Francis Wilkinson: It isn't a crime if MAGA does it

Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

Three years after he resigned in disgrace, Richard Nixon justified his crimes in office by declaring in an interview with David Frost, “It’s not a crime if the president does it.” The comment was widely mocked at the time. It seems less comical now. Indeed, Nixon’s words became newly relevant when Donald Trump asked the US Supreme Court to declare him immune from prosecution for his alleged sprawling malfeasance.

Two news stories last week confirmed that Trump’s appeal for legal dispensation is not merely another narcissistic flight of fancy. His special pleading no longer even qualifies as idiosyncratic. Immunity from public censure, including the strictures of the law itself, is an operational goal of the anti-democratic movement that Trump leads. Its functional creed is it’s not a crime if MAGA does it.

Thus a famously partisan Supreme Court justice rationalizes his household flying an upside-down distress flag in the aftermath of the violent Jan. 6 assault on the nation’s constitutional integrity, in seeming solidarity with insurrectionists (and with the spouse of another Supreme Court justice, who vigorously cheered the insurrection).

The New York Times reported: “After President Biden won the 2020 election, supporters of former President Donald J. Trump rallied around the inverted flag, displaying it at their homes, on their cars and on social media to show that they believed Mr. Trump’s lie that the election was stolen.”

In comments conveyed, tellingly, to Fox News, Justice Samuel Alito defended his household’s inverted flag as a response to a quarrel with neighbors. In Alito’s telling, flying the flag wasn’t his fault. His wife did it. Not that there was anything wrong with it. The couple was under attack by nasty neighbors who used crude language and showed animus toward MAGA’s supreme leader. Fox News reported that Alito said the neighbors even mounted a sign blaming Alito’s wife for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. What else could a powerless middle-class White couple in the wilds of suburban Washington do to defend itself against the awful libs?

Alito is arguably the most MAGA of justices; his jurisprudence is less originalist or textualist than Trumpist or Foxist. Flying a partisan flag is consistent with his grievance-saturated partisanship. But even for Alito, association with the central lie animating a violent attempt to overthrow the republic is a grotesque breach of ethics and common sense.

Except it’s not corrupt if a MAGA judge does it, and it’s not criminal if a MAGA mob does it.

In Texas last week, Governor Greg Abbott extended the parameters of MAGA’s impunity from assault to murder. Abbott pardoned Daniel Perry, a White man who in 2020 drove his car into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in Austin and gunned down one who approached his car. Both men were legally armed. Thanks to laws backed by Abbott and his GOP allies, virtually anyone, including Perry, who fantasized in writing about murdering protesters, could legally carry in Texas. No witness claimed that the victim, Garrett Foster, a 28-year-old former US Air Force mechanic, had brandished his semi-automatic rifle; it had been pointed at the ground. So, Perry had no legal justification for shooting Foster, and after a public trial, a jury of his peers convicted him of murder.

Perry’s writings revealed him to be a racist who compared BLM protesters to “monkeys.” BLM, of course, is a bogeyman of MAGA, which seeks to bolster traditional racial hierarchy, opposes efforts to mitigate racial discrimination, and portrays White Christians as an oppressed class in a society in which power pools disproportionately among White Christians.

In effect, Perry murdered one of MAGA’s designated bad guys. And murder is not a crime if MAGA does it.


Abbott’s pardon calls to mind a neologism that has gained currency in recent years: that conservatives deploy the law as a shield or sword depending on the identity of the protagonists. For MAGA, the shield of law protects. For non-MAGA, the sword of law punishes. Kyle Rittenhouse, a young White man whose sole accomplishment is having recklessly killed protesters and beaten the rap, is celebrated on the MAGA circuit for embodying this ideal. A Missouri couple who threatened peaceful, lawful, protesters with semi-automatic firearms in 2020 similarly became MAGA heroes, earning a speaking spot at that year’s Republican National Convention. In 2021, Missouri Republican Governor Mike Parson pardoned them.

Before he left office in 2021, Trump pardoned an array of criminals, including Paul Manafort, the “grave counterintelligence threat” mired in corruption and Russian intrigue whom Trump had placed atop his 2016 campaign. Manafort refused to cooperate with prosecutors, and Trump rewarded him, as he did MAGA cronies Steve Bannon and Roger Stone.

These pardons are readily explained by Trump’s gangland code. But the former president has all but guaranteed that he would, in a second term, pardon the criminals who attacked the Capitol, as well. Trump’s valorization of crime was similarly evident in his support for military service members, including former Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, accused of war crimes. “These are great warriors,” Trump said.

Degenerate political movements, including Trump’s aspirational model, Putinism, inevitably recruit criminals to their ranks and make violent use of them. MAGA, which has now consolidated its control of the GOP, increasingly breeds threats of violence. Its leader, facing a mountain of evidence of criminal acts, and desperate to avoid jail, threatens violence. Abbott, Alito and other MAGA leaders fuel the threat.

It’s entirely plausible, if Trump is returned to power, that he would pardon the criminal who violently assaulted the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Trump has joked about the attack. A pardon for Paul Pelosi’s attacker is no more outlandish than the pardon issued by Abbott last week. In MAGA ideology, the law binds but does not protect MAGA’s opponents. And it protects but does not bind MAGA.

It's not a crime if MAGA does it.


Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US politics and policy. Previously, he was executive editor for the Week and a writer for Rolling Stone.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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