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How Republicans Give Themselves Permission to Embrace Trump and His Many Crimes
Rightwing politics is driven by a logic of escalation, the loyalty to Trump additionally fueled by a sense of having burned all bridges – a toxic combination that only allows for radicalization
Devastating indictments be damned, Republicans are mostly closing ranks behind Trump. Not all of them, no. But those who openly attack Trump or defend his indictment, like Mitt Romney, stand out precisely because they are outliers. More typically, the spectrum of reaction ranges from a few prominent GOP leaders who have chosen to remain silent, like Mitch McConnell, to the bulk of Republican elected officials, operatives, and rightwing activists who are aggressively defending Trump by endorsing the kind of propaganda that is entirely unworthy of substantive engagement (Biden the dictator! What about Hillary?! Did you know about Bill Clinton’s sock drawer!?!).
As Never-Trumper-in-Chief Bill Kristol put it, Republicans just keep ignoring exit ramps when they appear. I know none of this is necessarily surprising (although it remains shocking!) for anyone who has paid attention to U.S. politics over the past few years; and I understand we have all become somewhat numb to the sad, bizarre spectacle that is the current Republican Party. But let’s try to take a step back and remind ourselves that what is happening here really is remarkable. Especially since, as Ron Brownstein plausibly argues, Republicans “may be stitching their own straitjacket”: Supporting Trump now, even after this devastating indictment, can only help him the Republican primaries – while it likely further undermines the party’s chances in a general election, as Trump would likely mobilize the same anti-MAGA coalition in the 2024 presidential election that has come out to vote since the 2018 midterms.
So, it’s really worth reflecting on this: Why are Republicans closing ranks behind Trump – again?
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Republicans are not simply cowards. It’s worse.
The least plausible answer that nevertheless features prominently in the political discourse is that Republicans are simply cowards: They don’t dare stand up to the demagogue, fearing his wrath and that of his supporters. Fear might certainly play a role in individual cases, and I will not deny that it can be justified, considering MAGA America’s open embrace of militancy and fascistic violence. But as an overall explanation, the narrative that Republicans are just scared and cowardly is still highly problematic. Let’s pay attention to the exculpatory implications that make the “lack of courage” tale so attractive, and not just for people on the Right. To Republicans, it provides cover: It may not be ideal, but it’s still better to be regarded a coward than an extremist. The doors to polite society will always be open to cowards – as soon as they show the slightest hint of a spine or courage, they can even expect to be celebrated as heroes and role models. For the news media, the cowardice tale provides justification for clinging to the notion that the GOP is a “normal” party – just struggling with an authoritarian insurrection, with a hostile takeover engineered by a few extremists who don’t represent the party’s true nature. Liberals, finally, may find comfort in the idea that everyone is committed to democracy, that deep down, we really all want the same thing for the country, even when some are just too scared of the mean demagogue and his cult followers to act on their beliefs. Such an approach is completely oblivious to – or deliberately tries to obscure – the fact that no such consensus exists, that there is no fundamental agreement on which to build. It is entirely misleading because it negates the actual nature of the conflict and what is at stake. And by conveniently ignoring the longstanding anti-democratic tendencies on the Right, we can tell a story that begins (and possibly ends!) with Trump.
If not cowardice, then what?
Rallying around Trump after January 6
We have been here before. There have been many such “Why are they not taking the exit ramp?” moments since Trump came down the golden escalator – none more striking than the assault on constitutional government on January 6. In the days and weeks after the attack on the Capitol, Republican leaders publicly acknowledged Donald Trump’s culpability. Keven McCarthy, then House minority leader, declared Trump should have “immediately denounced” the attack, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell publicly accused Trump of ignoring his duty as president; even some of Trump’s allies in the rightwing media were rattled by what had happened, uncertain of how to continue.
But the moment quickly passed. January 6 obviously wasn’t enough for Republicans in Congress to actually impeach or for conservatives to break with Trump in any meaningful way. Instead, they rallied around him: Republicans first acquitted Trump, then they started obstructing every attempt to hold him accountable, and in the 2022 midterms, a majority of GOP candidates ran on the Big Lie, denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election. The few who broke with Trump have been mostly marginalized or even ostracized from the party.
Was there a viable alternative path after January 6? Was that road not taken ever as realistically an option as the statements by McConnell and McCarthy may suggest, at least at first sight? I’m skeptical. I have no doubt that some Republican elites, like McConnell himself, personally despise Trump for summoning a mob to attack the Capitol. They may consider Trump too crass, just as they probably aren’t entirely comfortable with the rise of white Christian nationalist MAGA extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene. But they certainly don’t consider any of that a dealbreaker.
That’s partly because Republican elites understand they can’t win without the base, and the base remains committed to Trumpism. But there is more to consider than just opportunism. Almost every time the Right is at a crossroads, they choose the path of radicalization, even when it’s not at all clear that’s a reasonable choice from a purely electoral standpoint.
