Today's Republican Party has effectively become an authoritarian political cult led by Donald Trump. His millions of followers — with their votes, money, menace and potential or actual violence — have become his primary means of controlling the party and progressively undermining American democracy and society.
When Trump first emerged as a serious presidential candidate in 2016, Republican leaders and other right-wing elites believed they could control him and use him as a weapon in their revolutionary and reactionary struggle. They were both right and wrong about that.
Donald Trump is a political monster; Such leaders and forces have a mind and will all their own.
As president, Trump enacted policies that the Republican Party and larger white right have long dreamed of imposing on the American people, most notably rolling back taxes on the rich and seizing full control of the Supreme Court. That was a great victory in the long-term campaign to reverse the civil rights victories of the 20th and 21st century won by Black and brown people, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups.
But Donald Trump quickly become more powerful than the Republican Party, and not necessarily aligned with its leaders. His followers are far more loyal to him than to the party itself. When Trump and his followers attempted a violent coup on Jan. 6, 2021, many "mainstream" Republicans struggled to adjust to this new reality. Many people in the party understood that Trump was a fascist, perhaps a traitor and in a larger sense an existential threat to the United States. Within the Trump administration, there were discussions about removing him from office through the 25th Amendment. But ultimately most Republicans chose partisanship and power over genuine patriotism and the common good. In doing so, they made themselves de facto agents of American neofascism.
There were a few "traditional" Republicans and "principled" conservatives throughout the Trump years who for a variety of reasons spoke out against Donald Trump and walked away from the Republican Party and the MAGA movement. George Conway III was one of the loudest of those voices. He is a lawyer, a contributing columnist at the Washington Post and a founding member of the Lincoln Project. (He resigned from that organization in 2020 to spend more time with his family.)
Conway is a longtime Republican who left the party in 2018. By his own account, he was a candidate for various high-level positions in the Justice Department under the Trump administration. He is married to Kellyanne Conway, who was an adviser to Trump from 2017 to 2020.
In this wide-ranging conversation, Conway explains his belief that Donald Trump may finally be prosecuted, convicted and perhaps even imprisoned for violations of the Espionage Act and related crimes. Contrary to the opinions of other legal experts and political observers, Conway believes that Trump's ego will never permit him to admit guilt as part of a plea bargain agreement. He warns, however, that as Trump faces more pressure from the Department of Justice and other investigations into his obvious criminal wrongdoing, he may order his followers to unleash violence and destruction.
Conway also reflects on his own previous level of denial about the danger to the country embodied by Trump and the Republican fascist movement — and discusses how he went from thinking that Democrats and other members of "the left" were "hysterical" to realizing that their warnings were largely correct.
Toward the end of this conversation, Conway predicts that if Donald Trump faces incarceration or other serious punishment, he will turn against the Republican Party and seek to destroy it in an act of revenge. Ultimately, Trump's lasting legacy may be the destruction of the Republican Party as the political monster turns against its host and creator.
How are you feeling, given the country's democracy crisis and the rising neofascist tide? How do you make sense of all this?
I do think it's going to get better. But it's going to get worse before it gets better. Trump is basically a cornered animal. He's got all these legal proceedings bearing down on him. In addition, he is losing his touch and his connection to his public, because his act has become very tiresome. That explains why Trump is embracing the QAnon conspiracy. He's doing that because of his narcissism: He's feeling attacked, and for the first time in his life, he is facing real consequences for his actions. The DOJ and other investigations have caused Trump to suffer a narcissistic injury. He is a pathological narcissist, and by going to the QAnon people he is getting attention and his need for narcissistic fuel is being somewhat satisfied. That also explains why Trump would never criticize the QAnon conspiracy cult before. He likes people who like him. That is what really matters to him.
Trump is in a downward psychological, emotional and physical spiral. His embrace of QAnon shows how extreme his deterioration is. But here is the problem for the rest of us: Donald Trump is not going to go away immediately. He is going to try to use the electoral process, and threats of violence, to regain power and influence. Then Trump will say that he can't control what people do because they are so angry at how he is being treated by Joe Biden, Merrick Garland, the DOJ, the various prosecutors and judges, the news media and so on. Trump is going to make things much worse in this country before things finally get better.
Trump is in a downward spiral. His embrace of QAnon shows how extreme his deterioration is. But the problem for the rest of us is that he's not going away immediately.
If America were actually healthy, then Trump would be gone, a non-factor. In all likelihood, I believe that Trump gets the Republican nomination in 2024, unless he goes to prison before then. If Trump is convicted or it looks like he is going to be, he will try to take down as many people as possible with him. That's what malignant narcissists do.
There are all these pronouncements from pundits that Trump is done for and everything is going to be OK. That's wishful thinking. Trumpism and neofascism cannot just be wished away.
