It is a very happy Indictment Day for all of us who celebrate the rule of law in these United States. Many of us are just glad that Donald Trump, the former inhabitant of the Oval Office, is being held accountable for some of the heinous stuff he’s allegedly done. Some of us want this 37-count criminal indictment on the retention and dissemination of state secrets to put Trump behind bars, though he pleaded not guilty and we’ve never incarcerated a former president. But a few of us who are happy about this indictment are hopeful for something even beyond that: the breakup between Trump and the Republican Party.
From the moment charges were announced on Thursday, there have been people wondering whether this would change the contours of the GOP presidential primary. Maybe, they said, this will cause a split amongst GOP officials because the charges are so serious. It is even possible, they insisted, that Republicans could abandon Trump altogether.
I am here, regretfully, to burst that bubble — not because I don’t care about that outcome, but because I do. The Republican Party without Donald Trump would be an electoral empire in ruins. Trump has a solid, possibly even cult-like grip on anywhere between 35-45% of the party. His voters love his brazen shamelessness, his contempt for shared values, norms, and laws. To break with Trump doesn’t merely invite the contempt and scorn of Trump die-hards, but everyone who checked out well before. Because once there’s a line, everyone will wonder why you crossed all of the other ones.
To even accept that there’s a level of misconduct the party will reject is to bind them even tighter to hypocrisy. Imagine riding for Trump through Russian interference in the 2016 election, the attempt to extort Ukraine with defense funds in exchange for “dirt” on Joe Biden, the attempted coup on January 6th, the Big Lie that spawned and sustained it, and campaign finance violations spawned by his conspiracy to pay hush money to former mistresses to hide his affairs from news coverage, only to bail out because of these repeated, flagrant violations of the Espionage Act.
Nobody who had minimized all of that for the sake of power could call this out as beyond the pale with a straight face.
Which is why the usual suspects are acting in concert to tell us why storing secrets about the U.S. nuclear arsenal in a random Mar-a-Lago bathroom is either the height of statecraft or an honest and easy mistake. Only a few, minor players in the GOP nomination sweepstakes are even considering using this indictment as a line of attack; most of the major players continue to minimize the seriousness of a former official stealing state secrets to show to anyone who wanders into his grotesque interlocking stucco McMansions. All because acknowledging the problem with what Trump has done reflects everything they’ve allowed him to do.
But the real kicker is why they’ve all sat back and allowed him to do it: because they want to get away with it too. Every norm he breaks becomes that much harder to repair and reimpose. Riding the wave of autocratic disregard for the Constitution that Trump created, Ron DeSantis has been persecuting voters, banning books, and tormenting trans people, especially children, for daring to exist. This is not a man who wants the Presidency limited to its Constitutional role by the rule of law and the established checks and balances. None of them do.
This indictment isn’t going to change the GOP at all. It’s not going to be rock bottom. It’s not going to start a return to sanity. It’s just going to be another moment of principle, another off-ramp from autocracy, that they pass by in their quest for power. We can’t save them from it; we can only let them crash and burn.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.