“Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger,” John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “ended up inside.” Republicans still seeking a return to power by continuing to ride the back of the Trump tiger have been given one hell of a ride indeed. Most of them (and truth be told probably all of them) suspect they’re going to end up inside, and they want the hell off.
Republican political insiders are finally beginning to grasp that Trump’s mounting legal jeopardies, both civil and criminal, aren’t going away any time soon. New York State attorney general Letitia James’ latest announcement that Trump is now under criminal investigation completes a legal trifecta with her state of New York, the state of Georgia’s inquiry into Trump election tampering and investigations by Cyrus Vance Jr., the district attorney for the county of New York. Each is criminally investigating Trump. Each may be in a race with the other to see who puts Donald Trump in prison first.
It is becoming clear to Republicans that Trump in a courtroom, and any Trump family members in a courtroom, or Donald Trump in prison serving a long sentence is not good for their re-election prospects. Right now they have no choice but to continue to wave the Trump MAGA banner, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. They aren’t, and their unhappiness is beginning to show.
But while Trump remains a free man, Republicans are going to have to deal with him. “While Republican leadership wants to put Trump in the rearview mirror,” Doug Heye, a GOP strategist who once served as a House leadership aide said, “the [criminal] investigations, in addition to Trump being back on the stump, make that impossible.”
Publicly, some Republicans are downplaying the toxic effect Trump and his crimes are having on the GOP. Privately they probably know better. Even so, they continue to let Trump call the shots from Mar-a-Lago. Everything from who enjoys leadership roles inside the party to whether or not there should be an official bipartisan January 6 investigation, Trump decides — and his decision is final. Most Republicans get on board, and woe to any who don’t.
What are they afraid of? Apart from becoming a pariah in their own party they fear Trump’s nasty tweets. Even though Trump has been booted off Twitter, Republicans are so cowed by memories of his tweets that they cringe with Pavlovian cowardice at the merest recollection of them. Trump is like an amputee bully who can still inspire terror by shaking his nonexistent fist. The once tough-guy image Republicans used to enjoy has been reduced to a simpering, pitiful puddle of compliance.
But Trump’s deleterious effect on the GOP doesn’t stop there. The conventional wisdom that first term presidents who enjoy a Congressional majority will lose that majority in the midterm may also have been set on its ear. “Historically speaking, there’s this kind of perception that Democrats could have a challenging midterm,” Kurt Bardella, a former House GOP aide, says. “Things like this [Trump’s potential indictment] completely shake up the electoral calculus.”
Every Republican candidate for office in 2022 must face the same gamble, whether or not to bet their political futures on Donald Trump. It is an unenviable position. As Bardella puts it, “The not knowing is almost more untenable than if something were to happen, because every Republican candidate on the ballot is going to have to make a wager as to whether or not they’re willing to bet their entire political fortune on Donald Trump’s legal status.”.
Despite losing the presidency Trump still enjoys almost unabated influence within the GOP. But this time around there’s a difference. He no longer also enjoys immunity from prosecution, and that is the single most important reason he wanted to be re-elected. Perhaps the only reason. His irrational (even for Trump) obsession with the idea that the election was rigged, that he really won it after all could be a vestige of his mortal terror of incarceration. Michael Cohen has said that nothing on earth frightens Trump more than going to prison, and so far Cohen has always been right. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.