I hear you, but I believe we should take some solace, in that the reckoning is finally coming. At the very least, the Mar-a-Lago documents investigation is the most dangerous thing facing him. Almost from the moment it came out, I felt it was the shortest distance between him and an orange jumpsuit, for the simple reason that it is a simple case.
The analogy I like to use is this: Let's imagine that you are the U.S. attorney in New York, and you're investigating a mob boss. You're putting together a massive RICO case with lots of crimes involved, such as murders and gambling and loan sharking. It's a complicated case and all of a sudden you get a phone call that there is a jewel heist at Kennedy Airport. Guess who is driving the truck? The Don, the boss. That's almost literally what happened with Mar-a-Lago.
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Given the details of the case and all the related charges, I don't know how the DOJ doesn't prosecute Trump. And I don't know how Trump is not convicted, especially if he is tried in the District of Columbia. I think the danger is going to come from the fact that the legal process will take at least a year. With all the other legal peril Trump is facing, he is going to threaten violence as a way of getting out of trouble. I don't know whether or not he will be as successful as he was on Jan. 6, but there is going to be some real pain in this country caused by Trump calling for violence by his followers.
Trump is also going to cause damage to the Republican Party. The party is finally going to realize that Trump will take them down with him. It is going to be very ugly all around. In the end, though, it will get better. Once Trump is dealt with, there's the other problem that must be confronted: Trump let all the termites into the basement of the house. The Big Lie and the election deniers and all the assorted lunatics who have taken up residence in the Republican Party and are now its base must be pushed out. We need two functioning, normal political parties that support democracy in this country. Right now, we only have one, and that is the Democrats. I don't know what's going to happen next — perhaps the Republican Party will collapse and something better will replace it.
Didn't Donald Trump simply give Republicans and so-called conservatives permission to be their true selves? This didn't happen overnight. How do you explain it?
There was always that radical extremist fringe on the right. That element did not dominate the Republican Party. Trump took advantage of that extreme element. The mainstream Republicans got pushed aside by a base that had become whipped up into frenzy by the extremists. Trump took advantage of that opening.
The right-wing media ecosystem is also a large part of the extremist turn, because it found a way to make money by dragging people farther and farther away from reality and creating a thirst for disinformation and hatred. White baby boomers who are feeling angry and resentful about how the country is changing demographically are also part of that extremist turn and the rise of Trump. There are many variables at play here, and it's going to take a long time to sort it all out.
Donald Trump is much more than a man. He is a symbol and an idea. What comes after him could be even more dangerous.
That is the big danger. We could end up with someone who is as manipulative as Trump, but a lot smarter. As a country, we have been very lucky that Donald Trump is not that smart. He is very impulsive and not contemplative or strategic. What happens if next time there is a demagogue who is as immoral as Trump, but far more intelligent?
How do you make sense of Trump's corrupting power? Why are people so attracted to him?
There are different explanations for the various groups of people on the right. Some of them overlap. But we should try to be specific. If you're talking about the political class, the Republican leadership, they're partly motivated by fear. Survival drives them. Republican elected officials know that if they say anything against Trump, they may lose their primaries. Staying in office is what drives them. They don't want to end up like Liz Cheney. She tells stories about how there were so many Republican senators who would walk up to her and say, "Thank you for doing what you're doing." Those same Republican senators would then do nothing to defend her publicly, because they're afraid of Trump and his voters.
The right-wing media makes money off Trump and all the conflict. The political consultants are afraid of losing business and money if they cross Trump and his base. There's a lot of intimidation involved. As for Trump's voters and followers, many of them are not that educated or choose to insulate themselves in the right-wing echo chamber, where they are fed lies and disinformation and rage. They choose to seal themselves off from reality. That's a type of collective narcissism. One way that Donald Trump sucks people in is that his voters and followers don't like the people who are criticizing him. Therefore they defend Trump no matter what — even if what he is doing is obviously wrong and indefensible. Trump's people do not want to admit that they are morally wrong.
As a society, what do we do about the Trump cult?
I honestly don't know. I'm just hoping that at some point it will exhaust itself and fade away. But that is not going to happen for a while, if at all. The only thing the rest of who are not in the Trump cult can do is to keep telling the truth.
I thoroughly own up to the fact that I voted for Donald Trump and supported him in 2016. That was a grave moral error on my part, and I own it. I really thought he would become a better person. That was an insane thing to believe.
I have a related concern. One of the problems right now on the left — and I understand the root of the sentiment — is that when a Republican or someone else on the right finally sees the light about Trump, there is a tendency to call them hypocrites, to attack them for supporting Trump and being a Republican. People attack Liz Cheney that way, saying that she voted for Trump and supported his policies. That's true. But when people see the light, you have to encourage them. You don't have to give them a pass for what they did in the past, but you should praise them for doing the right thing now by standing up against Trump and what he represents.
