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Co-opt & Corrupt: How Trump Bent and Broke the GOP

The Republican Party has become a “personalist” ruler’s dream. Politicians like Lindsey Graham need only contemplate the fate of their former peer, Jeff Sessions, to know what happens if they break ranks.

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President Donald Trump, applauded by Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, attending the Peace Officers’ Memorial Service at the Capitol, Washington, D.C., May 15, 2018

“As time went on, it became clear that the sickness was a feature, that anyone who entered the building became a little sick themselves,” wrote the journalist Olivia Nuzzi in March 2018 of the Donald J. Trump White House and those who serve it. For a century, those who have worked closely with authoritarian rulers have shown the symptoms of this malady: a compulsion to praise the head of state and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own ideals, principles, and dignity to remain in his good graces, at the center of power.

In his relationship with Republican political elites, as in other areas of endeavor, President Trump has followed the model of “personalist rule” used by leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Some of these rulers destroy democracy, and others, like the Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi, govern nominally open societies in undemocratic ways. Yet personalist rule always concentrates power in one individual whose own political and financial interests and private relationships with other despots often prevail over national interests in shaping domestic and foreign policy. Loyalty to this head of state and his allies, rather than expertise, is a primary qualification for serving him, whether as ministers or bureaucrats, as is participation in his corruption schemes.

While some authoritarians have political parties of their own creation at their disposal, Trump had no ready-made vehicle for his political ambitions before 2016. He had to win over the Grand Old Party to gain credibility and access to its machine and gain the collaboration of its elites. “Co-optation” is the term political scientists use for the way authoritarians bind individuals and groups to them through buy-offs or intimidation. It can also be considered a form of corruption, given the ethical compromises and changes in personal and professional practices that cooperating with amoral individuals entails.

The journeys that high-level enablers like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Senator Lindsey Graham have taken at Trump’s side since 2016 have different motivations. Some saw Trump as a means to accomplish their own goals, which had been blocked during the Obama years. That might mean promoting white Christian hegemony, for example, or securing the judicial appointments that would cement their conservative remaking of America. But collectively, they have contributed to the consolidation of an authoritarian political climate in today’s America, marked by fealty to a personalist ruler who holds his senior associates in thrall through complicity and intimidation.

The Republican Party, and the robust media universe that supports it, had been ready for a far-right, rule-breaking, and polarizing personality like Trump. A 2012 assessment by the political scientists Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann captures the crucial elements of an illiberal move that had, by 2016, primed Republicans to accept Trump’s candidacy: 

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

This retreat from bipartisan governance is why Trump’s open intention to be president of only some Americans (chiefly, his white base) was not a deal-breaker for the GOP during the campaign—despite its being a decisive break with the strategy of greater inclusion that the Republican National Committee, chaired by Reince Priebus, had adopted after its 2012 election defeat. Nor were Trump’s many actions that promised a decidedly antidemocratic future for America: the retweets of neo-Nazi memes, the dark allusions to having his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, locked up or even hints that she should be shot, and much more.

Still, the aspiring president needed access and credibility from establishment figures like former Senator Jeff Sessions, who joined the ranks of history’s first-hour enablers—along with Priebus, Trump’s first White House chief of staff. These individuals back the extremist when he most needs it—and are often later discarded. Sessions, in particular, is the perfect case history of this phenomenon.

“I have a man who is respected by everybody here… I’m becoming mainstream,” crowed Trump, as he introduced Sessions as a surprise guest at a February 2016 event. No matter that just weeks before, Trump had boasted about being able to “shoot somebody” in full view on Fifth Avenue in New York and still keep his followers—with hindsight, shorthand for saying that, if elected, he would consider himself above the law. Sessions beamed and dutifully donned the red MAGA hat handed to him as he left the stage. A year later, he resigned from the Senate position he’d held for twenty years to take up the position of attorney general in Trump’s administration that was the reward for his loyalty.

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Trump also needed people who would lie for him and keep his secrets. Corruption is a process, as well as a set of practices. It involves gradual changes in ethical and behavioral norms that make actions that were once considered illegal or immoral seem acceptable—whether election fraud, lying to the public, treasonous conduct, or sexual assault. The discarding of accountability as an ideal of governance makes keeping the fundamental pact of personalist rule—staying silent about the leader’s incompetence and illegal actions—a lot easier.

Paul Ryan, then speaker of the House, and Kevin McCarthy, then House majority leader, set the tone in this respect. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy commented in a private meeting of Republican congressional leaders and senior advisers in June 2016 (besides the party’s then-presumptive presidential nominee, McCarthy was referring to the pro-Russian California Republican who subsequently lost his House seat in 2018). Ryan shut down the conversation immediately, swearing all present to secrecy about the “Russia question”—the original sin of the Trump presidency. A month later, Trump was awarded the GOP nomination.

