By Robert Reich
On Friday, Trump endorsed J.D. Vance in the Ohio Senate Republican primary. This follows his endorsement of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s Senate Republican primary and Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate race. The press has framed these endorsements as long-shot bets that “could put [Trump’s] desired image as a kingmaker at risk.” But this misses the point. What’s really at stake for Trump is the selling of Trump and his big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
To be endorsed by Trump, candidates apparently must fulfill three prerequisites: 1) They have to be running in swing states whose primaries and general elections will attract lots of media attention. 2) They must be totally committed to Trump and his big lie. And 3) they must have shown themselves capable of promoting Trump and his lie with the kind of celebrity pizzaz that sells well on television.
Vance — celebrity author of “Hillbilly Elegy” — was originally appalled by Trump and his lie, and said so. But now that he’s running for the Senate, Vance has become one of the most forceful promoters of Trump and articulate peddlers of his big lie. As Trump noted about Vance, “he gets it now.”
Oz is a celebrity television doctor who has over the years come under fire for bogus on-air medical advice, which makes him perfect for promoting Trump and his big lie, too. Trump admires Oz’s television bona fides: “They liked him for a long time,” Trump said of Oz at a rally in Pennsylvania last week. “That’s like a poll. You know, when you’re in television for 18 years, that’s like a poll. That means people like you.”
Walker fits the criteria, as well. He was both a college and NFL star.
Trump couldn’t care less whether he’s viewed as a “kingmaker” by the press and politicians inside the Beltway. He cares only about his narcissistic need to delegitimize the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. And he has a knack for recognizing ambitious, unprincipled, television-savvy hucksters who will help him.
Let me pause here to emphasize two things that are too easily forgotten. First, no one to this day has produced even a shred of evidence that fraud affected the results of the 2020 election. Sixty federal judges, along with Trump’s own departments of justice and homeland security, have concluded that Biden won fair and square.
Second, the lynchpin of democracy is the peaceful transition of power from those who lose elections to those who win them. Yet it’s been over a year and half since Trump has refused to concede — continuously spreading his big lie that the election was stolen, pushing public officials at all levels of government to overturn the election, and instigating an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on the day Congress was to certify the election results. As Federal District Court Judge David Carter stated in a recent opinion, “[T]he Court finds it more likely than not that President Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021.”
Trump is already well on the way to rebuilding the Republican Party around his big lie. He is purging the GOP of his critics and installing loyalists in key state positions. And he is inspiring GOP-state legislatures to enact election sabotage laws that will give Trump and his supporters opportunities to rig congressional election results. The upcoming 2022 congressional elections will serve as proving grounds for his attempt to steal the 2024 presidential election.
Trump is a growing menace to our system of self-government. The longer he goes without being held accountable for what he has done, the more danger he poses.
The critical question, then, is whether Attorney General Merrick Garland will bring criminal charges against him — and when. The window of opportunity is closing fast. The House Select Committee on January 6 will be holding public hearings in a few weeks and report its findings thereafter. (The committee has already collected nearly 10,000 documents and conducted more than 860 depositions and interviews, including with Trump family members and his close associates.) If Republicans take over the House in the midterm elections, they are sure to close down the inquiry.
Moreover, immediately after the midterm elections, America will be in the gravitational pull of the 2024 presidential primaries — in which Trump will almost certainly play a leading role, unless he is indicted and convicted. He has already amassed a campaign chest of more than $120 million, more than double that of the Republican National Committee. During the last six months of 2021, his PAC raised more money online than the GOP every day but two. And once he is a declared candidate, it will be impossible for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms to stop him from engulfing them with his lies.
Some say Garland should not bring criminal charges against Trump because criminal charges have never before been brought against a former president. This is a specious argument because no former president has ever before attempted to overthrow a duly elected President — the first attempted coup in the 233-year history of the United States government.
Others worry that criminal charges against Trump — along with a trial and possible imprisonment — would only deepen the fierce partisan divide that’s already drained trust out of much of American democracy. This is a legitimate concern. But failure to hold Trump accountable for what he has done would pose a far greater risk for American democracy — permanently entrenching distrust in our election system and legitimizing future battles over every contest, possibly provoking repeated rounds of violence.
Trump’s indictment and conviction must occur as quickly as possible. The upcoming midterm elections won’t simply be a battle between Republicans and Democrats. They will be a battle between Trump acolytes and fair election supporters over protecting the integrity of our elections and our democracy. The sooner Trump is held accountable for his criminality, the safer American democracy will be.