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Trump Has Hacked GOP Partisanship
And so the GOP loves and fears him.
Image: an orange cuckoo, taken by Evan Parker, CC
Last week, Jonathan Bernstein, one of my favorite political writers, asked an interesting question. Why has the GOP been willing to repudiate Trump-loving Texas AG Ken Paxton when they aren’t willing to repudiate Trump?
Paxton has been impeached by his fellow Texas Republicans for a variety of ugly corruption scandals involving influence peddling, bribery, and an affair. Others have covered the ins and outs more fully than I can. But the bottom line is that Paxton engaged in egregious wrongdoing, and many of his fellow Republicans got sick of it. He may well be convicted and removed.
This is a stark contrast with the GOP’s reaction to Trump, who literally put the lives of many in his own party at risk from a rabid mob. Paxton is awful, but he didn’t actually try to arrange the murder of other state officials. If Republicans were going to clean house, you’d think they’d start with Trump’s insurrection, rather than messing around with Paxton’s garden variety corruption.
Fear The Trump
Bernstein argues that the difference is that Republicans are afraid of Trump, but not of Paxton. Trump has been pretty open about threatening the Republican party with destruction ever since he came on the political scene. Most recently, he refused to agree to sign a pledge to support the GOP nominee, whoever it might be. If Trump isn’t the nominee, he’s saying, he may run third party, or else tell his followers not to vote for the GOP candidate.
Trump’s very popular with the Republican base; around 70% of Republicans have a positive view of him. If he managed to get just a fraction of them to turn on a GOP nominee, the results would be catastrophic for Republicans. Were Trump to win 10% of the vote in a three way contest, the GOP would probably lose not just Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, but Texas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina—who knows what else.
Bernstein argues that the difference between Trump and Paxton is that Trump was a celebrity real estate heir with no real personal or ideological ties to the GOP; he doesn’t care what happens to the party. Paxton, in contrast, has spent his whole career in the GOP. He’s not going to tell his supporters to vote for Biden, or sit out an election.
I think Bernstein is right. But in addition, I think there’s a big difference between a former president and current presidential candidate and a state AG. Even if Paxton did decide to tell people to vote for Biden, it’s hard to see that it would make that much difference. Paxton isn’t seen as a national party leader; he’s got influence, but few people in the party see him as the influencer.
Trump differs from Paxton not just because he’s willing to destroy the party, but because he’s able to do so. He is the person in the GOP with the most influence and the most sway on voters—and he’s also perhaps the person in the party who has the least investment in the GOP’s electoral fortunes.
Love The Trump
Trump definitely frightens party leaders, who worry about what he might do with his influence. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that it’s only base voters in thrall to Trump’s partisan charm. After all, party leaders are partisans too. They respond to partisan incentives not just to advance their careers, but because they genuinely believe the Republican party is good and virtuous.
Some Republican leaders would no doubt just as soon jettison Trump; Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, and Mike Pence pretty clearly believe Trump is a blight and a danger to the party, and they would get rid of him if they could.
But other party figures—Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Josh Hawley—seem to at be, at least to some degree, true believers. More, even many Republican leaders who dislike Trump may think he is being maligned or persecuted. Better Trump, bad as he is, than the nefarious Democrats.
Trump’s rival for the nomination DeSantis provided a typical version of this sort of thinking when he attacked the Trump indictments. “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” he blustered. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation. “Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary or Hunter?”
DeSantis is of course trying to appeal to Trump’s base. But it seems likely that he also finds this logic appealing himself, at least to some degree. Hillary and Hunter are the Democratic enemy; they should be in jail! Trump may suck…but of course he’s a Republican and Republican’s are alway treated unfairly.
It’s difficult to engage in this kind of apologia all day every day without believing it a little. Humans make lying easier for themselves by lying to themselves. If you spend all day, every day, 24/7 apologizing for Trump, you almost inevitably convince yourself, at least a little, that the people who keep (annoyingly! incessantly!) attacking Trump have to be in bad faith. Yes, you may be overstating your own objections, but doesn’t that mean that the opposition is overstating theirs? Eventually you decide that it’s not just expedient to apologize for Trump, but somewhat righteous.
Partisan incentives have a powerful pull on partisan actors—and those partisan actors include other leading Republicans. GOP representatives, senators, and governors make calculations based on Trump’s partisan influence. But they are also just susceptible to that partisan influence. Trump scares them because he’s not their guy. But also, as the de facto leader of the party, Trump is their guy—much more so than some Republican AGs like Ken Paxton. And they can’t quite believe that their guy doesn’t care about them, or that he's more of a threat than the Democrats.
Trump’s like the cuckoo which lays its egg in another bird’s nest. He may kill their actual young, but…he’s in the nest. They raise him as their own anyway, and not just because they’re afraid. They raise him because those partisan instincts tell them that as a partisan, you protect your guy. Paxton may be a Republican, but he was never the beloved in quite that way.
Republicans Aren’t Victims
Obviously, the dynamics here sound a lot like abuse. The GOP fears Trump and loves him, and fear him because they love him, and loves him because they fear him. He threatens them with withdrawing his affection, and they respond with ever more grandiose acts of love and debasement to show they are worthy of the orange thing that hates them.
The difference is that individuals who are abused are not at fault. But the GOP didn’t just succumb to Trump; they created him. Right wing media and party actors themselves have spent decades telling their voters preposterous lies and conspiracy theories, encouraging them to hate democracy, and bad mouthing the “establishment”—ie, anyone who demonstrates any smidgen of competence, responsibility, or accountability. The party did everything it could to turn itself over to grifters, liars, thugs, and mountebanks, because the party convinced itself that its beloved Christofascism would flourish most prolifically if fertilized with a steady compost of grifters, liars, thugs, and mountebanks.
And now here we are, with the orange grifter, liar, thug and mountebank in chief promising authoritarianism and hate unending if the GOP only sacrifice their self-respect and the last dregs of their moral character. It’s an easy choice. Paxton is just Paxton, they’re happy to knife him. Donald Trump, though, offers a degradation the GOP can find nowhere else. He’s the GOP’s dream of self-abasement made flesh. Out of fear, out of love, they’ll never let him go.
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