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Mostly Peaceful Sexual Abuse

Republicans and the E. Jean Carroll verdict.

Columnist E. Jean Carroll leaves after her civil trial against former President Donald Trump on May 09, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Never Trump conservatives are a pessimistic bunch but there’s one point on which even many of us feel a twinge of optimism. What if one of Donald Trump’s primary opponents attacked his character and fitness for office unabashedly?

That tactic has never been tried in a campaign, at least not early enough to affect the outcome. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz each resorted to it in desperation in 2016 after Trumpmania had built enormous momentum and their own stars had begun to fall.

What if someone with the populist stature of, say, Ron DeSantis took it to Trump over his personal corruption early and often in the coming campaign, when many Republican voters might still be persuadable? Would those zombified partisans suddenly awaken after eight years to their hero’s many flaws?

The only way to find out is to try, some Never Trumpers insist, and I suppose that’s true. But I am not optimistic, as regular readers may recall.

Our friend David French wrote today at the New York Times about E. Jean Carroll’s civil suit, in which a certain presidential frontrunner was held liable for sexually abusing and later defaming Carroll. “Now the G.O.P. faces a very different kind of trial, one conducted not before a jury, but before a watching nation,” said French, speculating about how Republican voters might react to the verdict. “It’s a test of decency, integrity and respect, and it is a great tragedy of our time that no one can presume that it’s a test the party will pass.”

This too seems unduly optimistic to me insofar as it sounds a note of uncertainty and suspense. There’s no suspense. We can presume, with absolute confidence, that the party will fail the test of institutional character he describes.

Consider these responses to the verdict yesterday.

Marco Rubio: “That jury’s a joke. The whole case is a joke… If someone accuses me of raping them and I didn’t do it, and you’re innocent, of course you’re going to say something about it … it was a joke.”

Lindsey Graham: “I think you could convict Donald Trump of kidnapping Lindbergh’s baby… I question the whole process.”

Tommy Tuberville: “They’re going to do anything they can to keep him from winning. It ain’t gonna work … people are gonna see through the lines, a New York jury, he had no chance.” He went on to say that the verdict “makes me want to vote for him twice.”

It’s true that Rubio, Graham, and Tuberville are Trump allies, but that’s the point: Even a multimillion-dollar judgment holding Trump liable for sexually abusing a woman proved no match for their allegiance in the aftermath. And none of the three are close Trump cronies the way, say, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz are. Rubio and Graham are mainstream politicians with their roots in the pre-Trump Republican Party, and each challenged Trump in the 2016 primary. Yet neither batted an eye at the verdict.

Never mind Trump’s allies. Consider how his primary opponents, all of whom theoretically have an incentive to hold the outcome of the trial against him, responded. “I wasn’t one of the jurors and I’m not privy to all of the facts that they have, but I’ll say what everyone else is privately thinking,” Vivek Ramaswamy told Politico.“If the defendant weren’t named Donald Trump, would there even be a lawsuit?” When the only woman in the Republican field was asked how she felt about the verdict, she … had no feelings at all.

Whether Haley and Ramaswamy are “opponents” of Trump in any meaningful sense or running for president to raise their public profiles is an open question. But how about Mike Pence, who’s eyeing a run himself, is universally well-known, and surely won’t be part of any future Trump administration? He has every reason to lower the boom on the frontrunner, one might think. But one would be wrong:

“I would tell you, in my 4½ years serving alongside the president, I never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature,” he said [of Carroll’s allegations].

“It’s just one more instance where — at a time when American families are struggling, when our economy is hurting, when the world seems to become a more dangerous place almost every day — [there’s] just one more story focusing on my former running mate that I know is a great fascination to members of the national media, but I just don’t think is where the American people are focused.”

So it came to pass that one of the most prominent Christian politicians in the country, who has both moral and electoral reasons to condemn an opponent who’s been credibly accused of sexual assault, opted instead to vouch for that opponent while blaming the media for thinking the matter should be relevant in choosing a party nominee.