The problem runs a lot deeper than Trump. It is crucial to grapple with the underlying ideas and dynamics that have animated the Republican Party’s path for a long time. They have led to a situation in which moments of brief uncertainty almost always result in a further radicalization of the GOP and the Right in general. What happened after the 2012 election defeat that shook conservatives to the core is an instructive example: The Republican National Committee famously released an “Autopsy” report that called for moderation and outreach to traditionally marginalized groups. But instead, the GOP doubled down – and went with Trumpism.
Having burned all bridges
About a decade later, Republicans – elites and base alike – are so deep into the Trump experience, that it’s worth turning the question around: How could they not close ranks behind Trump now, no matter what happens, after all they have accepted, supported, justified, and condoned so far? One key dynamic here seems to be that those who are still on Team Trump (or committed to being anti-anti-Trump) in June 2023 have invested so much in terms of justifying their actions to themselves and to the world, and have thereby enabled such outlandish behavior, that it might be hard, even purely from a psychological standpoint, to imagine getting out now. At the very least, it would necessitate a whole lot of critical introspection: If you leave now, was it all for nothing? All the times you had to debase and embarrass yourself in public? And the people who you have painted as the radically “Un-American” enemy, those whose witch hunt you have decried for years, are you ultimately going to let them win?
As the American Right is rallying around the man they have chosen as their leader, a demagogue who has managed to consolidate a movement that is loyal to him personally, I was reminded of the way historian Ian Kershaw explains why significant parts of the German people kept fighting until the very end of the Second World War and largely stuck with the Hitler regime even when it was obvious for everyone to see that defeat and destruction were inevitable. In The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45, Kershaw – who is most famous for his masterful biography of Hitler – focuses on the final months of the war and emphasizes how unusual it actually is for a country or a regime to fight as long as Germany did, until almost all of the country was occupied by allied forces and the nation’s resources were entirely depleted. To be clear: The analogy to Republicans sticking with Trump right now is far from perfect, for many reasons – one being that by early 1945, everyone knew and understood there was absolutely no way for Germany to come out of the war victorious, while the fate of Trump, the GOP, and the Right’s reactionary assault on democracy is highly certain. The point is also not to equate Trump with Hitler or Republicans with the Nazis. But the analogy does help to illuminate a certain dynamic from which Trump seems to be benefiting right now.
Kershaw presents a multidimensional explanation to which I can’t do justice here. One element that I’d like to single out is his focus on Hitler as a charismatic leader. Kershaw builds on German sociologist Max Weber’s concept of charismatic authority, which is central to his understanding of both Hitler and the way the Third Reich functioned in general. “Charismatic,” to Weber, is not a normative term: it’s not good or admirable, it’s neutral – and it would be interesting to think more about Trumpism in these terms. Kershaw sees Hitler’s charismatic leadership as a key reason why Germans stuck with the regime and with the war effort. That does not mean they were necessarily enthralled with and enthused about Hitler until the very end. In fact, the Fuehrer’s popularity had significantly suffered since 1941, and especially after the devastating defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943. But according to Kershaw, a kind of negative bond or allegiance remained: a loyalty based on the fact that Germans had burned all bridges behind them. They had elevated this man, then set the world on fire for him and committed some of history’s worst mass crimes in his name. As their enemies were closing in, how could they simply walk away? There was nowhere else to go but forward. With the regime. I see something analogous happening on the Right: They have gone so far already with and for Trump, and in the process become complicit in his rise, his rule, his lawlessness, his breathtaking corruption. All the bridges have been burned…
Radicalization over restraint. Always.
And so, they stick with Trump – and have to find ever more extreme justifications for why he is, at worst, the lesser evil compared to the “leftist” enemy. That is partly why rightwingers – GOP politicians, reactionary intellectuals and pundits, media activists – are constantly playing up the threat of “woke” radicalism and the “illiberal Left.” It has become dogma on the Right to define “Us” (conservative white Christians) as the sole proponents of “real America” – and “Them” (Democrats, liberals, “the Left”) as a dangerous “Other.” The Democratic Party, in this understanding, is not just a political opponent, but an “Un-American” enemy – a fundamentally illegitimate political faction captured by the radical forces of leftism, liberalism, wokeism, and multiculturalism. The Right doesn’t see the struggle between Republicans and Democrats as a competition between political opponents – but as an existential conflict over whether or not the only version of the country they are willing to accept as “America” will survive and endure. Rightwingers have decided that they *are* the country. The choice, therefore, isn’t partisanship or loyalty to the country. To them, the partisan divide maps perfectly onto the struggle between patriots and “Un-American” radicals for the survival of the nation. In that sense, choosing the Republican Party *is* choosing the country.
