Donald Trump has made clear time and time again that, in his view, the worst thing that can happen to a person is to be judged a “loser.” In the 2020 presidential election he was, in fact, a loser, but his narcissism and the incredibly fragile self-esteem that undergirds it won’t allow him to accept that reality. He has spent the past 15 months attempting to overthrow the election in an effort to make himself the winner and, after that effort failed, rewriting the narrative, portraying himself as a victim of “THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY.”
Almost every public comment Trump makes these days is focused on the election. America’s 45th president said in a statement last week that his vice president, Mike Pence, should have “overturned” the election. In a speech, he indicated that if he were to become president again, he’d likely pardon the people who on January 6, 2021, violently stormed the Capitol to stop the certification of the election, part of his ongoing effort to turn insurrectionists and those charged with seditious conspiracy into martyrs. He also warned that he would incite unrest if prosecutors who are investigating him and his businesses took action against him.
Trump’s mind has no room to entertain any other thoughts, at least not for long. His defeat is his obsession; it has pulled him into a deep, dark place. He wants to pull the rest of us into it as well.
I discuss Trump in psychological terms because I have said for a half-dozen years—and previously in these pages—that the most important thing to understand about Trump is his disordered personality; it’s the only way to even begin to think about how to deal with him. (I’m not the only person to think that.)
Trump seems unable to incorporate anything critical about himself, hence his need to create an imaginary world in which he really won the 2020 election but was the victim of a conspiracy that borders on intergalactic. He’s performed a moral inversion in which the supporters who stormed the Capitol are the true patriots; they, like he, are being unfairly persecuted. They are the defenders of democracy; the people who are holding them accountable are the enemies of America.
Another reason Trump’s mindset matters is that millions of his followers—passionate, committed, incensed, aggrieved, and absolutely sure they are right and righteous—have entered his hall of mirrors. To understand the GOP, one must understand Trump. It’s true that his hold on the party has weakened some since he left office; that was inevitable. But he is still far and away the dominant figure in the GOP and, at this juncture at least, its mostly likely presidential nominee in 2024. As Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times put it, “the Republican Party is very much still Mr. Trump’s, transforming his lies about a stolen 2020 election into an article of faith, and even a litmus test that he is seeking to impose on the 2022 primaries with the candidates he backs. He is the party’s most coveted endorser, its top fund-raiser and the polling front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination.”
The Trump era has conditioned many in the Republican Party to think like he does—and those who don’t are too afraid to speak out against his malicious transgressions. Even Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine—who voted to impeach Trump, who represents a blue state, who isn’t up for reelection for four years, and who clearly views Trump as a threat to American democracy—bobbed and weaved when she was asked if she would support Trump in 2024. The proper response would have been: of course not!
As if to prove that the GOP is now an instrument of Trump’s obsession, late last week Republican leaders meeting in Salt Lake City censured Representative Adam Kinzinger and Representative Liz Cheney because of their work on the January 6 committee. The Republican National Committee also announced that it would fund Cheney’s primary opponent.
Cheney and Kinzinger engaged in a “Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse,” the Republican National Committee’s chair, Ronna McDaniel, said. McDaniel’s words were echoed in the censure, which accused Cheney and Kinzinger of “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
Even in a Trump-led party, it is stunning that Republican leaders would seek to whitewash a violent attack on the Capitol to overturn a presidential election. This is not just moral degradation; it is moral nihilism.
McDaniel’s insistence, after a great deal of blowback, that “legitimate political discourse” referred only to nonviolent protesters isn’t convincing. For one thing, there is no “persecution”—to use the language from the RNC resolution—by the January 6 congressional committee aimed at people who gathered peacefully before the assault on the Capitol. For another, Trump’s dangling of a pardon could apply only to those who were arrested for attacking the Capitol. And in a resolution in which the events of January 6 were central, the RNC did not see fit to say a single critical word about the violent mob that stormed the Capitol. That is itself quite telling.
Amanda Carpenter, who once worked for Senator Ted Cruz, put it well: “The fact the RNC is censuring Cheney and Kinzinger for investigating January 6 and not condemning Trump for causing January 6 is absolutely demented.”
Even The Wall Street Journal editorial page felt compelled to issue this warning: “Republicans should not get within 10 miles of defending the Capitol riot. What is to be gained by the RNC’s indulgence of President Trump’s vendettas?” The answer, of course, is that they may be true believers—and even if they aren’t, they understand, perhaps better than The Journal’s editorial writers, what MAGA world is demanding.
To put this “indulgence” in perspective, contrast the behavior of the Republican Party in the United States with the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. As Mark Landler, the Times’ London-bureau chief, has noted, Tory members of Parliament have been far more critical of Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who didn’t incite an attack on the House of Commons but did host drinking parties during lockdown—than Republicans have been critical of Trump. The Tory party understands the distinction between partisan loyalty and craven, unpatriotic fealty; the Republican Party does not.
I’ve sensed lately that some people on the right—individuals who defended Trump at virtually every turn in his presidency but knew privately, deep in their heart, that they had made moral accommodations they weren’t proud of—wish the rest of us would just move on from Trump. Media coverage of the former president brings to the foreground the cost of their Faustian bargain.
Shortly after the election, some of us tried to move on. But unfortunately, Trump and MAGA world had something different in mind—undermining trust in our elections, storming the Capitol, propagating malicious and destructive lies. There is now an entire media industry—Right Wing Inc.—built around the distorted and disturbed mind of Donald J. Trump.
A wise conservative friend of mine who is a critic of the left recently told me, “At the elite level, the Republican Party is much worse than the Democratic Party when it comes to the health of American democracy. It is led by, and defined by, Trump, who wants to attack our institutions at every level.”
So he does, and so he has. Trump was dangerous, his mind disordered, before; he’s more dangerous, his mind more disordered, now. He’s obsessed and enraged, consumed by vengeance, and moving us closer to political violence. His behavior needs attention not because of the past but because of the future. A second Trump term would make the first one look like a walk in the park.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.
This article was originally published in The Atlantic on February 7, 2022.