How Trump turned the GOP into the party of lawless disorder
Can Republicans win by promoting contempt for the rule of law? We're about to find out.
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As the GOP prepares for the third general election with Donald Trump at the head of its ticket, it is becoming clear that the 2024 race will amount to a high stakes political bet for the party: Republicans are wagering that, for the first time in the nation’s history, a party can win a presidential election by promising to promote civil disorder and contempt for the rule of law.
For decades, the Republican Party won elections by promoting itself as the party of stability and respect for “law and order” in the face of the perceived threats of crime and fears of cultural dissolution.
This was exemplified by Richard Nixon’s promise to restore order to the nation in the wake of the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. Similarly, Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection based on his claim to have restored a 1950s-themed “morning in America,” ironically in the wake of the cynicism and perception of decline that Nixon had ushered in.
And although George W. Bush plunged the nation into a failed war in Iraq and ultimately ended his presidency with a catastrophic near depression, he had managed to win reelection by appealing to the same national desire for order and protection from perceived threats.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump attempted to tap into the same political vein, asserting that only he — a purportedly successful businessperson — could “fix” what ailed America. During his inaugural address, he promised to swiftly bring an end to what he claimed was the “carnage” in the nation’s streets.
But, of course, far from bringing more order to America, Trump devoted much of his four years in office to assiduously sowing disorder and division.
The carnage was coming from inside the house
Trump’s 2017 declaration that neo-Nazis were “very fine people” after they engaged in a murderous rampage in Charlottesville shocked much of the nation at the time, but it turned out to reflect what would be a theme of Trump’s entire presidency.
Rather than presenting himself to the nation as a leader intent on preserving lawfulness and civic stability, Trump consistently reached out to create or exacerbate crises at every opportunity. The overlapping covid pandemic and protests following the police murder of George Floyd exemplified Trump’s unrelenting effort to stoke fires of division.
As the death toll from the pandemic exploded and our national anxiety along with it, Trump insisted on appearing in public on a daily basis, effectively advertising, with his own confused demeanor, how chaotic and disordered his government’s response to the crisis had become.
And in the wake of Floyd’s death, Trump went off the rails. Trump repeated — nearly word-for-word — George Wallace’s 1968 endorsement of police brutality and even murder: “looting leads to shooting.”
Trump also effectively ordered up a police riot next to the White House, after which he appeared in front of a partially burned church holding a Bible (albeit upside down).
During the closing months of the campaign, as he recognized that defeat was growing more likely, Trump once again attempted to present himself as the second coming of Nixon and Reagan, contending the nation needed to reelect him to maintain “law and order.” Unsurprisingly, however, voters found the pitch unconvincing, and he lost.
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In the wake of his loss, Trump gave up any pretense of standing for law and order. He schemed to undo the outcome of the election, culminating in a violent attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters in a desperate attempt to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory.
With his recent victories in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, Trump made it a virtual certainty that he will again be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. But as he prepares for his third general election campaign, Trump is making clear that he will be a very different candidate this time.
It is Trump the insurrectionist who will be running at the top of the 2024 GOP ticket. Trump has discarded even the pretense that he intends to “fix” the nation, let alone foster order and respect for the rule of law. The upcoming election is therefore lining up as a test of whether an anti-law and order Republican can win the presidency. Trump and his supporters have made that all the more clear over the past several weeks, after Trump’s early primary victories sealed his status as the presumptive GOP presidential candidate.
Trump celebrated his New Hampshire win by setting out to further alienate women voters. During his “victory” speech, he relentlessly engaged in misogynistic and racist attacks on his sole remaining primary opponent, Nikki Haley.
Trump them flew to New York for the apparent purpose of drawing further attention to the fact that a jury found him liable for sexually assaulting and then defaming E. Jean Carroll. He devoted his short time in the courtroom to expressing contempt for Carroll, the judge and even the jury, which proceeded to award Carroll more than $83 million.
Unsurprisingly given all this, a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that, just over the past several weeks, Trump managed to widen the already gaping gender gap he faces in November. Women voters now support Biden over Trump 58 to 36 percent, versus 53 to 41 percent in December 2023. Apparently pleased with that debacle, Trump indicated that he plans to spend the campaign shuttling between courtrooms wherein he is a criminal defendant.
Then, after the GOP successfully forced Biden to accept a “border security” bill filled with GOP priorities in return for providing funding for Ukraine, Trump stepped in to successfully pressure Republicans to scuttle the Republican bill.