It's hard for a person to turn against Trump and leave the Republican Party. They are losing their friends and social network. The party was their home. We all tend to do what other people around us do. We want to be accepted by them. As human beings, we don't like to admit our mistakes.
Reflecting on my own behavior, I thoroughly own up to the fact that I voted for Donald Trump and supported him in 2016. That was a grave moral error on my part, and I own it. I'm happy — well, not happy, but willing — to admit my error. But the fact is, that some people can't do it that easily.
For my part, I engaged in wishful thinking. I truly thought that once Trump was president he would have some type of realization or epiphany about what that responsibility meant. I really thought that Trump would become a better person. Now I see that was an insane thing to believe. It was ridiculous. I was engaging in wishful thinking, and by doing that I was projecting my idealistic values about patriotism and love of country and selflessness onto Trump, who will never comprehend these values.
I finally realized that there is something deeply wrong with Donald Trump. I am not trained as a psychologist; I don't really understand how a mind like his works. But I've read about Hitler, Stalin and other tyrants. I didn't make the initial connection between them and Trump, but after a while I finally did.
Given that you know many of the people involved, why did these Republican elites, insiders, journalists and the like not tell the truth about how dangerous Trump really was? They were there. They witnessed it all. They told people in private that Trump was unhinged and unfit. Yet, they kept quiet — and then wrote books about it.
That has been the biggest revelation for me. I had thought that if Trump turned out to be as bad as people on the left were saying, then he would be cast aside by the Republicans and his inner circle. I naively thought that I would help encourage people to speak up by speaking out myself. By and large, most Republicans and other conservatives just stuck their heads in the sand. For me, that was one of the most shocking things about the last few years. There are so many different reasons that people don't do the right thing. As all these books by journalists are now revealing, people close to Trump knew how dangerous he is, and did nothing.
What does it mean to be a Republican right now?
I don't know what the Republican Party stands for now, other than placating Trump. It doesn't even stand for America's national interests anymore.
I don't think it really means anything right now. For a lot of people, it means supporting Trump. That's one of the main reasons why I left the Republican Party and registered as an unaffiliated voter in March of 2018. At that point it was clear to me that the Republican Party had become a Trump personality cult. Four years later, it's much worse. I don't know what the Republican Party stands for now, other than placating Trump and opposing anything that the Democrats do just for the sake of opposing them. There are no real principles involved. The Republican Party doesn't even stand for America's national interests anymore. Look at what some Republicans have been saying about Russia's war against Ukraine.
How do we balance political expediency versus legal necessity? The law takes time, but Donald Trump is an imminent danger to American society right now. Something needs to be done, and we are running out of time.
At the end of the day, we have to follow the legal system and apply it evenhandedly — but that should be done as expeditiously as possible. The Justice Department has clearly come around to that understanding. They are now expanding their investigations of Jan. 6, Trump's other alleged crimes and related matters at the highest levels. I don't think it's going to take them very long to put together a case on the classified documents. And I don't think they have a choice, even if they wanted to resist prosecuting him. It's going to be sooner rather than later. Trump could easily be under both federal and state indictment at some point between Election Day [Nov. 8] and New Year's Day.
What do you think is going to happen with these criminal cases? Does he take a plea bargain? There's this fantasy among some liberal folks that Trump does a perp walk and goes to prison. I don't see that happening. If anything, Trump pays fines and takes a plea deal. Merrick Garland and the DOJ will not put a former president in prison.
I don't believe that Trump is going to plea bargain. I think he could go to prison, but it is more likely that he will serve home confinement. In all likelihood, he will be convicted of multiple felonies. I don't know if there's ever going to be a perp walk, but I don't think it's a fantasy either. There's a good chance that Trump will end up with a felony conviction. I know he has cut deals in civil cases, but that's just writing checks. To reiterate, I do not believe that Trump will plead out. This all goes so much to the core of Trump's identity that he will try to tear the country apart before he settles one of these criminal cases.
That is a powerful statement.
Donald Trump will incite violence on his behalf. He will try to pretend it is something spontaneous. Does Trump have enough power and influence over his followers to threaten the republic? I don't think so. But I do think it's enough to be dangerous. Trump has enough influence that people could get hurt.
What are you most concerned about? And what, if anything, are you hopeful about, regarding the country's future?
What keeps me up at night is the violence that Trump could potentially cause. The danger of violence will increase as the 2024 election approaches. What gives me hope is that the legal reckoning is coming. Donald Trump has brought many people together. That is one of the great ironies of all this. People on the left and right have come together to oppose Trump and his movement. I am hopeful that the American people will be so exhausted by this whole saga that they will be drawn toward all the things that tie us together as a nation and people. Of course we may disagree with one another, and do so passionately. But in the end we are all Americans, and we have more in common than divides us. I hope we can get back to that and heal after Trump.
about Trump and the crisis of democracy