Surveying the reactions of top Republicans after Donald Trump’s indictment on charges of mishandling classified information, you’d think the country was in the midst of a coup.
“It is unconscionable for a President to indict the leading candidate opposing him,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted. “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed. “There is no limit to what these people will do to protect their power & destroy those who threaten it, even if it means ripping our country apart,” Sen. Marco Rubio declared.
These are extraordinary claims — and all made on Thursday night before the indictment or the evidence behind it was made public. On Friday morning, we learned thanks to CNN that Trump is literally on tape in 2021 discussing having documents in his possession that he knew were still classified. “As president, I could have declassified, but now I can’t,” he reportedly said.
The tape may or may not prove dispositive in a court of law; there’s certainly room for good-faith disagreement on the strength of the case against Trump. But the tape is at least very strong evidence that these charges are not some kind of Biden-mandated witch hunt but instead based on very serious allegations of wrongdoing.
Yet top Republicans — including Trump’s leading rival for the 2024 election — have shown no signs of changing their tune, and instead are lining up behind Trump’s conspiracy theory that special counsel Jack Smith is leading Joe Biden’s personal Stasi.
This paranoid reaction to Trump’s indictment is not a surprise. Over the past several years, the political right has been captured by a worldview that sees the entirety of mainstream society arranged against it. According to this thinking, America’s “woke” power elite, including ostensibly neutral institutions of governance like the Justice Department, is determined to stamp out the conservative way of life. You are either with us or against us — and attempting to send Trump to jail, whatever the reason, puts you on the wrong side.
Such once-fringe thinking now dominates the Republican Party at the very highest levels. Whether people like McCarthy and DeSantis actually believe it is immaterial: The fact that they feel the need to say such wild things indicates just how central anti-institutional paranoia has become in Republican politics.
The dangers of this going forward, as Trump faces trial and America faces an election where he is the GOP’s most likely presidential candidate, should not be underestimated. A democracy whose basic institutional functions come under attack is a democracy in mortal peril.
The paranoid style in Republican politics
The entire Trump phenomenon was, from the very beginning, about conservative fear of losing America. Study after study after study has found that Trump voters in the GOP primary and electorate are motivated by a concern that the United States is becoming literally unrecognizable: populated by people who look different and think differently than they do.
The fears of the base were reflected in the language of the elite. In 2016, the most famous intellectual case for Trump in 2016 was Michael Anton’s “Flight 93” essay — which argued that these changes were transforming the government in ways that handed more and more control over American government to the left. Anton spoke of a “bipartisan junta” that controlled the centers of power and wielded it against conservative institutions, a kind of soft coup against ordinary Americans backstopped by demographic change.
“Our side has been losing consistently since 1988,” Anton wrote. “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”
Anton’s essay, seen as fringe at the time, captured an essential linkage of the Trump era: between the traditional conservative sense of alienation from mainstream American culture and growing hostility to its governing institutions. The general conservative sense that they were losing America demographically and spiritually could easily be translated into a case that the government itself was hostile to their interests.
So when Trump began facing legal trouble during his presidency, at first over his campaign’s ties to Russia, he ran a version of the Anton playbook (Anton was, at the time, serving in Trump’s White House). He argued, in now-familiar but then-novel terms, that the investigation was a “deep state” plot against Trump — that special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators were Democrats who sought only to destroy his presidency.
Faced with this challenge, the rest of the Republican Party had a choice: They could defend the underlying integrity of the Justice Department, even while remaining skeptical of the merits of this specific investigation, or fully accede to the Trumpist “witch hunt” narrative. We know which one they chose, and we know why they chose it: Trump had built such a powerful following on the basis of his paranoid critique of America that any Republican who challenged it risked career suicide.
The Russia investigation set a pattern that would endure for the entire Trump presidency. Again and again, when faced with credible allegations of wrongdoing, Republicans indulged Trump’s wildest fantasies out of either fear or genuine belief. The Anton worldview, once the province of cranks, evolved into the official narrative of the Republican Party — an evolution cemented when Trump attempted to overthrow the 2020 election and the party elite permitted him to do so.
In the Biden years, with Republicans out of power, the narrative of an entire government arranged against them only became more credible in the eyes of the base. Surveys consistently showed that a large majority of Republicans believed his claims of voter fraud; political scientists have shown that this belief is likely genuine and that Republican politicians who parrot Trump’s lies improve their standings in the eyes of the base.
The result is a party that has, in the past several years, grown increasingly radicalized against the core institutions of America. They believe that everything in America is turning against them: not just the traditional enemies like the media and Hollywood, but also the military, big business, and even the US Olympic team. If you express agreement with the left on anything from LGBTQ issues to Trump’s fitness for office, you are an enemy of the right.
The dangers of this shift cannot be overestimated. Republicans are already vowing to “bring accountability to the DOJ” (DeSantis) and “hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable” (McCarthy). If Republicans do win the White House in 2024, the chances of an attempt to turn the Justice Department into an actually political institution are very high. If Trump is their candidate, it’s basically a certainty.
And if they lose — well, January 6 showed us what could happen when Republicans believe they’ve lost illegitimately. And we’re already seeing paranoia about this indictment bleed over into paranoia about the upcoming election.
“Biden is attacking his most likely 2024 opponent. He’s using the justice system to preemptively steal the 2024 election. This is what’s happening, plain and simple,” writes Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH).
Democracy depends on both sides respecting the rules of the game. But one side has decided, without any real evidence, that the rules are rigged against them — and have demonstrated a willingness to disregard them as a result.