Trump, and his most loyal MAGA acolytes, were open and transparent about the reason for their about face: They want the Department of Homeland Security to remain as overwhelmed and under-resourced as possible during the months prior to the election. In short, they want to maintain an appearance of chaos.
Trump, and the Republicans marching in lockstep behind him, are gambling that the public retains no memory of Trump’s earlier stint in the White House, during which he behaved remarkably similarly: Cynically promoting unrest and disorder, and then declaring that he alone could “fix” to mess he had created.
Trump, and the party he again fully controls, may well be grasping defeat from the jaws of political victory and handing Biden an opportunity to — entirely accurately — argue to voters that Trump is engaging in just the type of chaos-creation that he specialized in during his first term.
Indeed, Biden’s team is already campaigning on Trump’s legislative arson, repeating Haley’s claim that “Trump sabotaged the bipartisan bill to secure the border so he can campaign on the issue in 2024.” And Biden accused GOP legislators of being spineless and caving to Trump, while asserting that Trump would “rather weaponize this issue than actually solve it.”
The chaos candidate
Trump is plainly preparing to make the 2024 election a referendum on his past lawbreaking and open contempt for the very democratic process in which he’s participating.
As he waits to be criminally tried for his role in attempting to void the outcome of the 2020 election, Trump has taken to openly promising to pardon and free those who were convicted of assaulting the Capitol on January 6, 2021, including those who assaulted police officers in an effort to undo the election result in Trump’s favor.
Trump now refers to those convicted of criminal conduct during the insurrection as “hostages” and — during a recent rally — responded to followers engaging in QAnon chants by promising that he will “Free the January 6-ers.” He’s also reportedly interested in installing a new Chair of the Republican National Committee who is known for his endorsement of Trump’s 2020 election lies.
In sum, Trump is planning to spend the upcoming months making it clear to the nation that a vote for him in 2024 is a vote to endorse his scheme to challenge the outcome of the 2020 election and the violent uprising that followed.
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Republicans are comforting themselves with polling that shows the presidential race remains close. But the general election season has yet even to officially begin, and Trump is only starting to emerge from the right-wing media bubble in which he’s largely resided since leaving office. As the above examples demonstrate, Trump is reemerging as even more extreme, and indeed repugnant, than he was during the lowest points of his last presidency.
Furthermore, Trump has made it plain that he will not stand for anything but full Republican endorsement of his misogyny, his efforts to sow chaos and disorder, and his utter contempt for the will of the voters before whom he’s campaigning. GOP politicians have gotten the message.
This was on vivid display last week, as GOP elected officials — including Haley, Trump’s lone putative primary opponent — visibly squirmed their way through television interviews when asked if they were repulsed by the jury finding that Trump is liable for sexual assault, or if they endorsed his other attacks on the nation’s laws and Constitution.
Even Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford — who had the thankless job of defending the right-wing border bill he had negotiated in the face of Trump’s attacks — said that the jury’s finding that Trump assaulted E. Jean Carroll gave him no pause.
But it was Ohio Senator JD Vance’s performance during a recent ABC interview that best exemplified the problem. A visibly uncomfortable Vance began the interview by denouncing the New York jurors for having the temerity to find Trump liable for sexual assault, suggesting that they were liberal activists or dupes.
Vance then attacked George Stephanopoulos for having the temerity to ask whether Vance would have done Trump’s bidding and voided the outcome of the 2020 election, if given the chance. But after being pressed to answer the question, Vance confirmed that — if he had stood in Pence shoes — he would have defied the will of the voters and invited the Congress to endorse Trump’s slates of sham electors.
In response to more grilling from Stephanopoulos, Vance closed out the interview by confirming that he would fully support unconstitutional acts by Trump during a second term, and indeed would stand behind his leader even if Trump defied the Supreme Court.
As the Vance debacle demonstrates, during the next several months, we can expect Republican politicians to be regularly pressed to align themselves with Trump’s most outrageous conduct and claims, and should likewise expect them to do just that out of fear of being attacked by Trump or his followers.
Lankford is being made an example to warn those who have yet to get the message. Trump publicly warned that negotiating a border security bill filled with GOP priorities would be “very bad” for Lankford’s career; and Lankford said that an unnamed media figure warned him: “If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you.”
As I said at the outset, by choosing post-insurrection Trump as its standard bearer for a third time, the Republican Party is making a risky political bet: Wagering that voters will be willing to choose a candidate who is openly promising to return to nation to the state of lawlessness and civil disorder he incited after losing the last election.
The GOP may well lose that bet; but if they win, the nation stands to suffer a catastrophic loss.
That’s it for this week
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We’ll be back with more Monday. Until then, have a great weekend.