Trump is out for vengeance, not Republican political empowerment

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Many Republican politicians have backed Donald Trump and very few have actively opposed him because they see him as useful in helping them retain power. 

After the attack on the Capitol that could have cost congressmen, including Republicans, their lives, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) declared, “Count me out.” But he was soon back in. As Graham put it, “There is no way we can achieve our goals without Trump.”

It was pretty clear by the end of the Senate impeachment proceedings in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack that Republicans were giving Trump a free pass because they saw it as in their self-interest. With Trump, they would be more likely to win elections. And if they won elections, they would have power.

This kind of thinking is wrong. Trump will command them to do his bidding. And if they fail to do what he wants, he will persecute them with Department of Justice investigations and/or sic the mob on them.

That should have been obvious after the Capitol attack. Trump, after all, was perfectly willing to throw his vice president, Mike Pence (a Republican in good standing), under the bus because he refused to subvert the presidential election. He supported his followers’ calls to “hang Mike Pence” by criticizing him as he was being hunted and refusing to call off the mob for hours.

The Washington Post reported this month that Trump and his allies are planning to use the Justice Department to persecute his enemies. Those mentioned are Republicans who did the former president’s bidding for a long time before finally breaking with him, mostly after the Capitol riots. 

The informal enemies list includes his former attorney general, William Barr. Barr helped save Trump from his first impeachment by publicizing a conclusion that Trump had not obstructed justice when the Mueller report contained lots of evidence that he had done just that. Then Barr helped Trump protect his friends. He asked a federal judge to drop charges to which Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, had pleaded guilty, to the disgust of much of the legal community. 

But Barr had his limits. He opposed Trump’s effort to steal the election, telling him there was no evidence of significant fraud and refusing to publicize an ongoing investigation of President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, begun on his watch. 

John Kelly faithfully served President Trump as chief of staff. But he publicly criticized Trump for belittling members of the armed forces, and now he too sits on Trump’s list. 

Mark Milley chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during much of the Trump administration. Reportedly, Milley sought to head off a Trump attack on Iran as a strategy for gaining support to hold on to power after his loss in the 2020 election. Trump suggested that Milley should be executed for calling China to reassure its leadership of U.S. stability after the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. He too figures among the targets for baseless Trump prosecutions. 

Finally, Ty Cobb, another target, served as White House counsel but finally broke with Trump, largely due to his effort to steal the 2020 election.

Baseless prosecution is not all that Republicans have to fear from another Trump presidency. Trump’s supporters have terrorized the few Republicans who openly broke with him with threats of violence. 

During the fight to choose the next House Speaker, Trump supporters threatened Republicans and their families if they failed to support Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-Ohio) bid. Many in the GOP rebelled. But they ultimately refused to defy him and elected a leader of the campaign against the 2020 election results, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.).

If that wasn’t enough, the former president’s increasingly violent rhetoric seems to be seeping into actions taken in the halls of Congress. This week, Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) challenged the president of a labor union to a fistfight in the middle of a Senate committee hearing. 

Republican politicians are kidding themselves if they imagine that electing Trump will empower them to achieve Republican policy goals. Suppose Trump wants to cut off aid to Ukraine to help out Russian President Vladimir Putin. Do they think he’ll allow Republican politicians to actively and vocally oppose him without threats of violence or prosecution? What if Trump decides to break up companies headed by political opponents? Do prominent Republican defenders of free enterprise imagine that they can openly oppose this without risking investigation, blackmail or mob violence? 

Perhaps Trump will tolerate some quiet dissent for a while as a tactical matter. But eventually, Republican politicians will end up as dogs on a very short leash, allowed to exercise power only to the extent they do not run afoul of whatever measures take Trump’s fancy. 

Trump is not a Republican. His actions are those of a fascist. It’s past time for Republican politicians to start acting accordingly.

David Driesen is a university professor at Syracuse University and the author of “The Specter of Dictatorship: Judicial Enabling of Presidential Power” (Stanford University Press 2021). These views are the author’s and not necessarily those of Syracuse University.

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