Within the confines of such a worldview, it’s hard to justify compromise and restraint – it constantly privileges the more radical over the more “moderate” forces within the Republican Party. Every crisis situation only heightens the sense of being under siege that’s animating so much of what is happening on the Right, legitimizing and amplifying calls to hit harder, more aggressively. There’s always permission to escalate, hardly ever to pull back. This underlying permission structure is absolutely key: It states that “Real Americans” are constantly being victimized, made to suffer under the yoke of crazy leftist politics, besieged by “Un-American” forces of leftism; “we” have to fight back, by whatever means. In the minds of conservatives, they are never the aggressors, always the ones under assault. Building up this supposedly totalitarian, violent threat from the “Left” allows them to justify their actions within the long-established framework of conservative self-victimization. It allowed them to support Donald Trump in the first place.
Do Republicans *really* believe this – or is this all just a cynical game? Yes, there is a good deal of opportunism and cynicism involved. And many on the Right don’t necessarily believe in the specifics of this conspiracy theory or that chimera of stolen elections. But they are still “true believers” – maybe not in Trump, the person, but in the political project Trumpism stands for: the white grievance politics that seeks to forever preserve America as a place of traditional hierarchies of race, gender, religion, and wealth.
And so, the permission structure of conservative politics remained fully intact even after January 6, and it quickly allowed for a realignment behind Trump: Anything is justified to fight back against the supposed onslaught from a radically “Un-American,” extremist “Left.” This fundamental logic of conservative politics was always likely to drown out everything else after a brief moment of shock.
The permission structure of rightwing politics
But wait, maybe it’s different this time? What about the Republicans – like Bill Barr, for instance, who plainly defended the indictment as “very, very damning” and made it clear that the “idea of presenting Trump as a victim here, a victim of a witch hunt, is ridiculous” – who have acknowledged the severity of Trump’s wrongdoing: Aren’t they taking the exit ramp? I’m not going to get my hopes up. Our default assumption should be that their anti-Leftism / anti-anti-Trumpism will ultimately prevail.
In fact, Bill Barr has in many ways provided the starkest example of how a perverted version of “patriotism,” of supposedly choosing loyalty to America, can serve as the justification for falling in line behind Trump despite personal misgivings: Because “the Left” is seen as the greater evil, and nothing has been able to change that. Even though Barr has left no doubt that he believes Trump was willfully pushing treasonous conspiracy theories and/or was completely detached from reality in the run-up to January 6, he is apparently still willing to help put him back in the White House in 2024. When confronted with how he could possibly support another Trump presidency during his book promotion tour in 2022, Barr replied: “Because I believe that the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic Party.”
This is the perfect encapsulation of the permission structure that governs conservative politics: Anything is justified in defense against what they constantly play up as a radically “Un-American,” extremist “Left” that has supposedly taken over the Democratic party. As crass or radical or outrageous as some on the Right might find him and his actions, nothing Trump has ever done has betrayed the accepted dogma of conservative politics: That only white conservatives – and the party that represents them – are entitled to rule in America, that Democratic governance is inherently illegitimate, that the “leftist” enemy within is the greatest danger to the nation. It’s a permission structure that doesn’t allow for lines that can’t be crossed. It has proven remarkably adaptable, fully capable of handling the most outlandish transgressions, even crimes. And it has allowed them to present their allegiance to Trump as a patriotic act.
Trump himself was never the cause and always a result of these escalating dynamics, this permission structure that overrides all else. It has shaped Republican politics for a long time and has almost always overwhelmed attempts to moderate since at least the 1990s, an era in which a more explicitly anti-democratic populism moved to the center of Republican politics. GOP elites and more “moderate” conservatives have often tried to harness the extremist, far-right popular energies on the base to prevent egalitarian, multiracial, pluralistic democracy from ever upending traditional hierarchies. And purely in terms of Trump’s legislative agenda, the Republican establishment has mostly gotten what it wanted. Take Mike Pence, for instance: Yes, he has defended the latest indictment; but he has also been adamant at least until very recently that he doesn’t think he and Donald Trump “differ on issues.”
But elites and “moderates” have never been able to control the accelerating radicalization that is now threatening constitutional government in America: Not when the Tea Party rose after Barack Obama’s election, not when Trumpism came to dominate the GOP, not when militant white Christian nationalist extremists are reveling in the idea of using fascistic violence against their enemies.
We are now at the point where an attack on the Capitol was not nearly enough to break this logic of escalation or dislodge Donald Trump as the leader of the Republican Party. That dynamic continued to shape the Right after January 6 – and in June 2023, Trump remains the favorite to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2024. In moments when it looked like there could have been an alternative path, an exit ramp, Republicans radicalized instead. Until we get a lot of hard evidence that something drastic has changed, this should shape our expectations going forward and our understanding of what American democracy is up against.
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