How long is this going to last?
The Republican Party just cannot stop excusing Donald Trump’s wrongdoing. It happens again and again. Trump engages in serious misconduct, and the base of the GOP and most of its prominent leaders accept or ignore the transgression. Or issue an indefensible defense. Even if they recognize a particular act as a misdeed, they don’t renounce him or demand accountability. Sometimes they even celebrate it. They let Trump be Trump. In the history of the republic, no elected leader has gotten away with so much. The recent federal indictment of Trump for allegedly retaining classified documents, obstructing justice, and lying to the investigators hasn’t altered this dynamic. It has only reinforced the unhealthy co-dependent relationship between Trump and the party of Abraham Lincoln. Perversely, GOP voters say they support him more following his latest indictment.
After seven years of Trump’s sleaze infecting the American political system, it’s easy to lose track of all the infractions. He pushed a racist conspiracy theory about Barack Obama that falsely claimed the 44th president was born in Kenya. And Republican politicians and voters embraced Trump. (It made him a hero at CPAC, and during the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s endorsement.) During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly made racist statements and encouraged violence and hatred. And the GOP ended up rallying around him at the conclusion of the primary contest. When Trump assailed a federal judge of Mexican heritage as biased, then-Speaker Paul Ryan, the most senior Republican, called Trump’s remark “racist”—yet he continued to back Trump.
Republicans stood by Trump when he insulted a Gold Star family, when he falsely declared that Russia was not attacking the 2016 election (a move that aided and abetted Vladimir Putin’s assault on American democracy), and when the Access Hollywood grab-’em-by-the-pussy video emerged.
Nothing mattered. He literally could do no wrong, as far as the Republican Party was concerned. He could lie. He could spread prejudice. He could engage in brazen misogyny. Trump never tested his assertion that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “wouldn’t lose any voters.” But it was not an outlandish observation—at least regarding Republican voters. These Americans relished Trump mirroring racial and cultural resentments, and that compelled prominent Republicans to go deaf, dumb, and blind whenever Trump did something terribly wrong. Trump controlled the base, and the base controlled them. For the GOP, there was the Trump way or the highway.
The pattern continued through his White House years. Trump continued to deny the Russian attack and branded the scandal a “hoax,” and Republicans served as an amen choir for him, distracting from this serious matter with Deep State nonsense. When Trump was caught muscling Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy as would a mob boss—open an investigation on Joe Biden and confirm the crazy conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democrats in 2016 or no weapons for you!—the Republicans rushed to his defense. During the proceedings for Impeachment No. 1, House Republicans served up a mess of conspiracy theories to deflect from Trump’s malfeasance.
Thanks to Trump, Republicans lost the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans didn’t say boo. He lost 2020, and they largely stood by and joined in, as Trump promoted the big lie that the election had been rigged against him. Some even conspired with Trump to overturn the election results. (Paging Rep. Jim Jordan.) Certainly, a few Republicans noted that Trump was perpetrating a huge fraud and threatening the constitutional order to retain power. But a whopping majority of House Republicans and a significant number of GOP senators endorsed Trump’s falsehoods by voting against certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory. And Trump’s voters saw his falsehoods as a holy writ.
Then came the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In the aftermath, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy did lash out at Trump for inciting the insurrectionist violence. But as soon as it became clear that the Republican base remained enamored with Trump, they shelved their criticisms of Dear Leader. McConnell cooked up a torturous legal argument to vote against Impeachment No. 2. McCarthy scurried down to Mar-a-Lago to bend the knee and be photographed with the failed coup leader.
Nothing, nothing, nothing could break the bond. Trump embraced the lunatic QAnon conspiracy theory that holds that Democrats are part of a secret global cabal of pedophiles and baby-eaters. His son-in-law cut a questions-raising $2 billion deal with the Saudis, as Trump also banked a bundle via a Saudi-backed golf league. Trump supped with a white nationalist Hitler fanboy (Nick Fuentes) and an antisemitic rapper (Kanye West). He called for ripping up particular provisions of the Constitution so he could be reinstated in the White House. He absolved the violent marauders of January 6 and said he would pardon them, should he return to the White House. He was indicted in New York City for a shady caper that involved a pay-off to a porn star. A jury in a civil lawsuit found that he was responsible for sexually assaulting a woman and defaming her. He still led in the GOP polls.
Trump has debased democracy. He has debased politics. He has debased the nation. Yet the Republican Party cannot quit him. There are GOP politicians challenging him for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But the only ones directly assailing him are the long shots, such as former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (who once was one of Trump’s loudest cheerleaders). Others—including Sen. Tim Scott and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley—proclaim it is time to move on, without detailing what must be left behind. (Haley this week slammed the FBI and the justice system for unfairly pursuing Trump, but simultaneously noted that the indictment, if true, showed Trump was “incredibly reckless with out national security.”) And Florida governor Ron DeSantis only pokes gently at Trump, while making sure to condemn the libs and the prosecutors for persecuting the guy.
Trump’s recent indictment demonstrates that most Republicans and right-wingers cannot acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part. Speaker Kevin McCarthy absurdly stated that the bathroom in which Trump had secreted the pilfered papers had a lock on the door. Jordan huffed that the indictment showed that “federal agencies have been turned on the American people” (yes, all those Americans who pinch classified documents from the White House), and he exclaimed Trump could keep “declassified” information wherever he wants, even a bathroom. (Bathroom Republicans—is that now a thing?) On Fox News and throughout conservative media, conservative partisans refuse to address the specifics of the charges. They bray continuously about Hunter Biden and Hillary Clinton, and ceaselessly moan about the supposed “weaponization” of the justice system. They mischaracterize the specifics of the case. They concoct phony defenses. Trump did something wrong? They are like children clamping hands on ears and shouting, “I can’t hear you.”
A party and an ideological movement that once collectively shouted “lock her up” and contended that Clinton was unfit for office because she used a private server for her emails when she was secretary of state now does not give a damn about Trump’s purposeful mishandling of classified material. Whether or not the legal case against Trump is strong, his defenders throughout the GOP and the right-wing media echo chamber don’t bother to discuss the evidence or the specific acts cited in the indictment. Instead, they assail the Justice Department and insist Trump is being picked on. (Bill Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, has been a notable exception. He proclaimed that the indictment was chockfull of damaging allegations and that Trump could be “toast.” He noted Trump was not a victim of a “witch hunt.” Yet Barr, when he served Trump, did much to bolster Trump’s witch-hunt narrative, particularly by undermining special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings and launching special counsel John Durham’s misguided crusade to discredit the Trump-Russia investigation.)
The recent years have shown that the GOP is addicted to Trump. And this indictment is another shot of junk for the Trump-dopeheads of the right, pushing them toward greater heights of irrationality and desperation. The indictment presents a stress test for the nation. Can the judicial system handle such a politically loaded case? But for the Republican Party and the conservative movement, there’s not much of a question how they will fare on this exam. There is no rehab in the offing. They are hooked on Trump, and they just can’t say no.