And if it’s true that Pence never witnessed any troubling sexually tinged behavior by his former running mate in the Trump White House, perhaps it’s because he’s not as observant as some of his colleagues in the administration were.

As I write this Wednesday afternoon, Ron DeSantis has yet to comment on the outcome of the Carroll trial. But the most he’s apt to say when he does is to gently suggest that a man with a sexual abuse judgment hanging around his neck might not be the candidate to woo suburban women back to the party in 2024. It’s unfathomable that he’ll draw an inference from it about Trump’s fitness for office the way a precious few Republicans, like Mitt Romney and Asa Hutchinson, did yesterday.

There’s no suspense as to how the base of this party will respond to the Carroll verdict, which is why most Republican politicians have reacted the way they have. It’s also why there’s no reason to believe a dogged attack on Trump’s character in the primary would hurt him more than it would hurt the attacker.

The first rule of the modern Republican Party, it’s said, is “You can’t criticize Trump.” But that’s not correct.

The actual rule is “You can’t take sides with the left against Trump.” It just so happens that every moral objection to Trump’s character and fitness is now “coded” as leftist in nature.

For the time being, it remains safe to criticize Trump in ways that don’t side with the left. John Cornyn, for instance, wrung his hands after the Carroll verdict over how it might further damage the GOP’s chances in a general election. He doesn’t object to what Trump was held liable for doing, in other words, he objects to the prospect of the libs holding power for another four years. His heart is in the right ideological place even if his electoral analysis is in error.

The same goes for attacking Trump on policy from the right, I expect. If DeSantis accuses him of indulging Anthony Fauci too much on lockdowns or of falling short on walling off the border, that critique will also be tolerated. Again, the attacker’s heart would be ideologically pure.

To fault Trump for not being worthy of the presidency is another matter entirely.

It was different in 2016. If you had asked a Republican voter at the time how one should feel about Trump’s character, most would have called it troubling but not disqualifying, particularly relative to the Democratic alternative on the ballot that year. You were free to deride Trump’s fitness for office—you were even correct to do so in some respects—so long as you recognized that he was the lesser of two evils when it came time to vote.

In 2023, the question of Trump’s character has become a litmus test of right-wing authenticity. To deem him unfit for office is necessarily to have been corrupted by left-wing propaganda, even if the “propaganda” in question is Trump being accused of sexual misconduct by 20+ women and then being held liable for sexual abuse in court.

This explains why so many conservatives, elected and otherwise, resorted to grumbling about the “New York jury” after yesterday’s verdict. If the jurors were a bunch of partisan blue-state hacks, as their critics insinuate, it’s passing strange that they ended up finding Trump not liable on Carroll’s most sensational claim, that he raped her. But since holding him accountable for any moral failing is behavior that’s now associated exclusively with Democrats, the belief on the right that the verdict could only have been tainted by politics will be inescapable.

That dynamic conveniently makes it impossible for Trump’s fitness for office to be challenged legitimately by someone on his own side, as challenging him on those grounds means you’re not on his side at all.

Reporter Benjy Sarlin captured the absurdity when he tweeted, “It’s hard to sum up the 2024 situation more succinctly than this: Trump is already calling DeSantis a groomer based 100% on innuendo with 0 penalty; and DeSantis cannot respond by citing an actual jury finding of sexual abuse.” It’s ludicrous. But it’s also completely rational for DeSantis and the rest of the field under the circumstances to overlook the Carroll trial, since to mention it would be to take sides with the left against Trump. And that would disqualify them, not him.

As a case in point, consider that there’s only one Republican weighing a run for president who’s willing to speak the blunt truth about yesterday’s verdict.

Care to guess how Chris Christie has been polling lately?

He’s at -62 among Republicans in the latest CBS survey when they’re asked whether they might vote for him in the primary or aren’t considering doing so. That’s the worst split in the field among nine candidates tested, lower than Asa Hutchinson. Christie hasn’t held public office of any kind since 2018 and spent most of the eight years since Trump took over the party as an ally of the former president, so Republicans have no policy reason to despise him. It’s because he’s been outspoken lately about Trump—specifically, crossing the red line by questioning his fitness and character repeatedly—that he’s become as radioactive among Republican voters as Liz Cheney has.