When word of this exchange leaked, a year later, McCarthy would claim it was a “failed attempt at humor.” But tragedy, not comedy, is the only genre that describes all that has followed as the Trump administration has gone to lengths extraordinary in a mature democracy (but normal in an autocracy) to keep its secrets. The successive purges—FBI director James Comey, US attorneys, government scientists, senior diplomats, inspectors general—the targeting of American intelligence and the press, the attempt to manipulate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which led to Trump’s impeachment in 2019… all of it was made possible by the careful enforcement of a covenant of loyalty and silence taken by the GOP leadership. McCarthy, saddled with the burden of his former frankness, became the perfect obedient House minority leader, charged with “making the president happy”—including by voting almost 98 percent of the time in line with Trump’s wishes.

Trump’s acquittal on impeachment charges by the Senate in February 2020, following a trial in which no witnesses were heard who might give damaging evidence, was another stark example of the GOP’s complete subordination to the needs of a personalist ruler. Fear of running afoul of Trump motivated the near-unanimous Republican vote (Mitt Romney was the sole exception). Senator McConnell, a man with “no ideology except his own political power,” as his biographer John David Dyche puts it, stage-managed the non-trial to safeguard Trump’s presidency, a cause he has made his own from the beginning.

From the era of interwar fascism onward, one principle of authoritarian–­elite collaborations holds true: once those close to power sign on to protect the leader, they tend to stick with him until the bitter end. Even the June 2020 revelation that Trump knew Putin had been putting a bounty on American soldiers in Afghanistan and said nothing—the ultimate betrayal by a commander in chief, and a treason unthinkable under any prior Republican (or Democratic) administration—did not move the dial, even with Senator Graham, whose political brand was once a hard-core patriotism and hawkishness toward Russia.

Graham’s conversion from fervent Trump critic to fanatical Trump defender has puzzled many. Seen from the perspective of authoritarian history, though, Graham is no anomaly. He fits the profile of the individual who has led a life of seeming rectitude and now experiences the thrill of partnering with an amoral individual. “Is there no bottom?” legions complain on Twitter, citing the president’s latest lies, incitements to violence, and flattering comments about murderous autocrats. It is precisely this absence of a bottom that draws many to leaders like Trump, who think big, make the unthinkable possible, and are open about their desire to exercise power without limits or restraints. Breaking the rules, and getting away with it, is at the center of the ethos of macho lawlessness that underpins strongman rule.

Politicians like Graham need only contemplate the fate of their former peer, Jeff Sessions, to know what happens if they break ranks. During his confirmation hearings for attorney general, Sessions behaved in conformity with the omertà around Trump’s illegal actions, swearing under oath that he had had no contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. After the news subsequently broke that he had, in fact, met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, contradicting his congressional testimony, Sessions recused himself from the Department of Justice’s investigation into Russian interference with the election.

Sessions continued in office but had to endure months of Trump’s repeated ridiculing of him, including calling him a “dumb Southerner.” By the time Sessions handed in his resignation, in late 2018, Trump had already scouted out a more suitable co-conspirator. He found one in William Barr, a man whom Trump pointedly calls “my attorney general.”

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Then forced to run for the Senate seat he’d held for so many years, Sessions entered the most delicate phase of the authoritarian leader–follower drama: the quest for forgiveness and a return to grace. “Out of the 100 United State [sic] Senators I was the very first one to stand with @realDonaldTrump and I will keep fighting for him and his agenda,” Sessions tweeted in November 2019. To a strongman, though, such a display of weakness only warranted further humiliation. Trump loudly endorsed Sessions’s opponent, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.

The feud continued, and in May 2020, after Sessions issued a statement concerning his recusal, saying that “I do not and will not break the law,” Trump dealt Sessions a death blow by tweet: “Alabama, do not trust Jeff Sessions. He let our Country down.” “Perhaps you’ve forgotten… I did my duty & you’re damn fortunate I did. It protected the rule of law & resulted in your exoneration,” Sessions responded sourly, in a series of tweets, forgetting that feeling grateful to others is alien to leaders like Trump. On July 14, Sessions lost the primary, effectively ending, so far as can be foreseen, his political career.

“Congress no longer operates as an independent branch of government, but as an appendage of the executive branch,” the moderate Republican and former House representative Tom Davis told The New York Times in January 2020. Four years after Trump won the Republican nomination, the GOP has become a personalist ruler’s dream: a party solely dedicated to defending and promoting the leader, no matter what he says and does. No price, even the mass death of Americans from the president’s willful mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, seems too high to pay to keep the pact of silence about the leader’s criminality and unfitness for office that maintains him in power.

With the authoritarian’s personal needs and desires setting the tone for political life, it is all too tempting to focus all blame on him. And that is routinely what happens when such rulers inevitably exit office. Yet, as the former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens asserts in his new book, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, it would be a mistake to conclude that Trump had somehow simply hijacked the GOP. The Republican Party had already become a laboratory for American autocracy, a vehicle for power combining a base of white supremacists and gun-rights extremists with leaders like McConnell who had long approved of subverting voting rights and other democratic procedures to maintain their privileges and authority.

The GOP was already becoming “Trumpian” even before Trump himself appeared to complete its self-destruction as a democratic party. Enticing and intimidating individuals into becoming their worst selves as willing collaborators is what authoritarians do best. On this count, Trump has succeeded magnificently.

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