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MAGA Rage at Trump’s Trial Just Got Darker and More Dangerous

Republicans aren’t just showing “loyalty to Trump.” They’re saying that Trump is more important than the rule of law.

Andrea Renault/Star Max/GC Images
Lauren Boebert in New York City on May 16

In recent days, a parade of Republicans have shown up at the Manhattan courthouse where Donald Trump faces criminal charges related to the hush-money scheme he concocted to deceive American voters during the 2016 election. The goal of those MAGA allies is simple: to make it unimpeachably clear that their primary fealty is to Donald Trump over the rule of law.

Unfortunately, some of media coverage has obscured these fundamentals. Some accounts describe these Republicans as “currying favor” with Trump or showing “loyalty” to him, as if they are just demonstrating personal support for him at a trying moment. Others have noted that some making this pilgrimage—none more odiously than Ohio Senator J.D. Vance—are really vying to be his running mate, which might be true but reduces all this to a form of political jockeying that seems fairly conventional.

If we are going to treat this as a story about loyalty-signaling, let’s frame the question this way: Loyalty to what, exactly? Not just loyalty to Trump. This episode—and others like it, such as the stampede of Republicans backing Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the 2024 election results—is better seen as a statement of ultimate fealty to Trump over and above our institutions, as a declaration that he is paramount and they are thoroughly dispensable.

“This trial is a scam and a sham, and it shouldn’t happen,” Trump raged on Thursday at the court, with Representative Matt Gaetz and other Republicans standing behind him. Gaetz proudly posted a picture of himself “standing back and standing by” for Trump at the courthouse, deliberately echoing the language Trump used about his paramilitary goons in the first 2020 debate.

This comes after House Speaker Mike Johnson descended on the courthouse this week and attacked presiding Judge Juan Merchan’s daughter, who fundraised for Democrats, blasting the proceedings as a “sham.” Vance and Florida Senator Rick Scott similarly attacked Merchan’s daughter. Many Republicans blasted the credibility of Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer and chief prosecution witness. Still others slammed the lead prosecutor, based on an absurd, convoluted theory about his previous work at the Justice Department, as a tool of President Biden.

If Republicans were merely criticizing the prosecution on the facts and the law in substantive terms, it would be one thing. But here they are attacking the judge, his family, the witnesses, and the line prosecutors as actors in a fundamentally illegitimate proceeding.

Those are things the gag order on Trump prohibits him from doing, which has some commentators asking whether he is surreptitiously inducing his boosters to carry out those attacks to circumvent it. There is some evidence of this, but as Brian Beutler writes, that question misses the point: Either way, the surrogates wouldn’t be doing any of it if Trump didn’t want them to, and they are echoing Trump’s own precise language and claims.

To grasp the real force of this, it’s worth recalling the reason we don’t want proceedings like these subjected to demonization campaigns in the first place: It threatens to sabotage public confidence in the justice system’s integrity and makes it harder for good-faith actors to play their roles in it without fear or favor. And so, the whole point of these GOP depravities is to dramatize, in the form of spectacle, that their fealty is to Trump over and above those rules and norms, the ones that make the system work at the most fundamental level.

That’s what Senator Tommy Tuberville really meant when he flatly declared that Republicans are working to help Trump “overcome this gag order.” Representative Lauren Boebert also made this plain, declaring that “they may have gagged President Trump” but “they didn’t gag the rest of us.”

And when Trump was asked about their antics, he blithely declared, “I do have a lot of surrogates, and they are speaking very beautifully.” With this, Trump flaunted the fact that the allegiance of all these GOP lackeys is to him above the functioning of the system itself. “It’s one thing to be allied with Trump and to be there to support him,” former federal Judge Nancy Gertner told me. By contrast, she added, Trump’s allies are “explicitly undermining the rule of law in a very different way.”

Now consider the larger pattern here: Republicans are declaring this higher fealty to Trump over our institutions on one front after another.

Recently, Trump refused to commit to accepting the results of the 2024 election, declaring he’d only do so “if everything’s honest.” What he really means is that the election’s outcome will be legitimate only if he wins, and as The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie details, top Republicans are following suit: They say they’ll accept the results if the election is “free and fair” (Vance), or if it is “constitutional” (House GOP leader Elise Stefanik), or if “there’s no massive cheating” (Senator Lindsey Graham).

It’s telling that many of them adopted precisely the same sleazy rhetorical subterfuge that Trump did. They are declaring, at bottom, that their primary allegiance is to Trump’s higher law that election outcomes are inherently illegitimate if he loses.

Meanwhile, Republicans who aspire to be Trump’s running mate, such as Vance and Stefanik, have suggested that they wouldn’t have certified the election results in 2020, as then–Vice President Mike Pence did. Here again, you cannot compete to be Trump’s running mate unless you declare in advance that your fealty will be to Trump over the institution of certifying elections in service of the peaceful transfer of power.

What about Trump’s vow to pardon supporters who violently attacked the Capitol? A handful of Republicans have expressed discomfort with this notion; many have conspicuously avoided doing so.

More broadly, it’s true that some Republicans have genuinely resisted Trump’s most pernicious designs. But that only serves to underscore the radicalism and venality of those who have gone along. The nonloyalists showed extraordinary heroism in bucking Trump’s effort to destroy U.S. democracy in early 2021, by resisting his direct pressure to corrupt the system, testifying to the January 6 House committee investigating it, or voting to impeach Trump. Most have been hounded out of the party, sent packing into retirement, or subjected to campaigns of bullying and harassment. Note why they have been punished: They put the sanctity of our elections and the rule of law before Trump.

Trump may well get off in his hush-money trial; while a conviction still seems reasonably plausible, so does a hung jury. That’s for the jury to decide. But this affair has already sent a clear signal about what’s next. If Trump does win, and he executes his vows to prosecute political opponents without cause, persecute untold numbers of “vermin” who oppose him, stock the bureaucracy with slavish loyalists, convert our intelligence agencies into gangs of thuggish MAGA enforcers, and much more, does anyone doubt that many Republicans currently declaring quasi-absolute allegiance to him above our institutions will eagerly go along?