Rudy Giuliani's mug shot and Steve Bannon's prison sentence: Why MAGA loves to be seen as villains

Most people see chronic criminality as a bad thing, but to the GOP base, it's something to celebrate

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 13, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Rudy Giuliani appears in support of his son, New York Republican gubernatorial primary candidate Andrew Giuliani, at an election night watch party in Manhattan on June 28, 2022 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Rudy Giuliani appears in support of his son, New York Republican gubernatorial primary candidate Andrew Giuliani, at an election night watch party in Manhattan on June 28, 2022 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon are once again facing handcuffs and jail cells, and boy do they want people to think they are ecstatic about it.

After a judge declined to indulge more of his delay tactics and ordered Bannon to start his prison sentence on July 1, the former top Trump aide took to his popular "WarRoom" podcast to bloviate at pomposity levels heretofore unimaginable. "The purpose of this is to shut down this show because this show has become such a powerful platform for MAGA and President Trump," he declared, with maximum self-drama. Journalist Jennifer Senior described Bannon's performance for The Bulwark: "He plumped like a sponge in front of the cameras," performing "how pleased he was" at the prospect of playing up his MAGA martyrdom. 

When Giuliani was finally forced to appear in Maricopa County, Arizona this week to be booked on charges related to his efforts to steal the 2020 election for Trump, the former New York City mayor provided the mug shot photographer with a demented grin. 

As Margaret Hartmann at New York magazine wrote, Giuliani has turned himself into "a real-life Batman villain." When a reporter asked if he regrets his alleged crimes (Giuliani is charged with a scheme to steal Arizona's electoral votes and replace them with fake ones) he was gleeful. "I’m very, very proud of it!" 

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Both Bannon and Giuliani tried multiple methods to evade law enforcement, suggesting they aren't as pleased as they claim to be. In fact, Bannon is still filing long-shot appeals, trying to avoid prison.

As with the Republican chorus of faux-outrage over Trump's 34 felony convictions in Manhattan, there's very little effort to deny the facts of the crimes in question. This is not really about convincing anyone they're innocent. Instead, it's about celebrating their criminality. As Maggie Haberman and Jonah Bromwich recently wrote in the New York Times, Trump wants to brand himself an "outlaw" by surrounding himself with fellow criminals. For instance, Trump brought former Hell's Angels leader Chuck Zito to trial with him, even though Zito has done time for organized crime and was accused of attempted murder. At a New York City rally during the trial, Trump campaigned on stage with a rapper indicted for attempted murder. "That’s why the Black people like me," Trump infamously said of his Fulton County mug shot.

Most Americans, polls show, do not think being a proud criminal is cute, with only 37% — Trump's immoveable base of support — believing he should stay in the presidential race post-conviction. But the reason Bannon and Giuliani behave this way is obvious: MAGA eats it up. There is no quicker way to get in the good graces of Trump's loyal supporters than to act like a cartoon bad guy. As I've written about before, many Republicans even go so far as to dress like they're the wicked witches and comic book killers you'd see in a Disney or Marvel movie. Others emulate James Bond antagonists, going on lengthy public monologues about all their evil machinations. We see this with Trump aide Stephen Miller gloating about how rounding up millions of immigrants for concentration camps and mass deportation will be "spectacular." Christian nationalist leader Christopher Rufo takes special delight in bragging on Twitter about his plans for book-banning and targeted harassment of academics. 

MAGA mistakes immorality for strength. This is a common refrain with fascists and authoritarians who love to talk a big game about how they need to break some rules — and break some skulls — to get things done. That's why Gov. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., was so excited to tell that disturbing story about shooting her own dog. She portrayed it as "another unpleasant job needed to be done," as if she should be lauded for making "hard" choices that supposedly weaker people can't make.

The mistaking of cruelty for strength is perhaps the most enduring delusion of the MAGA world. This was illustrated in a recent GOP pollster Frank Luntz focus group and published in the New York Times. As one GOP-friendly participant said, he views Trump as "the antihero, the Soprano, the 'Breaking Bad,' the guy who does bad things, who is a bad guy but does them on behalf of the people he represents."

Of course, that guy either didn't actually watch those shows or didn't understand them, because the "antiheroes" on them are actually just selfish murderers who put their families and friends at risk. Nor does he understand Trump, who repeatedly threatens the life and safety of his own followers. People died from COVID-19 because they believed Trump when he said it was a "hoax" they need not take precautions against. People are in prison because they let him encourage them to commit crimes like storming the Capitol. Trump doesn't do anything on "behalf" of anyone else, ever. He only acts to get power and money for himself. 

That's why I flinch at the term "strongman" to describe authoritarian leaders. Yes, it's a term of art to describe their self-presentation, but as a practical matter, the opposite is true: So-called "strongmen" are weak and self-serving. Gullible people tell themselves that because fascistic leaders are loud-mouthed and cruel, they must somehow also be efficient and effective. In truth, that belligerence is a cover for incompetence, as we saw with Trump during the pandemic. Or with Noem, who shot her dog because, ultimately, she is not smart or patient enough to train the animal. 

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Similarly, the claims to be transgressing for a greater cause are simply lies. Most of the time, these authoritarians are just plain old criminals, motivated by greed. We see this with Bannon, who was only spared a likely conviction in another case because of a last-minute pardon from Trump. His alleged crime was defrauding his own followers, taking their money with promises to "build the wall" but then spending it on his luxurious lifestyle. Trump uses the "I'm fighting for you" line constantly in his fundraising appeals, but that money is going strictly to paying his lawyers and helping him secure more power, which he will use to take away rights and benefits from the credulous people who support him. 

Greed and incompetence go hand-in-hand. Authoritarians are too focused on self-dealing to care about things like making the trains run on time. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is a perfect illustration. Because so many of their members are press-hungry and/or backstabbers, they had a showy and pointless ouster of their Speaker, only to realize they had no one suitable to replace him. While they all claim to want "tough" immigration policies, when they had a chance to pass such a bill, Republicans deliberately tanked it. Why? Because Trump thought doing so would serve his political interests. Over and over, they show they're incapable of governing because they're too busy trying to steal from the cookie jar to actually do the hard work of legislating. 

Not that MAGA loyalists will ever notice the pattern. As I argued in this week's newsletter, the trick to Trump's hustle is appealing to people who think they're savvy but are, in fact, intellectually lazy. They want to believe that it's just "hard-nosed" and "realistic" to back lawless and corrupt fascists. But they won't even see how they're being used and discarded by the villains and criminals they admire. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Elections 2024 Gop Maga Republicans Rudy Giuliani Steve Bannon