20221115 trump web card image updated november 15
Fmr prosecutor explains how Trump could beat a criminal prosecution
02:17 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Next year will mark 50 years since President Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. Given that the GOP has tried to position itself as the party of “law and order” ever since, it’s ironic that the Republican nominee in 2024 could be a former president who has been indicted in more than one criminal probe.

Although former Vice President Mike Pence boasted in his official campaign announcement on Wednesday that he “chose the Constitution” when former President Donald Trump pressured him to overturn the 2020 election, Pence was still, of course, his loyal deputy for four years.

The fact is that almost all of the serious Republican contenders were complicit in helping Trump at one point or another. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie endorsed Trump in 2016 and headed his transition team. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley served in the Trump administration as UN ambassador, while Sen. Tim Scott voted to acquit Trump in both impeachment trials. And until recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had always been a loyal Trumpian.

Just as relevant, Trump remains incredibly popular among the Republican electorate. Despite all the legal problems that he faces – including, according to CNN sources, a federal indictment in the special counsel’s classified documents probe – Trump denies any and all wrongdoing and continues to remain the leader of the pack. At this point, the odds of any other Republican usurping him still seem low.

How did this happen? How has Trump remained such a towering figure within the party?

The most important factor remains the intense partisanship that we see within the Republican Party. Along with many other historians and political scientists, I have traced the asymmetric polarization of American politics, with the GOP moving much more to the right than Democrats have to the left.

Since the 1980s, more Republicans have been willing to prioritize partisan concerns and undertake more extreme tactics to achieve and maintain power. While some Republicans have backed other candidates, arguing that Trump won’t be able to win in the 2024 general election, it’s likely the party will coalesce around him should he win the nomination.

This intense partisanship also gave rise to an extreme theory of presidential power that has taken hold since Ronald Reagan was president. Known as the “unitary executive theory,” this pillar of Republican thought claims that there should be virtually no checks on what a president can do in office. The theory downplays how much oversight Congress can impose and stipulates that the president has near-total power over the federal executive branch, which includes the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

With this vision of the presidency — at least when Republicans are in office — the GOP can easily justify much of what Trump has done. Not to mention that many Republicans who simply like Trump, or are grateful to him for having reshaped the courts and delivered on tax cuts, are eager to see him do more of the same in a second term.

In any case, the two trends of polarization and extreme executive power have been layered over a deep distrust of government — an idea that has been at the center of conservatism since Reagan became president and announced in his inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

This sentiment has hugely deleterious effects on the standing of everyone in public service. Trump continues to use this distrust to his own benefit by casting legitimate investigations as the biased work of rogue prosecutors, agents and officials trying to bring him down.

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He has also benefited from a vast conservative media ecosystem and the ease with which disinformation circulates online. When Trump and his allies float conspiratorial allegations about why he is in so much trouble, there is a network of supporters who often repeat his claims and give him room to solidify his support.

And, finally, anti-democratic sentiments have been growing around the world. Autocratic leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have proven to be very popular among conservatives, many of whom had no issues with Trump questioning the legitimacy of our institutions, shattering the norms of the presidency and trying to overturn the 2020 election. While the admiration for strongmen is not a sentiment shared by all Republicans, there are enough within the coalition to bolster a politician who does not abide by the legal restrictions on what persons in power can or can’t do.

All of these factors have converged to allow Trump to remain the most powerful Republican in the room. Although the strength of these dynamics will be tested throughout the 2024 campaign, there is good reason to think that Republicans will continue to back Trump in droves.

While many Democrats continue to wait for the GOP to fully reckon with Trump’s actions, it’s unclear whether that moment will come anytime soon. It’s not that Trump has some uncanny ability to outwit anyone trying to bring him to justice — it’s that the GOP has fostered the forces that allowed him to thrive, with little interest in accountability.