Donald Trump’s supporters, as you might expect, have not taken his latest indictment in stride. Charlie Kirk, writing in the Federalist, proposes a list of Democrats or liberal groups to charge in retaliation, proposing Hunter Biden, James Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorka, Black Lives Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or “literally any Democrat, for anything.” Trump’s indictments, Kirk argues, “aren’t the product of a reasoned criminal inquiry. They are the product of years of work that started from the premise of ‘investigate Trump for literally anything, and bring whatever charges you can come up with, even if they’re invented.’”
What is perhaps more surprising is that Republican supporters of Trump’s erstwhile rivals are saying more or less the same thing.
“This may be the last indictment of Trump, but it won’t be the last indictment of its type. Expect to see this scenario repeat itself any time a conservative who rattles the establishment cage gets too close to winning,” said Laura Ingraham. “Whatever you think of the Trump indictments, one thing is for certain: the glass has now been broken over and over again. Political opponents can be targeted by legal enemies,” Ben Shapiro proclaimed, “Running for office now carries the legal risk of going to jail — on all sides.” In a column headlined, “Republicans must fight dirty — or America is finished,” Nate Hochman urged Republicans to start bringing legal charges against their political rivals.
Ingraham and Shapiro have both plumped for Ron DeSantis, and Hochman left a job at National Review to work for him (before being forced out after making fascistic, white supremacist memes for the campaign’s social media accounts). You might think they would depict Trump’s legal jeopardy as, if not fair punishment for his crimes, then at least a political vulnerability. It’s too bad prosecutors keep targeting Trump, but maybe the party should nominate a non-incarcerated candidate for president seems like an obvious case to make for DeSantis.
Instead, they are insisting all Republicans — or at least all Republicans who pose a real threat to the left — are equally vulnerable to prosecution. They are throwing away a strong rationale, perhaps the only remaining viable one, to nominate the candidate they prefer. Why?
The answer is that Republicans are genuinely obsessed with the potential for using the criminal-justice system as a political weapon. They are so obsessed they don’t even wish to imagine leaving behind a world in which prosecution is linked with political identity. “Victory or prison” is the political environment they affirmatively wish to inhabit. Trump’s predicament hands them permission to do what they have always craved. And now the campaign, which will be anchored around a series of criminal trials, will be framed around their desire not only to keep Trump out of prison, but to lock up as many of their political opponents as they can.
If you haven’t drunk deeply from the fetid waters of the conservative fever swamp, this impulse might seem incomprehensible. Trump’s legal jeopardy is easily explained: His private sector record was a long history of shady associations with gangsters and running scams. His presidency was a continuous procession of his own advisers pleading with him not to do illegal things while he complained that his attorneys weren’t as unethical as Roy Cohn, the mob lawyer he once employed.
If Trump were being charged because he was a Republican, rather than because he were an incorrigible crook, then why weren’t George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan hauled into court by their successors? Why are other liberal hate objects like, say, DeSantis, Tucker Carlson, or Marjorie Taylor Greene not facing criminal investigations right now?
But conservatives have constructed an alternative reality that obscures these facts. Right-wing news sources serve up a curated version of events that ignores or justifies misbehavior by conservatives and magnifies or invents crimes by their opponents, creating a belief system resting upon a foundational premise that Democrats are evil and criminal and always get away with it.
The whataboutism allows even Republicans who recognize Trump’s failings to justify supporting him. Because Democrats are allowed to commit crimes and walk away scot-free, Trump should be allowed to commit crimes. Because Trump is being prosecuted unfairly — it’s unfair even if his crimes are real, remember, because Democrats get away with it all the time — Democrats should be, too.
I think the real reason they're humiliated and crave revenge is that they believe they should be the party of smashmouth politics, and they're embarrassed that they've never been able to send a president or presidential candidate or House speaker to prison, while Trump's antagonists might. I think they believe they have a monopoly on political toughness, and Democrats are wusses (which, let's face it, they are much of the time), so a legal assault on one of their own seems to violate the fundamental laws of the universe. They know Trump is a crook, but they think think he ought to be able to get away with being a crook because he's a Republican. Trump is guilty of many crimes, but I'm sure they think they should be able to "create their own reality," one in which he's a selfless patriot who's under attack despite his obvious innocence. They've certainly created that reality within their own bubble, and it's killing them that the rest of us live in the real world, where he's guilty as hell and nearly everyone knows it.
So they think we stole their smashmouth act, and they think we're doing it better. And they can't stand it.