In the normal pre-Donald Trump world, a politician getting in trouble for paying off an adult film star he allegedly cheated on his third wife with would be, you know, a political scandal like the kind that brought down everyone from Eliot Spitzer to John Edwards. But Trump has made it so his Sex scandals and possible election interference aren’t functions of his own behavior, but rather deep state plots to keep MAGA down. It’s the greatest trick Trump ever played on Republicans; he’s convinced them that attempts at accountability for his actions are a direct assault on them. “This is an attack on our country the likes of which has never been seen before,” he posted after news of his coming indictment in the Stormy Daniels hush money case, adding that it’s part of the “continuing attack on our once free and fair elections.” And this framing of his personal scandals as nefarious forces targeting his supporters has cemented his hold on the base.
Trump’s refusal to accept any personal responsibility and his ability to double down in a truly pathological way has created a world where his base no longer operates in reality, but instead in a kind of MAGA land. It’s a terrain so profoundly distorted that Trump’s base believes that organizations like the FBI and the CIA are composed almost entirely of liberals whose sole purpose is to hurt their guy, and by extension, them. In this scenario, the act of holding Trump accountable isn’t actually about holding Trump accountable at all. Trump’s indictment is everyone’s fault except for Trump’s. He has an ability to say a lie, like the 2020 election being “stolen,” so many times, and so shamelessly, that much of the GOP base believes it. “The witch-hunts against President Trump have no basis in facts or law. The deranged special counsel and the DoJ have now resorted to prosecutorial misconduct by illegally leaking information to corrupt the legal process and weaponize the justice system in order to manipulate public opinion and conduct election interference, because they are clearly losing all across the board,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung wrote in a statement about the DOJ’s investigation into the classified documents found in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
This kind of post-truth jiujitsu has created a base that is so sticky and so dependent on him, that Republicans, regardless of their feelings toward the former president, seemingly have no choice but to voice their support of Trump—particularly in the face of any legal accountability. His death grip on the GOP base is so strong that even Ron DeSantis, whom the ex-president has spent several weeks disparaging in increasingly inflammatory ways, was seemingly bullied into defending Trump; otherwise it would have looked as though he was out of touch with Republican voters. After news of a looming indictment, the Trump campaign’s official Twitter account posted: “It has been over 24 hours and some people are still quiet. History will judge their silence,” an apparent dig at the Florida governor, Trump’s one real GOP rival. DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president, has only made subtle jabs at Trump’s scandals, but has felt compelled to attack the investigations into the former president. “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair—I just I can’t speak to that,” DeSantis said at a press conference in mid-March, before calling Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg a “Soros-funded prosecutor.” Around then, DeSantis said he would not be getting “involved” in Trump’s indictment—a comment that Trump-ally and Florida representative Matt Gaetz called a “missed opportunity” on DeSantis’s part. “If Ron DeSantis had come out at that event and said that he would not allow the extradition of president trump to New York I think that would’ve been a very good thing and I think it would’ve reduced the likelihood of charges from Alvin Bragg,” Gaetz said then. When the indictment came out a week later, DeSantis changed his tune; Trumpworld made the indictments about the base, leaving the Florida governor no choice. “Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this Soros-backed Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda,” DeSantis tweeted the day the indictment dropped. And even though DeSantis’s comments were specifically critical of Bragg, and not in support of Trump, it looked like he was rallying around the former president.
Even Jeb Bush, theoretically a “Never Trump” Republican, felt it necessary to weigh in. He tweeted Saturday: “Bragg’s predecessor didn’t take up the case. The Justice Department didn’t take up the case. Bragg first said he would not take up the case. This is very political, not a matter of justice. In this case, let the jury be the voters.” There was something profoundly grim about Bush—Jeb!—defending Trump. Who can forget then 90-year-old matriarch Barbara Bush telling Jamie Gangel in 2016 of Trump: “He doesn’t give many answers to how he would solve problems. He sort of makes faces and says insulting things. He’s said terrible things about women, terrible things about the military. I don’t understand why people are for him, for that reason.” The Bush family’s disdain for Trump is hardly secret; but it also best represents the grip Trump has on the Republican party. After all, the dynasty’s younger political hopeful George P. Bush, who unsuccessfully campaigned to be Texas’s attorney general last cycle, endorsed Trump in the 2020 election, and, as Politico noted, has avoided his family’s more negative history with the ex-president. And now, Jeb Bush, who is hardly the center of the GOP, seemingly done with campaigning, and a clear Trump critic, also spoke out against the indictment.
Trump’s hold on the party is intractable. And core to his pull is this MAGA notion that the federal government (chiefly the FBI) is evil and out to get not only Trump, but everyone who supports him. He’s got his allies rallying—even rioting—in his defense, his rivals and critics are coming out against efforts to hold him accountable, and he’s got right-wing media in his pocket. Even if Rupert Murdoch isn’t the biggest Trump superfan anymore, he clearly does delight in the fantasy of destroying trust in the federal government. Making his indictments a case against the government hits a GOP sweet spot. And it’s a strategy Trump could ride to the nomination.