If Donald Trump had never been elected president, almost nobody would be surprised at the jury’s finding that he sexually abused E. Jean Carroll. Trump has been notorious for his sexual adventures since the 1970s. He bragged about his sexual conquests on the radio. He cheated on his wives with little care about the publicity. He palled around with Jeffrey Epstein. He told us in the Hollywood Access tapes that he believes “stars” could do anything to women and get away with it. In any other universe, the majority of people would have just assumed the times caught up with him.
But we’re not in any other universe. We’re in America, 2023, after four years of Donald Trump turning the GOP into a cult of personality and 25 years of Fox News feeding its audience a steady diet of lies and misinformation. Millions of ignorant and brainwashed Americans believe the whole trial was a political set up. And Republican leaders who know better are criticizing the justice system, not the sexual abuser. The reaction to the verdict says as much about the GOP as it does about Trump.
Trump is a clearly immoral person who has little regard for others or the truth and yet he’s the leader of the Republican Party. It’s still kind of hard to believe. If you had told any GOP Senator in 2015 that they would be defending Donald Trump after he had been found liable for sexual abuse, they would have laughed at you. Of course, if you told them that he would be President of the United States, they would have laughed, too. And yet here we are.
So how did this happen? Well, Republican leaders bear most of the blame. They allowed the mob to take over their party. They refused to push back on Trump’s most egregious behavior and sentiments, allowing the party to morph from Reagan conservatism to reactionary populism without a fight. You can thank Mitch McConnell most of all, but almost the whole party is complicit one way or the other.
When Trump first announced his candidacy, his target audience were the grievance voters who made up a plurality of the GOP in 2015. They were people who had been left behind by the technology economy, saddled with outmoded skills and living in deteriorating areas. They blamed immigrants and minorities for many of their troubles. Trump said out loud what many were thinking. He called Mexicans rapists. He demonized the people his newfound base resented the most.
Had the GOP had a stronger frontrunner than Jeb! Bush in 2016, Trump might not have happened. But they didn’t. Instead, they had a whole stage full of weak candidates, many, like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, exposed to be little more than naked opportunists. One by one, Trump targeted them and took them down, using insults, lies, and childish nicknames. There was Low Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Liddle Marco Rubio. He called Lindsey Graham a “nut job.” He called Heidi Cruz, Ted Cruz’s wife, ugly.
One by one, the primary opponents fell, largely because nobody emerged as the anti-Trump. Opportunistic candidates like Chris Christie threw their support behind Trump instead of uniting around someone else. By the summer, Trump was the inevitable nominee and most mainstream Republicans seemed resigned to losing the presidential election. They underestimated the groundswell of support from people animated by Trump’s racist, homophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric.
Before November, the right-wing media had come around, remaking themselves in Trump’s image. If they distorted news and facts in the past, they embraced lying and outright disinformation as they built a media ecosystem that mirrored Trump’s narcissistic amorality. Facts and veracity were for suckers. The game became creating and destroying enemies while defending Trump against all charges. They found an enthusiastic audience.
Republicans who once seemed to hold values and a conservative ideology folded under the weight of Trump’s cult. Nobody dared to call him out, no matter how egregious his sins, because of the strength of his base. Mitch McConnell watched as Trump undermined the Constitution, not daring to jeopardize his program to fill judicial appointments and pack the Supreme Court. Paul Ryan tried to hold true to his Randian principles but got steamed rolled by Trump and is generally considered one of the least effective House Speakers in modern history. Trump didn’t just crush his enemies, he bent his allies to his will.
By 2020, Republicans who could never see themselves supporting Trump in 2015 found themselves on the Trump bandwagon, unwilling to criticize him and often defending him against illegal behavior. The party had numerous opportunities to reel Trump in, but nobody had the courage to do it. They backed him when he tried to blackmail Ukraine into dishing dirt on Hunter Biden by withholding aid that Congress had approved. They backed down after initially calling him out for encouraging the attack on Congress on January 6. They refused to refute his lies about election fraud. The GOP decided that Donald Trump can’t be held accountable for anything, undermining the Constitution and the Rule of Law.
That’s where we are today. Anyone who looks objectively at Donald Trump’s career would see that the verdict in the case was consistent with the man’s behavior for the past 50 years. Yet, Republicans will defend him just like he has defended himself. They will lie and attack the institutions that protect our freedoms to make sure that they don’t get on the wrong side of Donald Trump, even if they are the wrong side of right.
To the evangelicals, he’s the dystopian Second Coming, a Christlike figure who shuns humility, disdains the poor, and ridicules outcasts and outsiders. They are people so ignorant they take Marjorie Taylor Greene seriously. Then, there are the people who just want in on the grift. Think Matt Gaetz, Madison Cawthorn, and George Santos. They’re in it for the profit and they would embrace the Devil himself it kept them in office. And finally, there are the old line Republicans who decided that tax cuts and deregulation are more important than the country itself. They can live with the grift, the racism, the bigotry, and abuse of power as long as they can appoint people who will protect the wealthy and corporations from what they see as the legal theft of taxation and the interference with free enterprise caused by burdensome regulations like child labor laws and environmental protections.
In the end, I doubt the verdict changes much. The Republican base that doesn’t know any better, the grievance voters, will support Trump no matter what because they are the people, as Lincoln described them, who can be fooled all of the time. There are the grifters, the people who want to make as much money from holding power as possible. And there are the sellouts, the Republicans who will either support Donald Trump or make excuses for him, even though somewhere in their troubled psyches they know better, because they are scared of alienating the grievance voters who now make up a solid plurality of their base. Come hell or highwater, they will support Donald Trump if he’s their nominee and, right now, he’s clearly leading the field.