Virginia Tech® home

"The Scaffolding is Worth Saving"1



Authors as Published

As former President Donald Trump was arraigned on June 13 for a second time in recent months by a grand jury of American citizens—this time, on 37 counts of unlawfully and willfully possessing, sharing and hiding classified documents that compromised national security—three features of the current state of our country’s politics became clearer. I dedicate this Tidings essay to addressing this trio of concerns since they are singularly important and could reshape our nation and therefore all that we do at the Institute for Policy and Governance as well.  First, the Republican Party is now so wedded to lying to its partisans and to supporting Trump that the lion’s share of its leaders no longer appears willing to pursue any other course. Indeed, the former chief executive’s screeds and lies concerning supposed secret, elaborate and magically implemented conspiracies against him have become ever shriller in recent days. As this travesty has unfolded, very few members of standing in that party have challenged Trump’s reckless fabrications.

        Second, this reality suggests that the current downward slope of egregious behavior among Trump and Republican leaders at all scales of governance is not only powerfully anti-democratic and unconscionable, but also appears to have no bottom or end point in prospect. That fact raises profound concerns about how far the party is willing to go in its campaign to denigrate all who might question its quest for power for its own sake, including, the possible destruction of the rule of law, equal rights under the law and democracy itself.

        Finally, and most deeply, the political fuel for these actions that aim to roil partisans consists in major part of appeals to empty hatreds and fear which, however powerful, are tied ultimately to senseless, cruel or anomalous ideas. Nonetheless, history teaches us that such appeals are poisonous to freedom and equality, and it also suggests their continuation is likely only to exacerbate the major challenge to the American polity they represent. I take up each of these concerns briefly in turn. Together these matters suggest the need to preserve and constantly refresh the institutions and norms that sustain our nation’s democratic way of life. This scaffolding, as this essay’s title suggests, is comprised not only of the rule of law, but also of the dignity and equality under the law of all human beings and the beliefs and values in the population that sustain those organizations, processes and rights across time. Simply, that scaffolding preserves our polity and ensuring its vitality against assaults on the tenets that sustain it is the province and responsibility of every resident of our country.

        First, while Trump and his allies in the GOP have argued that President Joe Biden orchestrated the former chief executive’s recent arraignment, in fact, the president has had nothing to do with the matter. The investigation into Trump’s decision to keep vital security records at his private home in contravention to the law and amid lax or worse conditions, and thereafter to attempt to hide them from authorities, was and is being led by an independent counsel appointed for the purpose by the Attorney General and Biden has had no role in that individual’s decision-making. Likewise, despite all of Trump’s wild assertions otherwise, he was and is being prosecuted under the law, a law the publicly available evidence suggests that he was aware of and chose to flaunt, and for which he likewise expressed contempt. His indictment by a jury of ordinary Americans, not Biden or Biden officials, suggests that his assertions concerning grand conspiracies targeting him unfairly are nonsense.  

        Nonetheless, nearly all key Republican officials have either remained silent or have actively embraced and even doubled down on Trump’s fanciful claims. The upshot of their rhetorical posturing is that in a recent national poll, 88 percent of likely GOP primary voters who responded said that they believe the matter a case of partisan smearing despite the fact there is zero evidence to support that contention.1 This scenario rests on a willingness among those individuals to believe wholly unsubstantiated allegations concerning otherwise average Americans, fellow Floridians serving on the jury, being furtively “out to bring down” Trump and the GOP for unarticulated malevolent reasons.

        This sort of abhorrent rhetoric reminds one of the claims of Hitler and the Nazis concerning the supposedly nefarious and complete power of a cabal of Jews to orchestrate all political, economic and social action in Germany behind the scenes. The demand then, as now, was that supporters accept such assertions without evidence in the name of support of their “leader” and an a priori hatred the alleged existence of that conspiracy nominally warranted. While this scenario is discomfiting on its own, the acclaimed Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi has pointed to its deeper implications. In the present case, his thoughtful observations may be applied not to Nazis and Germany, but to the Trump/GOP officials’ assertion that their supporters must heap hate on all Americans who demand that their party and its leaders be held accountable to the rule of law or to the principle of equal rights:

But there is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man, it is a poison sprung from the deadly trunk of Fascism, but it is outside and beyond Fascism itself. We cannot understand it, but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again—even our consciences.2

        One might say, “just so,” as Republican officials daily scapegoat their fellow Americans for the crime of their birth or for believing in the rule of law. They are doing so based on callously conjured or imagined fears and woes felt by supporters and ascribed to targeted groups. In this calculus, the GOP partisans’ duty is not to reflect, but to accept and to hate reflexively to ensure that their leaders may exercise power as they see fit. If some targeted “others” lose their rights or are falsely maligned in this Faustian bargain, so be it. Those who are attacked are easy marks or purportedly lack all merit and humanity. In Levi’s terms, to lend credence to Trump and other Republican leaders’ lies demanding that the incredible be believed is to practice an existential hatred, one adopted without deliberation, which exercise would otherwise quicky call its cruelty and negative implications for equality, freedom and self-governance into question. In this sense, hatred can be both blind and blinding, even as it serves as a potent instrument to mobilize supporters against an always vague and ephemeral “them.”

