The federal indictment of Donald Trump for his alleged mishandling of classified government documents has provoked a savage deluge of propaganda and threats from his supporters in the Republican Party. This pushback aims to undermine the legitimacy of the case against the former president, suggesting Trump is the victim of a politicized Justice Department under the tyrannical thumb of a tinpot despot named Joseph R. Biden. Not only have some Republicans argued that Trump should essentially be considered above the law, but others have taken the opportunity to suggest that the entire judicial system is somehow out to get conservatives. Combined with some Trump allies’ hints at the necessity of violence to protect the former president, the whole spectacle signals that the GOP’s acceleration towards authoritarianism shows no signs of slowing down. As I contended last week, the outrageous GOP response is an even more important story than news of the federal charges against Trump.

I was hardly alone in lamenting both the media’s and the Democratic Party’s inability to grapple adequately with this larger context of Republican extremism, so that they might make fully comprehensible the news of the indictment to the broader public. Far too much coverage urged readers to take note of the “sad,” “somber,” and “unprecedented” nature of the charges, as if it’s a worrisome thing when the rule of law applies to the rich and powerful.

But the good news is that lots of people seemed to notice this ridiculous trend. As Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum riposted in a tweet, “The horrible precedent isn’t that Trump was indicted. The horrible precedent is that we had a president who repeatedly broke the law.” Other media coverage tried to spin the GOP response as a vague “polarization/test of our democracy” moment — but as Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent observed, “Stop saying the indictment ‘tests our democracy.’ The actual ‘test’ we face is Trump’s apparent crimes and the unhinged GOP defense of him, which effectively posits that any/all law enforcement activity involving Trump is inherently illegitimate, no matter what the facts show.”

And though some sources implied America was at a crossroads for doing something that had never been done before (i.e., indicting a former president), they mostly never bothered to point out that plenty of other democracies have charged and convicted heads of state, from Japan and Israel to France and South Korea — facts no further away than in a recent primer by Flux’s own Matthew Sheffield on the topic.

As for the Democrats’ strategic decision to refrain from anything like either a full-throated counter-offensive against GOP disinformation or a solid defense of the American justice system, the passage of time has shown how perilous this conflict-averse approach truly is, as the Republican Party has only continued to blast its illiberal message of distrust in those who administer the law. As former Obama administration official Dan Pfeiffer has warned, “Democrats need to go on offense to push back on Trump’s messaging before he discredits the investigations and distracts the public.” In the absence of a coherent Democratic strategy, the odds increase by the day that Pfeiffer’s dark scenario will come to pass.

In an assessment of the indictment, historian Thomas Zimmer notes a recurring pattern in which the GOP reaches certain crossroads with Donald Trump — such as the attempted January 6 coup — only to choose the path of adherence to Trump and the greater radicalization inherent in such a choice. Zimmer is right to suggest that Republican elites’ defense of Trump in light of the federal indictment is another such branch in the road to greater radicalization, this time involving a wholesale denunciation of the justice system as corrupt and antithetical to the interests of Trumpist conservatives.

Democrats could do worse than to take Zimmer’s powerful contextualization of the GOP reaction as a starting point, and provide a narrative that reminds Americans of the previous decisive points at which the Republican Party chose to increase its devotion to authoritarian means and ends. It seems that an accurate, dynamic portrayal of GOP devolution would be a more powerful message that simply saying “MAGA Republicans don’t share our values” (though the latter message certainly has its place). It’s critical that Democrats not only describe what the Republican Party is becoming, but convey the degree to which the party is still radicalizing, to borrow Zimmer’s phrasing. Not only would this allow the American public to better understand the nature of the current GOP, it would offer a powerful context for interpreting future GOP actions and rhetoric, given that the party only ever moves in one direction these days — ever more to the right.

Likewise, Democrats would do well to play up the corruption and criminality inherent in the GOP’s defense of Trump, a point emphasized by Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler, who writes that, “Democrats should (finally, at long last) wield Trump’s corruption as a wedge—make his crimes a liability not just for him but for any GOP pretenders who defend him”:

What could be easier? Whatever the charging documents allege, we know more or less what Trump’s exposure is. He mounted a coup against the U.S. government, and when the coup failed, he stole a bunch of state secrets.

