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An Exit From the GOP’s Labyrinth of Trump Lies

Donald Trump at Podium
Thought Leader: David Frum
June 9, 2023

It’s as sincere as the grief at a Mafia funeral.

Who believes that Governor Ron DeSantis—so badly trailing in the polls behind former President Donald Trump—is genuinely upset by his rival’s federal indictment? Or that Speaker Kevin McCarthy—so disgusted by Trump in private—does not inwardly rejoice to see Trump meet justice?

The Fox News talkers have been trying for months to sideline Trump and promote DeSantis. Now they have a turn of events that promises both to help their corporate political agenda and to stoke controversy and ratings. They must be positively ecstatic at the network’s New York headquarters today.

So many in the Republican and conservative world wish Trump off the stage. So few possess the courage or integrity to say so aloud.

Special Counsel Jack Smith now presents them with an opportunity—if they can find their way past a hitherto intractable, and perhaps still unsolvable, problem of collective action.

If you are DeSantis, here’s what you want to see happen:

  1. Trump is indicted, prosecuted, convicted, and thereby banished from public life.
  2. You champion Trump every step of the way, acting as his fiercest and loudest ally.
  3. To your pretend regret, your Trump advocacy fails to shield Trump from the law.
  4. Trump is removed from the path to office; you inherit all of Trump’s supporters.

Kevin McCarthy and the Fox News talkers share similar interests and goals.

But here’s the intractable collective-action problem: These plans depend on the non-Trump political actors performing just convincingly enough that their audience is deceived, but not so convincingly that their audience is mobilized to actually do something inconvenient about it. That undesirable something might be some kind of mass protest or even violence. Or possibly it would take the form of conservative voters losing faith in the system and withdrawing from voting and political participation altogether.

The conservative world in the age of Trump has coiled itself into a labyrinth of lies: lies about Trump’s victimhood, lies about Trump’s popularity, lies about Trump’s election outcomes, lies about Trump’s mental acuity and physical strength. The architects of the labyrinth presumed that they could always, if necessary, find an exit—and that their keys could someday turn the exit’s locks. Instead, they have found themselves as lost and trapped in the labyrinth as the deceived people they lured into it.

As a result, they have failed to take each opportunity to escape: the first impeachment, the November 2020 defeat, the January 6 crimes, the second impeachment, the end of the administration, the 2022 wipeout of swing-state election-denying candidates, the first indictment, and now this second indictment.

Along the way, these architects have taught tens of millions of Republican voters and conservative believers to regard the labyrinth of lies as their proper political home. Why escape at all? Escape to where? The ironic outcome of all this is that the deceived followers now block the exits for the deceptive leaders.

Trump himself may imagine that the deceived are numerous enough, and militant enough, to topple the American constitutional system for his sake. On that, he’s deceiving himself. One of the important lessons of January 6, 2021, was the marginality of Trump’s hard-core support. Another lesson was the strength and endurance of the American legal system when it’s allowed to function. And with Trump out of the presidency, he’s no longer empowered to sabotage it.

But what he can do—and what his adversaries are perversely helping him do—is alienate his supporters from their own society. What consequences will that alienation inflict? I cannot foresee. Perhaps the mania loosens its grip over time, and some number gradually recover their faith in democracy and the rule of law. Perhaps some number become radically demoralized and quit participating in politics altogether.

Or perhaps American society must contrive to bump along with some important minority of the population passively disloyal to the governing authorities, as happened with the white South in the decades after the Civil War. The rebellion had been subdued, but for the rebels to reconcile themselves to the defeat of their cause would take decades.

One thing that would help: for leading Republicans and conservatives to stop positioning themselves for selfish immediate advantage and end their denigration of the legal process. Thanks to the appointment of hundreds of judges, the Trump presidency bequeathed the country a federal judicial system sharply tilted in a conservative direction. As a result, Trump is often playing in front of his own chosen referees. He’s still mostly losing. And he’s losing because he’s in the wrong.

DeSantis, McCarthy, and the others must be well aware that Trump is in the wrong. They do not insist that Trump is innocent, only that it’s improper to hold him to account. The law is being weaponized, they say, to pursue a party leader (their party leader).

These Republican leaders expect to extract some short-term advantage from their double game. Maybe that’s a plausible calculation. But it is likely to prove, ultimately, a self-harming one.

The big post-Trump choice for conservatives is whether they rejoin the mainstream of American life or wander ever further away from it, toward outright rejection of law and democracy. Voluntarily breaking with Trump is one way to make that choice. Few conservatives have dared to do so at all, and even fewer have dared to consistently.

Now federal prosecutors have opened an easier way. Republican leaders need not explicitly make that break. They need only repeat the standard formula about any pending criminal investigation: “I have no comment at this time. Every accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The law will take its course.” That’s it. Problem solved.

This is the right thing to do. It’s the prudent thing to do. And any other course of action points to horrible dangers ahead: a future in which the conservative-minded people who should be America’s strongest bulwarks of law and constitutional order mutate into an enduring malcontent faction willing to subvert that order.

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