As Donald Trump’s legal perils mount and with a trial date now set for his mishandling of classified documents, the disgraced ex-president — and many of his GOP acolytes — are launching a full-court campaign against the independence of the Justice Department. They are hoping to turn the department into a scapegoat to cushion Trump in the public eye from the impact of prosecution, and also, ultimately, to turn it into a pliant tool of Trump and his henchmen so as to wage a relentless revenge war against his critics.
Trump and his advisers frame this as simply restoring integrity to a department that he has convinced his followers is engaged in a politically motivated “witch hunt” against him. Their argument doesn’t carry water. In reality, the special counsel in charge of these investigations, Jack Smith, operates at a distance from Attorney General Merrick Garland, does not liaise and plot strategy with President Joe Biden and his team, and the indictments have been handed down not by political apparatchiks but by the ordinary people empaneled onto grand juries — the bedrock institution of the U.S. criminal legal system. Trump is facing not a show trial but a series of state and federal court proceedings in which, since he has pleaded not guilty, he will go to trial and be judged by juries of his peers.
None of that has stopped Trump from a series of verbal tantrums — including calling Smith “deranged” and launching diatribes against the New York judge who is presiding over his state cases, as well as the judge’s family — that would land most mere mortals in jail on contempt of court charges. He has called the Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg a “thug” and a “criminal,” and Fulton County, Georgia, prosecutor Fani Willis, who seems to be readying a racketeering indictment against the former president, a “racist.”
In seeking to stoke right-wing ire at the legal system, and the grand jury system in particular, Trump, who is now fighting not just for his MAGA priorities but for his personal freedom, is waging a ferocious rear-guard action against the rule of law itself. Trump and advisers who were instrumental in shaping the most vicious policies during Trump’s presidency, such as Stephen Miller, pledge that if Trump wins back the presidency in 2024, he will promptly take control of the Justice Department and bend it to the will of the president. They are in effect advocating for nothing less than a dismantling of the guard-rails designed to stop presidents from behaving like autocrats. Astoundingly, these ominous promises have been met not with condemnation from the GOP’s congressional leadership, but largely with either silence or explicit approval. It is a mark of how pervasively the anti-democratic rot has now spread throughout the GOP.
As The New York Times detailed in a sobering report, Trump’s political platform includes a raft of efforts to expand presidential power over the decisions made by the Justice Department. But his ambitions don’t stop there. The paper also reported on how the Trump machine wants to move against independent agencies such as the EPA that, historically, have been allowed to put forward regulations, and to ensure compliance, without explicit presidential approval; plans to allow the president to “impound” congressionally approved funding for projects and institutions that he or she disapproves of; and is readying an unprecedented assault on the independence of the professional civil service, which would gut the job protections of tens of thousands of federal employees, allowing them to be replaced by political hacks and opportunists who swear personal loyalty to the president. The Washington Post has reported that Trump also wants to deploy the military, which he seems to view largely as a praetorian guard for presidential power, domestically to fight “gangs” and deport immigrants.
In a series of extraordinary speeches earlier this year, Trump told his supporters that he would be their “justice” and their “retribution.” It is a cartoonish vision of governance horrifyingly personalized, shorn of moderating influences.
Cumulatively, political scholars term this sort of coordinated power grab “autocratic capture.” In practice, it means bending crucial institutions and governing systems to meet the personal whim of one person: the president. This is how countries such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, and, to a degree, Narendra Modi’s India function; it is, in short, how democracies die, with loyalty to a constitution replaced by fealty to an individual. In German, the phrase for such a personalized loyalty test is the Führerprinzip, a central component of Hitler’s governing methodology. It is a vision of governance that in 1930s Germany led to the jackboot and the concentration camp. There’s no indication that under a vengeful Trump 90 years later it would be anything more benign. Such a program is, in brief, entirely incompatible with the notion of political pluralism and constitutional governance.
Trump isn’t alone in his contempt for basic governing norms. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who currently is the only GOP candidate vaguely within spitting distance of Trump in the opinion polls, has over the past few years taken a number of measures to centralize power in Florida. He has eviscerated the independence of higher education institutions, directly intervened in setting school curricula, and promised, if elected president, to use presidential powers expansively in his war against “woke” regulations in the military and other institutions.
For months now, other leading GOP hopefuls, including Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, have embraced Trump’s assault on the Justice Department. They have made it a point of honor to go on the attack before they even know what Trump is being charged with or what evidence the department’s investigators have to back up these charges.
Seven years ago, too many critics dismissed Trump’s worst impulses as hyperbole, as the calculated bluster of a consummate showman. But once elected, Trump proved their optimism wrong, promptly attempting to enact a host of authoritarian promises, from Muslim travel bans to family separation on the border. In 2024, no one should have the luxury of ignorance regarding Trump’s political impulses. When he says that he wants to concentrate power in the hands of the president, and when he demands personal loyalty from top government and civil service officials, he means it. In plain view, Trump and the plethora of GOP candidates who need his base in order to win are crafting a program for autocratic capture. Let no one say, after the fact, that they didn’t know.
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