The consequences facing two scandal-plagued Republican politicians, namely former President Donald Trump and now-suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, are playing out in real time. The responses by some in the GOP suggest a deep aversion to self-policing. Yet in both cases, the question remains: will partisan actors act in a knee-jerk fashion in support of their tribe or will they act based on what’s truly in their self-interest, rightly understood?

Paxton may not be well-known outside his home state, but he seems to be an (alleged) habitual offender who also holds statewide office. He has been accused of various crimes, starting before he was elected attorney general in 2014, from failing to register required business activities with the relevant state boards, to securities fraud, bribery and abuse of office.

Meanwhile, he has sought to drag out the process repeatedly while portraying himself as the victim of a witch hunt by political foes. He’s successfully used this tactic against both Republican primary opponents as well as Democratic challengers, with the help of high-profile defenders like Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Members of the Texas state legislature have, until recently, mostly turned a blind eye, likely fearing the wrath of Paxton and his backers.

But last month, when the legislature was asked to authorize payment of $3.3 million to settle with multiple whistleblowers who lost their jobs after reporting potentially criminal behavior to federal investigators, lawmakers apparently decided things had gone too far.

The legislature investigated Paxton’s conduct, with Texas state Rep. Andrew Murr, who led the committee, calling it “alarming” that Paxton was de-facto asking the legislature to participate in a cover-up. The committee voted to recommend impeachment, and shortly thereafter, Paxton was impeached by a bipartisan vote of 121-23. He’s now been suspended, pending a trial in the state Senate.

In past years, this would be unremarkable. But Paxton’s repeated and electorally successful appeals to gutter populism and partisanship — repeatedly accusing his foes, in both parties, of being “liberals” or worse — has been successful. Combine that with the high-profile support from Trump and Cruz, it makes it perhaps surprising, and welcome, that the legislature finally flipped the switch.

But was there any real cost? Under Texas law, GOP Gov. Gregg Abbott replaced Paxton with now-interim AG John Stott, a former Texas secretary of state. Trump and Cruz, while initially supportive of Paxton, seem concerned more with their own woes and re-election efforts. Paxton’s chances in the state Senate seem grim, and it seems unlikely any state representative, or the Republican Party more broadly, will suffer. Indeed, being free of Paxton’s baggage will likely benefit the Republican ticket.

Instead, one might rightfully ask, what took so long?

Meanwhile, the past three weeks have been dominated by the news that Trump allegedly retained highly sensitive national security documents after leaving office, which he allegedly showed to unauthorized private citizens. He was indicted by the Department of Justice on 37 counts related to this matter.  Trump, per usual, remains defiant.

Initially, Trump was defended by Republicans in Congress, and even some of his rivals for the nomination. Once the indictment was made public, however, many changed their tone. Trump’s alleged bragging about breaking the law, and apparently quite openly instructing his aids to lie and obstruct the Department of Justice, seems to have unnerved all but the least serious political hacks. Nikki Haley originally decried the indictment as prosecutorial overreach, but later said Trump was “incredibly reckless,” and Mike Pence, who first said he was “deeply troubled” that the indictment happened, now says he “can’t defend” his old running mate and that “no one is above the law.”

Even politicians who still defend Trump largely do so on the grounds that his indictment will lead to a downward spiral of political prosecutions, not on the substance, or even the procedure (which was the last refuge of Paxton supporters).

E pluribus disunion
The end of the elites

Much like Paxton’s woes, none of this can seriously be said to be surprising. Trump’s virtual non-stop norm-busting and lawbreaking, from “mean tweets” to election tampering, to obstruction of justice, aren’t seriously contested on the facts. They are contested almost solely on political grounds — pointing to the bad acts of other politicians or decrying the process as driven by partisan political ends.

This view is misplaced. Indeed, most partisan and/or ideological arguments boil down to the understandable notion that their party or political philosophy has something good to offer the country, and jettisoning that good, to the benefit of foes that will not appreciate it, is foolish.

But politics is rarely a zero-sum game, particularly over time. Indeed, what is needed here is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood,” or “enlightened self-interest.” Tocqueville wrote an entire chapter of his famous book “Democracy in America,” discussing the notion that Americans, “almost always manage to combine their own advantage with that of their fellow citizens” and that they believed, particularly over time, it was in each individual’s “private interest is to do good.”

Paxton’s impeachment, and likely removal, does nothing significant to harm the goals of Republicans. Instead, removing him lances a boil that threatened their continued success in the state. Defending him to the hilt and taking his alleged crimes on themselves might make their opponents mad, and his loudest defenders proud, but it wouldn’t help Texas Republicans win elections or enact their agenda. Jettisoning him quickly, and without mercy, on the other hand, might do just that.

While it is true that Trump has a more dedicated following than Paxton, and the presidency is an office far more bound up in symbolism than the office of state attorney general, Trump is also far more of an anchor than Paxton. Ever since Trump’s inside-straight, popular-vote losing victory against Hillary Clinton in 2016, which still saw Republican losses in the House and Senate, he has been electoral poison, losing the House in 2018, the White House in 2020, the Senate in 2021, and clearly narrowing Republican gains in 2022. There is no good argument to be made that he’ll be the stronger candidate in 2024 than Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott or any of the other contenders. Jettisoning Trump won’t hurt Republican prospects; it will aid them.

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While I think it is easy to say, truthfully, that Republicans should have given Donald Trump the same treatment as Paxton long ago, particularly after Jan. 6, it remains true that it is better late than never. Indeed, even a partial show of being willing to hold your side accountable tends to diffuse issues in the minds of persuadable voters. Debate over whether Hunter Biden’s recent guilty plea to tax evasion and gun charges, by a Justice Department run by his father, was a “sweetheart deal,” or fair given the circumstances, remains hotly contested, even on the right. But at minimum, it showed to swing voters at least some willingness of Democrats to hold their own side accountable. Actions like the overwhelming heave-ho that Paxton got, of course, would be even better.

Trump’s latest indictment is an excellent opportunity to make that same point, in spades. Republicans, from the lowest precinct committee chairman to U.S. senators, should use whatever influence they have to make it clear that Trump is unacceptable because of their own enlightened self-interest, and, as it happens, because it is also the right thing to do, and in the best interests of the country.

Paxton’s fast and decisive ouster has shown the way to deal with bad political actors, if only political leaders will take the path of their own self-interest, rightly understood.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues.

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