In a live, nationally televised address forty-nine years ago this month, Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency, telling the American people that he no longer had “a strong enough political base in the Congress” to survive Watergate and serve out his term. This August, charges were brought against Donald Trump in both federal court and in Fulton County, Georgia, for his efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. At rallies, on cable TV, and in social media, Trump has railed at the charges against him, repeated the falsehoods that led to them, mocked the prosecutors who brought them, and issued thinly veiled threats against judges and potential witnesses. He has taken advantage of free media publicity to rake in millions of dollars from small donors, much of which he is apparently using to pay his mounting legal bills. Nevertheless, Trump still has the backing of more than half of Republican primary voters. Not coincidentally, he enjoys what Nixon, who faced no criminal charges, did not: a solid base of support from Republicans in Congress.
That loyalty stems from cowardice, not shared conviction. Republican members of Congress support Trump because they’re afraid of his supporters. Trump voters have long raged against Republicans deemed insufficiently dedicated to their cause, which now amounts to returning the former president to office and exacting revenge on his political enemies. Their devotion grows more cult-like by the day: a recent poll shows that they trust Trump to tell the truth more than they trust their family, friends, and religious leaders. Fear of the base had already scared GOP leaders like Sens. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham into voting against removing Trump from office after his second impeachment, following the attack on the Capitol in 2021. They justified their actions then by pointing to the courts as the proper venue for trying any crimes the former president might have committed. Fear motivates them even more today. Though Trump currently faces criminal charges in four different jurisdictions, Republican lawmakers criticize the same judicial process they earlier championed and slavishly echo right-wing nonsense about the “weaponized” Department of Justice. Now they say that voters in the 2024 election should issue the final verdict on his alleged crimes.
Trump’s main primary challengers show even less backbone. The contortions that Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott put themselves through to avoid criticizing the front-runner have prompted Chris Christie to suggest they might as well endorse Trump instead. Not that Christie deserves special credit: his fresh assessment of Trump as a dangerously unsuitable candidate comes seven years (and one previous endorsement of his own) too late. Whether Christie and the handful of other Republicans explicitly critical of Trump can affect the primaries, given the former president’s lead among Republican voters, is doubtful. As the charges against Trump have piled up, his support among the base has only grown.