That being so, why should we believe that a full-frontal attack on Trump’s corruption by DeSantis or anyone else would hurt Trump more than it would hurt them?

Here’s a charming passage from the Washington Post’s reporting on the Carroll trial.

In private, Trump has dismissed Carroll as “Ms. Bergdorf,” referring to the Bergdorf Goodman department store where she said Trump attacked her. Trump also said he would not have assaulted her because she was too old — and that if he had, it would not have been in a department store dressing room but instead at one of his own properties.

Most men would respond with moral indignation upon being accused of a sex crime, not by reasoning that the accuser isn’t the type of woman he’d be inclined to assault. Most men also wouldn’t muse that celebrities like him historically have been able to assault women with impunity, “unfortunately or fortunately.” Fortunately?

E. Jean Carroll told friends at the time about what Trump allegedly did to her. Other women who claim that he touched them without their consent testified at the trial. Those facts, plus his own comments, plus the many other accusations of sexual misconduct made against him over time should have led Republicans to greet the verdict with, at best, ambivalence. Instead reactions like this abound:

Because Trump can no longer be criticized on moral grounds from the right, being held liable for sexual abuse needs to be spun as an affirmative good practically amounting to a campaign donation. You’ll never see a more elegant summary of modern conservatism’s civic bankruptcy. It can’t be long before some especially excitable populist, eager to signal the depth of his devotion to the cause, ends up defending Trump’s sexual abuse of Carroll as “mostly peaceful.”

In practice, Republicans have now confirmed the truth of Trump’s famous quip that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes. When he said that in 2016, it was a comic exaggeration of a basic truth, that his most fervent supporters follow him blindly. It’s no longer an exaggeration and no longer applies to only his most fervent supporters. If he murdered someone in broad daylight in 2023, rank-and-file Republicans would find a way to excuse it.

These people, most of them nominally Christian, have developed and installed nothing less than an alternate morality based on tribalism. Behind the complaints about the “New York jury” is the idea that only a panel of Republicans, not Americans, is qualified to sit in judgment of Trump as peers—although if a jury of Republicans were to find him liable, they’d naturally be dismissed as Never Trumpers. Again, the moral “logic” of the modern right is that only right-wingers can properly hold Trump accountable, yet to hold him accountable is to disqualify oneself as a right-winger.

Ironically, that logic is self-reinforcing. Because no Republican prosecutor will investigate him, it falls exclusively to Democratic prosecutors to do so. And because only Democratic prosecutors are investigating him, no self-respecting Republican prosecutor would do so.

There is, in short, no such thing in the right’s new moral cosmology as a fair process that produces an adverse outcome for Trump. On any moral or legal challenge, either he’s exonerated or he’s a victim of injustice. “Can’t attack him for being arrested, can’t attack him for losing a suit involving heinous allegations, can’t attack him for being investigated over classified documents, or efforts to overturn the election,” Semafor noted, summarizing the unwritten rules of the Republican presidential primary. Hopefuls like DeSantis are just following the moral code that’s been foisted upon them by their constituents.

I’m not a religious person but the word for this ersatz morality is “wicked.” And in many cases, I suspect, it’s heartfelt. Jonah Goldberg noted recently on The Remnant how taxing it is psychologically for a person to behave cynically; as time passes, a Marco Rubio or a Lindsey Graham who defends Trump reluctantly as a matter of political self-interest will grow more enthusiastic about him simply to spare themselves the agony of their thoughts and words being perpetually at odds.

If rank-and-file Republicans weren’t deadly serious about their new morals, the judge in the Carroll trial wouldn’t have had to warn jurors not to reveal their identities, the sort of precaution courts typically take with mobsters and terrorists. But this wicked movement is one that Ron DeSantis and the rest want to lead, so these are the moral rules by which they’ll need to play. I hope they’re at peace with their choice.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.