The Disaster That Is The Modern Republican Party

Heather Cox Richardson

Today a former U.S. president and the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination turned himself in to be arrested in Georgia. He had to because a grand jury of ordinary Americans indicted him, along with 18 other defendants, for conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

For the first time in U.S. history, there is a mugshot of a former president.

And, for that matter, mugshots of his chief of staff and key advisors. With noon tomorrow, August 25, the deadline for the defendants to surrender, they have been showing up since Tuesday, when Scott Hall, accused of breaching election equipment in Coffee County, Georgia, became the first of the defendants to surrender.

Since then, several of the lawyers behind the election scheme, including John Eastman, Kenneth Chesebro, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, and Rudy Giuliani have surrendered.

So have Mark Meadows, Trump’s final chief of staff, and David Shafer, the former chair of the Georgia Republican Party.

All but one—Harrison Floyd, the former executive director of Black Voices for Trump, who is charged with harassing election worker Ruby Freeman and who had previously assaulted an FBI agent—have been released on bail.

Trump is the first president to be charged with crimes, and he is facing an astonishing 91 counts in four different cases, two at the state level in New York and Georgia, and two at the federal level.

In addition, Trump, his two elder sons, and the Trump Organization are also facing an October trial in a civil fraud case in New York City, after which he has a January trial in a defamation suit from writer E. Jean Carroll for denying that he raped her (a judge recently agreed that his sexual assault of her was rape by common understanding, although the narrow definition of rape in the New York penal code meant that a New York jury in May did not find him liable for it).

And then there are the criminal charges. In New York he is charged with 34 counts surrounding an alleged hush-money scheme before the 2016 election.

He has been charged with 40 counts in the federal case concerning his theft and concealment of national security documents at his organization’s Mar-a-Lago property. In a separate federal case, he is charged with 4 counts of conspiring to defraud the government, obstruct an official proceeding, and take away voters’ right to have their vote counted.

In the Georgia case for which he was arrested today, he has been charged with 13 crimes under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute of Georgia, a law that permits a group working together for a criminal purpose to be charged as a criminal organization.

True to form, Trump appears to have timed his surrender to make the evening news. And then, after he surrendered, he posted his mugshot himself on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, telling his supporters “NEVER SURRENDER!”

In our system, Trump, like any defendant, is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

But here’s the thing: At last night’s Republican primary debate, all the candidates except former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (polling at 3.3%) and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson (polling at 0.7%) pledged they would support Trump as the 2024 Republican nominee even if he’s convicted.

In the 1960s, Republicans made a devil’s bargain, courting the racists and social traditionalists who began to turn from the Democratic Party when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began to make inroads on racial discrimination. Those same reactionaries jumped from the Democrats to create their own party when Democratic president Harry S. Truman strengthened his party’s turn toward civil rights by creating a presidential commission on civil rights in 1946 and then ordering the military to desegregate in 1948. Reactionaries rushed to abandon the Democrats permanently after Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, joining the Republicans at least temporarily to vote for Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who promised to roll back civil rights laws and court decisions.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was the final straw for many of those reactionaries, and they began to move to the Republicans as a group when Richard Nixon promised not to use the federal government to enforce civil rights in the states. This so-called southern strategy pulled the Republican Party rightward.

In 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan appeared at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, a few miles from where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964 for their work registering Black Mississippians to vote, and said, “I believe in states’ rights.” Reagan tied government defense of civil rights to socialism, insisting that the government was using tax dollars from hardworking Americans to give handouts to lazy people, often using code words to mean “Black.”

Since then, as their economic policies have become more and more unpopular, the Republicans have kept voters behind them by insisting that anyone calling for federal action is advocating socialism and by drawing deep divisions between those who vote Republican, whom they define as true Americans, and anyone who does not vote Republican and thus, in their ideology, is anti-American.

From there it has been a short step to arguing that those who do not support Republican candidates should not vote or are voting illegally (although voter fraud is vanishingly rare). And from there, it appears to have been a short step to trying to overturn the results of an election where 7 million more Americans voted for Joe Biden, a Democrat, than voted for Trump and where the Electoral College vote for Biden was 306 to 232, the same margin Trump called a landslide in 2016 when it was in his favor.

The Republicans on stage last night have abandoned democracy, and in that they accurately represent their party. It is no accident that in addition to the Georgia party chair indicted for trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Wisconsin Republican Party chair Brian Schimming was also mentioned in the Georgia indictment as part of the conspiracy for his role in the scheme to use false electors to steal the election for Trump, though he was not charged; former Arizona Republican chair Kelli Ward is in the crosshairs for her own participation in the scheme in Arizona; and in a different case, former Michigan Republican Party co-chair Meshawn Maddoch has pleaded not guilty to eight felony charges for her part in the attempt to steal the White House.

State leaders have taken their cue from the top: Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel also apparently participated in Trump’s fake elector scheme to steal the presidency.

It is quite a thing to see leading Republicans—including a former president—in mugshots for their assault on our democracy and to know that party leadership supports their actions. Indeed, it is unprecedented, and for those who remember what a grand party the Republicans have been at times in their history—Lincoln, after all, was a Republican, and so were Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower—it is a sad end.

But an end it is. The authoritarians who have taken over the party have abandoned their history and are now building something altogether different.

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