        As Trump media allies call on party supporters, on no evidence whatsoever, to believe that President Biden wishes to install himself as a dictator because the former president was indicted by a grand jury of his fellow Floridians, we have entered a period in which Republican partisan assertions have become ever more sweeping and dangerous. In another recent example, the so-called House Freedom Caucus of the GOP argued that it would force the United States into default by refusing to raise the nation’s debt limit because the Biden administration was allegedly bankrupting the nation with runaway spending. Many members of that group eventually voted for default, including all three representatives serving districts near Virginia Tech, when in fact, the debt limit has nothing to do with current spending and the need to raise it reflects choices Congress has already lawfully made. This fundamental contention was an outright lie. Beyond this foundational falsehood, the Republican stance was also breathtakingly hypocritical. After voting to add more than $7 trillion to the nation’s debt during the Trump years and raising the country’s debt ceiling three times without contest to do so, House Republicans reversed course when no longer in control of the White House and sought to avoid accountability for their choices.

        Facts no longer matter to these leaders whose sole concern is maintaining power and keeping their base angry against allegedly nefarious others. Once embarked on so empty a course, it becomes easier to lie about everything. The lie becomes the deux et machina of hatred in the quest for power. As Levi observed in The Truce, this behavior is,

incurable … [and it] spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think human justice can eradicate it. It is an inexhaustible fount of evil; it breaks the body and the spirit of the submerged, it stifles them and renders them abject; it returns as ignominy upon the oppressors, it perpetuates itself as hatred among the survivors, and swarms around in a thousand ways,  against the very will of all, as a thirst for revenge, as a moral capitulation, as denial, as weariness, as renunciation.3

As Levi also remarked,

In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of mankind, and equality among people, you move toward the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt.4

With Trump now dominating his party and declaiming,

“I am your justice. … I am your retribution” (2023) and
“I am your warrior” (2023) and
“Getting critical race theory out of our schools [N.B., where in fact it is not taught] is not just a matter of values, it’s also a matter of national survival … If we allow the Marxists and Communists and Socialists to teach our children to hate America, there will be no one left to defend our flag or to protect our great country or its freedom” (2022)

        the GOP is now well along a well-worn fascistic path.5

        The most striking characteristic of the lies told today by Trump and the GOP is how easy they are to discredit if one but reflects even lightly. There is no evidence for the hordes of disease-ridden criminals crossing our borders, to which Trump and other GOP leaders routinely refer, or of suddenly manic elementary school teachers grooming children to hate America by teaching critical race theory (which, in fact, none do), or for Marxists or Communists taking over the Democratic Party and so on. While these cruel and even absurd lies have the advantage of simplicity and they play to the fears and human capacity for hate of their audience their results are more than ugly, as Levi remarked of German and other fascism; they are “a trail of intolerance, of abuse, [and] of servitude.”6 It is ever difficult to discern the markers of this descent into evil and to warn populations concerning it as such is occurring and its perpetrators deny responsibility for it, but friends of democracy nonetheless must try. And they must do so even as their efforts are today routinely and grotesquely mischaracterized as merely partisan or worse by the GOP and allied media.

        The Institute is charged with examining the nation’s policy and governance milieu and to preserving its democratic institutions and norms. That is, we are charged with monitoring our nation’s scaffolding, as I noted above. Today, that structure is under active attack by a party leader (Trump) and most other officials in his party at all scales who have demonstrated a willingness to defile all they touch in governance terms while also targeting specific groups for hate via demagogic claims while demanding meanwhile that they not be held accountable for doing so. This dangerous trend must be stopped, and such can only occur when those pressing it are called out for their impunity, as Trump has recently been called out by a jury of Americans. For our part, we promise here at the Institute to continue to observe this shifting situation closely and to report what we find, irrespective of the partisan brickbats that may be thrown in our direction as we do so. No friend of self-governance should countenance or apologize for what is now occurring within the GOP. It is not now, nor will it ever be, mere “party politics” to defend democracy. Indeed, as we commemorate our 17th anniversary, it is a part of our raison d’etre as a research institute dedicated to self-governance to do so.


1 Salvanto, Anthony, Khabir Kanna, Fred Backus, and Jennifer De Pinto. “CBS News Poll: After Trump Indictment, Most see Security Risk, but Republicans see Politics,” June 11, 2023. CBS News,, Accessed June 11, 2023.

2 Levi, Primo. If this is a Man, The Truce, p.442.

Levi, Primo, If this is a Man, The Truce, p.203.

Levi, Primo, If this is a Man, The Truce, p.435.

These statements are drawn from Donald Trump’s public remarks. They appear in Reich, Robert. “The Five Elements of Fascism,” June 15, 2023,, Accessed June 15, 2023. 

6 Levi, Primo, If this is a Man, The Truce, pp.443-444.

Publication Date

July 1, 2023