In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, Republican officeholders had three choices.
They could stick with and defend Donald Trump and his riotous allies, and if they were members of the House or Senate, they could vote in support of the effort to overturn the results of the election, in a show of loyalty to the president and, in effect, the rioters.
Or they could criticize and condemn the president as conservative dissenters, using their voices in an attempt to put the Republican Party back on a more traditional path.
Or they could leave. They could quit the party and thus show the full extent of their anger and revulsion.
But we know what actually happened. A few Republicans left and a few complained, but most remained loyal to the party and the president with nary a peep to make about the fact that Trump was willing to bring an end to constitutional government in the United States if it meant he could stay in office.
We have been watching this dynamic play out a second time with Trump’s indictment on federal espionage charges for mishandling classified documents as a private citizen. The most prominent Republican officeholders wasted no time with their full-throated denunciations of the indictment, the Department of Justice and the Biden administration.
“Let’s be clear about what’s happening: Joe Biden is weaponizing his Department of Justice against his own political rival,” said Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican leader in the House. “This sham indictment is the continuation of the endless political persecution of Donald Trump.”
“This indictment certainly looks like an unequal application of justice,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who serves as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “You can’t help but ask why this is happening. It feels political, and it’s rotten.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said that the indictment was a “weaponization of federal law enforcement” that “represents a mortal threat to a free society,” and former vice president Mike Pence said he was “deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward” and vowed to “clean house” at the highest levels of the Justice Department if elected president.
The only notable congressional Republican to really condemn Trump was Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. “By all appearances, the Justice Department and special counsel have exercised due care, affording Mr. Trump the time and opportunity to avoid charges that would not generally have been afforded to others,” he said in a statement. “Mr. Trump brought these charges upon himself by not only taking classified documents, but by refusing to simply return them when given numerous opportunities to do so.”
All of this is typical. With vanishingly few exceptions, Republicans are unwilling to discipline Trump or withdraw their support for his political leadership or even just criticize him for his actions. The most we’ve seen, Romney aside, is a nod to the fact that these are serious charges. This is a “serious case with serious allegations,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who nonetheless added that this prosecution represented a “double standard” and that “You can’t protect Democrats while targeting and hunting Republicans.”
There are several ways to think about most Republicans’ reluctance to break with Trump in the face of his egregious lawbreaking and contempt for constitutional government, but I want to focus on two in particular.
The first concerns something that exists wherever there is a relationship between an individual and an institution: the loyalty of the individual to the institution. Political parties in particular are designed to inculcate a sense of loyalty and shared commitment among their members. This is especially true for officeholders, who exist in a web of relationships and obligations that rest on a set of common interests and beliefs.
Loyalty makes it less likely that a dissenter just walks away, especially when there isn’t a plausible alternative. Few Trump-critical Republicans, for instance, are willing to become Democrats. What’s more, as the economist A.O. Hirschman observed in his classic text, “Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States,” strong loyalty to an institution like a political party might lead a dissenting or disapproving individual to hold on to his or her membership even more tightly, for fear that exit might open the door to even worse outcomes.
“The ultimate in unhappiness and paradoxical loyalist behavior,” Hirschman wrote, “occurs when the public evil produced by the organization promises to accelerate or to reach some intolerable level as the organization deteriorates; then, in line with the reasoning just presented, the decision to exit will become ever more difficult the longer one fails to exit. The conviction that one has to stay on to prevent the worst grows stronger all the time.”
Assuming this is all true, how then do we explain the reluctance to criticize or condemn? For that, we can look to the history of the modern Republican Party, stretching back to Richard Nixon. And what do we see? We see a pattern of presidential criminality and contempt for the Constitution, backed in each instance by most Republican officeholders and politicians.
For Nixon, it was Watergate. For Ronald Reagan, it was Iran-contra. For George W. Bush, it was the sordid effort to fight a war in Iraq and the disgraceful use of torture against detainees. For Donald Trump, it was practically his entire presidency.
Most things in life, and especially a basic respect for democracy and the rule of law, have to be cultivated. What is striking about the Republican Party is the extent to which it has, for decades now, cultivated the opposite — a highly instrumental view of our political system, in which rules and laws are legitimate only insofar as they allow for the acquisition and concentration of power in Republican hands.
Most Republicans won’t condemn Trump. There are his millions of ultra-loyal voters, yes. And there are the challenges associated with breaking from the consensus of your political party, yes. But there is also the reality that Trump is the apotheosis of a propensity for lawlessness within the Republican Party. He is what the party and its most prominent figures have been building toward for nearly half a century. I think he knows it and I think they do too.
Jamelle Bouie became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2019. Before that he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. He is based in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington. @jbouie