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Why Mark Meadows' Mug Shot Haunts Me

Ruth Ben-Ghiat on Mark Meadows: "The former GOP Congressman entered Trump's inner circle already mildly corrupt, refused his leader nothing, and exited as an accomplice to the greatest political crimes of modern American history."
Published:August 31, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

“Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them,” wrote former FBI director James Comey in 2019 of how former president Donald Trump corrupted his associates, turning them into "co-conspirators." Comey had an indirect role in Trump’s success; he revealed Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server just before the 2016 election. Comey served Trump before being fired in 2017 for refusing to engage in improper actions on Trump’s behalf.

Trump's former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has met with a different fate. This former GOP Congressman entered Trump's inner circle already mildly corrupt, refused his leader nothing, and exited as an accomplice to the greatest political crimes of modern American history: attempting to overturn the 2020 election and helping to plan a violent coup attempt to keep Trump in power illegally.

Meadows’ mug shot, which displays a mix of anger and exhaustion, is an artifact from a particular tradition: political elites who enabled authoritarians and then found themselves on the wrong side of history. He glares at the camera, likely not quite believing that this is actually happening to him. Although there is a shade of humiliation, there is no visible remorse. Like so many others in the GOP, Meadows would likely do it all again if he knew it would succeed.

"It's never just the one individual, the bad actor," says consultant Dr. Alexander Stein, an expert on why people are led to engage in fraud and other criminal activities. "It's always the enablers and collaborators and all the other people who become enthralled by horrific behavior."
Like all strongmen, Trump thinks big and is unencumbered by moral precepts or other checks on behavior. Such leaders specialize in getting others to do things that were previously unthinkable, like planning an assault on the U.S. Capitol, and they lead their enablers to think that they will get away with everything as long as they stay loyal.

Meadows is at the center of this story of authoritarian corruption and violence. Every coup has a central figure who has privileged access to the individual or individuals leading the takeover and acts as the liaison of the co-conspirators. Here that person was Meadows. His desperate attempt to get his case moved to federal court from Georgia by claiming that he acted as a federal officer out to safeguard "free and fair elections" is belied by a mountain of evidence, not least the chilling texts Meadows exchanged with GOP lawmakers Chip Roy and Mike Lee between Nov. 2020 and Jan. 6, 2021.

That Meadows was not just the executor of Trump's wishes, but an active conspirator and coordinator of myriad illegal schemes to prevent Biden from taking office, comes through clearly from these messages. So does the authoritarian brand of loyalty displayed by Roy and Lee, who looked to Meadows as the man best able to convey what Trump was thinking.

There is the scheme to find evidence of voter fraud. Roy texted Meadows on Nov. 7, 2020: "If you're still in the game...dude, we need ammo. We need fraud examples. We need it this weekend" (The game being subverting Biden's victory). "We are working on exactly that," Meadows responds.

And there is the plan to create alternate slates of electors. "I am on that as of yesterday," Meadows assures Lee on Dec. 8, 2020. Meadows was still on it on Jan. 4: "I told him that you and I have been working it hard on his behalf," he texted Lee. By then Roy had had second thoughts: "If POTUS allows this to occur...we're driving a stake in the heart of the federal republic," he texted Meadows on Jan. 1. Meadows did not reply.

How unsurprising that Meadows had little reaction when the violence started five days later: violence was part of the plan. As Cassidy Hutchinson testified to the House Jan. 6 Committee, he remained calm and continued to scroll on his phone. Among the messages that he received that day were several from Roy: "This is a sh*tshow." "Fix this now." "We are," Meadows replied.

After the awful destruction and carnage ended, the GOP quickly closed ranks around Trump and the many co-conspirators among its ranks. Thus opened another chapter of the relationship of Republicans and "Teflon Don." As time passed, and only the foot soldiers were brought to justice, Trump's reputation as the invincible leader grew.

Thus do the mugshots of Meadows, Rudy Giuliani, and other co-conspirators show shock as well as anger: as always with the authoritarian's enablers, the reckoning with justice comes as a surprise. For the most devoted elite enablers, who saw Trump as an all-powerful and untouchable individual, seeing Trump's mug shot was likely a blow.

What awaits Meadows, and Trump, is not known. But authoritarian history is clear about the loneliness of the devoted follower who finds himself out in the cold when the moment of justice arrives. The mug shots tell that story as well.