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Paxton Acquittal: Protecting The Lawless Is What Authoritarian Parties Do

From Ruth Ben-Ghiat: "For the authoritarians of the GOP, who no longer see free and fair elections as valid ways of deciding America's leadership, that amounts to an "overthrow," to use Paxton's word. This is where the GOP is now."
Published:September 19, 2023
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Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

“Today it could be General Paxton, and tomorrow it could be you,” warned Texas Rep. John Smithee in May as the impeachment proceedings against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton started. Smithee's appeal to his peers to stop this dangerous attempt at cleaning up the Texas GOP is symptomatic of the climate of corruption that prevails in the party at the state and national levels.

For two reasons, it's unsurprising that Paxton was acquitted of all charges by his cronies in the Texas Senate. The Texas GOP is one of the most extreme in the nation. Paxton has been a vociferous supporter of Trump's claim that Trump won the 2020 election. In October 2021 Paxton, a hard-core Trump defender, characterized Joe Biden's presence in the White House as an "overthrow" --the word implying that Biden pulled off a coup to take power.

A 2022 Texas GOP resolution expands on this attempt to make Biden a lawless figure: it calls him an illegitimate and “acting” president. For those who study authoritarianism, this is a red flag: it not only discredits Biden but implies that he won't be there for long and can be removed at any time.

Ken Paxton with Donald Trump in Dallas, TX, June 2020. Nichola Kamm, AFP vis Getty Images.

The logic of corruption also matters here. The GOP has embraced the methods and values of authoritarianism. It now depends on propaganda (the "Big Lie"), intimidation, and corruption --election denial being a form of corruption--for its identity and to maintain itself in power. In particular, it is a party that has remade itself in Trump's image, with the goal of protecting the corrupt and the criminal dictating its actions.

With its leader and many luminaries now indicted for trying to overturn the 2020 election, and those running for president pledging  on live television that they will support a convicted criminal as nominee, it is dangerous for the GOP to stand up at the state level for accountability. How much more appropriate to keep a corrupt attorney general in office. Authoritarianism is rule by the lawless. At its peak, as in the states of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, authoritarianism becomes political rule in support of kleptocracy. 

The dangers of accountability, transparency, impartial investigation and other bedrock values of democracy for authoritarian leaders and parties is why these inevitably go after members of the press and the judiciary and often the intelligence sector as well. In the American case, this motivates attacks against the FBI, which is still investigating Paxton (who also faces a state securities fraud case).

In the short term, Paxton will be further emboldened to aggressively undermine the rule of law in his state. On cue, Paxton denounced the "weaponization of the impeachment process to settle political differences." No matter that the GOP as a whole is seeking to impeach Biden, at Trump's bidding, to "settle political differences" and take revenge on Biden for having committed the sin of having been legally elected to the office of the presidency.

For the authoritarians of the GOP, who no longer see free and fair elections as valid ways of deciding America's leadership, that amounts to an "overthrow," to use Paxton's word. This is where the GOP is now.

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