that,’ and let her off the hook. And so I think, if you look at it — and I give him credit, even though we’re competing, for the great things he did do. But one of the things he did not do was drain the swamp … [Trump] had people in power who were not getting the job done.”
In 2014, Shapiro wrote a book titled The People Vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against the Obama Administration. Shapiro even explained to Larry King why the RICO Act was the precise tool he wished to employ against Obama:
Shapiro: “I make the case that the RICO Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act from 1970, which allows for civil charges — people can file civil suits — that that be broadened to allow people to sue members of the executive branch. So, the people themselves, essentially, become the guardians of the criminal law. Because, sorry, but I just don’t trust the executive branch to prosecute its own guys.”
King: “What did he do, hands on, that was criminal?”
Shapiro: “Well, you see, this is the problem, this is why you have to use the RICO Act,” Shapiro answered. “So, no president is actually going to do things — unless you’re Richard Nixon, presumably, and there are tapes — is going to have to do things that are particularly hands on. The government is run more like a mafiaesque organization, which is, you have somebody at the top who makes, you know, a basic demand that certain things be done, and somebody at the low level says, ‘OK, well, you know, I want to up my career.’ This is Henry II with Thomas Beckett, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ And someone goes and rids him of the meddlesome priest.”
From the outside, this may appear to be hypocritical — Republicans insisting that now politicians will start being hounded with criminal charges, after they’ve been demanding this very thing all along.
But within the sealed world of partisan Republican-curated news, it is merely more evidence of a long-time double standard of justice. Obama was a criminal. Hillary Clinton was a criminal. Bill Clinton was a veritable criminal mastermind. (Conservative organs as respectable as The Wall Street Journal editorial page, not to mention its seedier competitors, routinely accused Clinton of murdering Vince Foster and running a secret drug-smuggling operation out of Arkansas.)
It is a strange twist of fate that years of hysterically accusing every leading Democrat of criminality culminated in Republicans falling behind a presidential candidate who came to politics from the world of crime.
For some Republicans, the ascension of a transparently amoral swindler precipitated a psychic break from their party. But for most of them, it served merely to deepen the belief system they already subscribed to. Trump’s campaign and presidency followed directly from a mentality that detached the notion of criminality from any actual behavior and turned it into a partisan identity. Trump’s mantra — “The crimes are being committed by the other side” — has become a partywide doctrine.
But this idea, which has tightened its grip on conservative minds over the last generation, is now the dominant theme of the campaign. Trump’s indictments have intensified their humiliation and created an insatiable demand for revenge. The party is no longer running on policy or even culture war. It is now consumed above all with turning the criminal-justice system into an instrument of revenge.