Democratic leaders, with the possible exception of Joe Biden himself, can choose to exploit that division. They can note that Trump’s defenders have sided against the country with someone who tried to destroy it. They can mount a political offensive based on the importance of protecting these prosecutions from Republican sabotage and force votes on measures that affirm DOJ independence.

Like Zimmer, Beutler gets that the importance in the Trump indictment lies not so much in the crimes of Donald Trump as in the grand demonstration of GOP extremism and corruption it has provided. And as Jamelle Bouie highlights in a recent New York Times column, it’s not like this Republican corruption and criminality have come out of nowhere, as if Trump brought a blushingly innocent GOP to the dark side. Bouie suggests that Trump is in fact the culmination of long-running trends in the GOP:

Most things in life, and especially a basic respect for democracy and the rule of law, have to be cultivated. What is striking about the Republican Party is the extent to which it has, for decades now, cultivated the opposite — a highly instrumental view of our political system, in which rules and laws are legitimate only insofar as they allow for the acquisition and concentration of power in Republican hands.

[. . .] there is also the reality that Trump is the apotheosis of a propensity for lawlessness within the Republican Party. He is what the party and its most prominent figures have been building toward for nearly half a century. I think he knows it and I think they do too.

As with the points by Zimmer and Beutler I noted above, Bouie provides valuable context, in a way that breaks simplistic narratives that what is happening in American politics is unprecedented (Trump’s alleged lawbreaking) or incomprehensible (such as the idea that the GOP is going against its (undeserved) reputation as a “law and order” party). Again, it would behoove the Democratic Party to work more vigorously to remind the American public that GOP tendencies towards corruption are long-standing, and in the present day extend far beyond Donald Trump (just take a look at the steady flow of reports of Supreme Court corruption — a new one is out just this week! — to get a sense of how far and wide it goes within the party).

But broadening the field of what Democrats feel comfortable targeting about GOP-wide malfeasance and authoritarianism is only part of the challenge for the party. They can’t just argue about the Republicans as an abstract threat to the rule of law and democracy, no matter how important it is to defend those principles. Democrats also need to grab the imagination of Americans, and provide an easy-to-understand narrative of what the GOP’s decayed state means for them personally.

As Dan Pfeiffer observes in the same piece I quoted above, “If we want people to care about Trump’s criminality and corruption, we have to show how it affects their lives”:

Donald Trump isn’t running for President to help your family. His first priority is to protect himself from accountability and pardon his political allies, including the people who assaulted the Capitol on January 6th.

Instead of working to lower costs and raise wages, Trump promised to spend his time and energy using the power of the government and your taxpayer dollars to seek revenge on his enemies with pointless investigations and political prosecutions. Donald Trump doesn’t care about you, he only cares about himself.

This emphasis on bringing the consequences of Trump’s (and the GOP’s) corruption down to earth is spot-on, just as when people talk about the erosion of the rule of law, it’s important to describe the everyday consequences of the rich getting away with crimes while the rest of us are victimized by them. As Pfeiffer notes, “We must turn the conversation towards accountability for the rich and powerful” — a principle the great majority of Americans should be able to get behind, being neither rich nor powerful themselves.

It’s crucial that the Democrats rev up both their rhetoric and their substantive fight against the lawlessness promoted by the GOP in the wake of Trump’s indictment, for a whole host of reasons. Such an aggressive stance would help dilute the damage GOP propaganda will otherwise do to the public’s understanding of the important stakes in holding Donald Trump accountable; it will help alert the public to the dangers posed by lawless Republicans; it will help protect American institutions from further damage by the GOP; and it will defend the Democrats themselves from baseless accusations of corruption.

The post-indictment GOP firestorm is a good enough reason in its own right for the Democrats to step up the tempo — but we also need to bear in mind that what we’re seeing now, from both the GOP and the Democrats, is something of a test run in the event of far more existentially serious charges against Trump in connection with attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. I would hazard that what we’ve seen so far will rate as a tempest in a teacup compared to what the GOP will say and do should Donald Trump finally be indicted for his insurrectionism.