Much of the early coverage of Donald Trump’s recent indictment, on 34 charges relating to a hush-money payment made to an adult film actress in 2016, has understandably focused on its historic nature. Trump may have been a failed president in most respects, but he continues to blaze new trails: In office, he became the first president to be impeached twice; out of office, he will shortly become the first ex-president to be arrested.
Most ex-presidents build houses or foundations; they hobnob on yachts with Richard Branson. Trump, whose postpresidency has been defined by the same old sturm und drang that characterized his presidency, has continued to follow his two great passions: fomenting authoritarianism and doing crimes. Now he faces the prospect of actual consequences for one of those crimes, with implications that no one can quite foresee. This is uncharted territory in a country that regularly indicts politicians but never presidents—even the ones who deserve it (Richard Nixon, John Tyler, the annoying ’90s band). At the moment the news broke on Thursday, there was no way to predict what might happen next. Oh, except for one thing: Trump’s allies on the right are, as anyone could have guessed, absolutely losing their shit.
I argued yesterday that one way of looking at Trump’s indictment was to marvel how unremarkable it was. The basic facts surrounding the hush-money payments made to infrequent Trump paramour Stormy Daniels, which were proffered weeks before the 2016 election, have been common knowledge for many years; very few people, even among Trump’s die-hard supporters, deny that a crime was committed. If Trump were, say, governor of New York and did the exact same thing, he would almost certainly have been held accountable by now. For years, Trump was able to use his wealth and clout—and then his political profile and unique circumstances as a sitting president—to evade the law while committing a host of crimes. But now he is being held accountable for one of his misdeeds. This is how the system should work, even though it rarely does for people like Donald Trump.
As you might expect, this is not how the right has greeted news of the indictment. The fact that Trump almost certainly committed the crime he is likely to be charged with has barely punctured the hermetically sealed world of the Fox News set. Instead, following Trump’s lead, the right-wing media and the Republican Party have descended into wild and grandiloquent hyperbole, embellishing fairly straightforward charges (man pays off woman with potentially damaging information so he can win an election) into a dark fable of creeping authoritarianism. This is not Donald Trump being held accountable! This is proof that the United States has fallen not just into tyranny but into the worst kind of tyranny: the third-world kind. It is a chilling fantasy, one that speaks to many of the right’s most chilling preoccupations. It’s also deeply funny, a moment of weird and wild mythomania.
Much of the response on the right has followed Trump’s own lead. In a statement released shortly after news of his indictment broke, the former president raged and fulminated at his persecutors. “THIS IS AN ATTACK ON OUR COUNTRY THE LIKES OF WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE,” he wrote in all caps (if that wasn’t obvious) on his decrepit microblogging platform, Truth Social. “IT IS LIKEWISE A CONTINUING ATTACK ON OUR ONCE FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS … THE USA IS NOW A THIRD-WORLD NATION, A NATION IN SERIOUS DECLINE. SO SAD!” Say what you want about Trump, but he knows how to play the hits: This is a witch hunt. His enemies, unable to defeat him politically (except when they do, as happened three years ago), weaponize the justice system, kneecapping the greatest president ever, all because he committed a few campaign finance violations.
This narrative has been picked up by nearly every Republican who matters. (Sorry, Asa Hutchinson!) “The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head,” wrote Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who promised his state would not aid in Trump’s extradition to New York, not that anyone has asked him to. “The unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” was Mike Pence’s response to the pending arrest of the man who nearly got him killed—pretty funny, given that he basically acknowledges that Trump committed a crime.
Choking back tears, Lindsey Graham begged Fox’s viewers to “give the president money to fight this bullshit,” adding that Trump’s prosecution would “destroy America.” Tucker Carlson, despite his self-avowed passionate hatred of Donald Trump, took things even further, more or less openly calling for insurrection by asking his viewers to stockpile weapons. “The rule of law appears to be suspended tonight—not just for Trump, but for anyone who would consider voting for him,” Carlson said, while doing the thing he does to let you know that he’s really serious (cocking his head like a little puppy).
Wokeness-obsessed entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy concurred, telling Carlson, “If they can do it to Trump, they can do it to you.” (He’s correct: If you commit campaign finance violations you may very well be prosecuted for them.) Matt Taibbi took a break from hanging out with his new buddy Ted Cruz to make the case that this was the moment that the U.S. crossed the Rubicon: “If presidents think they will be chased into jail under thin pretexts as ex-presidents, they’ll try even harder to never leave office. This is how autocracies are born.” (Alternatively, this is how career white-collar criminals are deterred from seeking political office in the first place.) The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board parroted a similar point—itself a damning indictment of Taibbi’s transformation into a P.R. apparatchik of some of the slimiest people in American politics: “Once a former President and current candidate is indicted, some local Republican prosecutor will look to make a name for himself by doing the same to a Democrat.” (Not a problem as long as said Democrat committed a crime in their jurisdiction!) Benny Johnson, doing the “How do you do, fellow kids?” routine that thrills octogenarian conservative donors, opted for the unique and inscrutable, tweeting, “Democrats just turned Trump into Tupac.”
These are overwrought, pathetic, and plainly counterfactual arguments. They reveal a party in hysterics, terrified of what its own base will do if they fail Trump’s purity test. Fearful of that backlash, no one on the right dares acknowledge the basic facts about the case—namely that there is plenty of evidence against Trump and that his own lawyer was sentenced to three years in prison for committing the crime that Trump orchestrated and ordered—out of fear that their viewers and supporters will abandon them.
The idea that Trump’s loudest supporters have promulgated over the last day, that it is now open season on politicians of all stripes, is a ludicrous fantasy. For years, following Trump’s lead, Republicans bayed for this kind of bloodshed, arguing for the specious prosecutions of their most prominent enemies, most notably Hillary Clinton and Anthony Fauci. For all the rhetoric being deployed in their desperate attempts to simp for Trump in his hour of need, this particular brand of authoritarianism will continue to flourish on the right. Republicans—and Donald Trump in particular—have benefited enormously from politically motivated prosecutions: The Hillary Clinton email scandal was touched off by a Republican activist group that had spent decades committed to attacking Clinton and her husband; that wildly overblown scandal probably cost her the presidency in 2016.
The biggest fallacy of the right’s response to the indictment—that this is proof that America is descending into autocracy; that we are now a “banana republic”—is exactly the opposite of the truth. A system that allows Donald Trump to commit crimes with impunity—ours, more or less—is far less democratic than one that holds its rulers and former rulers accountable. Trump has committed many crimes. After years of hypercautious and comically judicious wheel-spinning, as various authorities slowly wrestled with the enormous body of evidence that Trump could be tied to a multitude of misdeeds and tortured themselves over what was to be done about it, Trump now faces consequences for something he did. That’s not a banana republic. That’s just justice.