A state where critics of the state can be criminalized is one where they will not speak. A country where members of the opposition party can be implicated in imaginary crimes is one where they will not run. And a nation where the president can simply demand investigations of those he dislikes is one where free elections cannot take place. When abuses of power are left unchecked, their damage compounds. A president who gets away with such things will attempt to get away with far worse. This is a road map to despotism, and the more vigorously Republicans defend the president, the closer they come to embracing it.
In October, Senator Lindsey Graham stated that he might support impeachment: “If you could show me that Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.” But now that multiple Trump officials have testified that the president wanted to condition aid to Ukraine on a public announcement that Joe Biden and his son were under investigation, Republican senators have decided strong-arming Ukraine to frame Biden was not just proper, but admirable. “He honestly believes that there may have been corruption in Ukraine, and before he turns over $400 million of American taxpayer money, he’s entitled to ask,” Senator John Kennedy told The Washington Post.
Similarly, Trump’s allies in the conservative media have gone from denying that the president engaged in extortion to justifying it. The conservative pundit Ben Shapiro went from “No quid pro quo, no impeachment … no moving goalposts” to “There was a quid pro quo. The question was if it was a corrupt quid pro quo.” Fox News personalities have similarly argued that there was no quid pro quo, but that even if there was, Trump was duty-bound to extort Ukraine into framing the Bidens for a crime that never took place. The arguments may change, but their logic never does: Trump is infallible, and his critics, whether liberal Democrats or lifelong Republicans, are illegitimate.
As with Trump’s obstruction of the Mueller investigation, Republicans set red lines they believed Trump would never be so stupid and corrupt as to cross. But now that they’ve learned he did, most Republicans are fine with it. This dynamic persists because Republican officials no longer feel any obligation toward American citizens who are not Trump supporters. Yes, elected Republicans have a duty to represent their constituencies. But the point of representative government is having elected officials who can distinguish between when it is time to seek political advantage, and when it is time to shield the foundational elements of democracy itself from destruction.
The Republican embrace of “Real America” talk has hardened from political rhetoric into ideological principle. Those who are not Real Americans cannot legitimately wield power or criticize those who do, and therefore no effort to deprive those who are not Real Americans of power can be illegitimate. Nationalism, by definition, draws lines around who belongs and who does not; the core of Trumpist nationalism is the claim that the minority of voters who support the president are the only ones empowered to shape the direction of the country, and the only ones who can confer legitimacy on the U.S. government. The president’s supporters have begun arguing not only that the constitutional process of impeachment is illegitimate, but that Trump losing reelection would be a “coup.”