The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion From DeSantis to Manafort to Eastman, GOP audacity is a marvel

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in Orlando on Feb. 24. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

A liberal, it used to be said, is someone so open-minded they won’t take their own side in an argument. Your average conservative, on the other hand, is often wrong but never in doubt. And at this intense period in the conflict between the Republican and Democratic parties, the audacity gap between the two has seldom been more striking.

Let’s start in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis just prevailed in a standoff with the Republican-run legislature over the state’s congressional districts. After the legislature drew new districts that maintained the GOP advantage (Republicans currently hold 16 of the state’s 27 seats), DeSantis decided it wasn’t good enough; he drew his own map and vetoed the legislature’s. Experts say DeSantis’s map clearly violates both the Florida Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. (Among other problems, it eliminates two majority-Black districts.) But the legislature has bent the knee to DeSantis, turning over the map-drawing process to him.

What’s he up to? According to NBC News, sources close to the governor say that “DeSantis wanted a court fight focused on provisions in the federal Voting Rights Act, as well as the state’s Constitution, that generally prohibit the dilution of minority voting strength.”

That would make this stunt like state laws that outlaw abortion, knowing that doing so is unconstitutional — for now. DeSantis, who clearly wants to be president, could be hoping that his name will be on the lawsuit the Supreme Court uses to drive a final stake through the heart of the Voting Rights Act.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

Given that the court’s conservative majority has steadily eroded voting rights, it’s not a bad bet. But unlike some of the cleverer ways Republicans have engaged in voter suppression, it’s impossible to say with a straight face that he isn’t waging a direct assault on minority representation.

Nevertheless, DeSantis is betting on political audacity, like many other Republicans. When it comes to personal audacity, you have to give some credit to Paul Manafort, the disgraced and convicted former adviser to Donald Trump. You may remember that among other things, as chair of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Manafort passed confidential campaign polling data to an associate the Senate Intelligence Committee identified as a Russian intelligence officer.

Given Manafort’s history with Ukrainian politics — he spent years there helping Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia when he was overthrown as president in a popular uprising — Manfort might think this would be a good time to lie low. But no: Politico reports that he’s hanging out a shingle to offer “business consulting” services. Manafort touts his unique expertise as an ability “to help people with strategic advice to solve their problems or give them comfort.”

But in the news today, the most audacious of all might be John Eastman, the Republican lawyer who was advising Trump in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Eastman wrote the now-infamous memo laying out a strategy to overturn the results of the 2020 election, based on a legal analysis nearly every expert has said is utterly preposterous. In fact, last month a judge denied Eastman’s request to shield documents from the congressional committee investigating the insurrection. Those documents, the judge ruled, fall under the “crime-fraud exception,” which states that attorney-client privilege doesn’t apply if the attorney is helping his client commit a crime.

You might think that given the heat he’s under, Eastman would do what any normal person would and steer clear of any election-stealing controversies. But he did not. ABC News reports that just last month, Eastman traveled to Wisconsin, where the state Republican Party is still engaged in a quest to come up with some kind of rationale to reverse President Biden’s victory in the state.

On March 16, “Eastman and others spent nearly two hours behind closed doors pressuring Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to nullify the 2020 election and reclaim the electors awarded to Biden.”

This is how people behave when they believe there are no consequences for their actions. And you can understand why they might think that. Trump — whose entire life is a tribute to the power of audacity — pardoned Manafort, along with a rogues’ gallery of crooks and grifters who made up his cronies, from Roger Stone to Stephen K. Bannon. And who in the Republican Party has condemned Eastman, or Manafort for that matter? Almost no one. They know that there are no ethical or moral transgressions that will get you banished from the GOP; the only meaningful sin is disloyalty.

There are times when both parties may ask themselves, “Can we get away with this?” Even if the answer is sometimes no, what differentiates them is that Democrats are terribly scarred by their defeats, gripped by the fear that they’ll be rejected by the public if they act too boldly or are too firm in their convictions.

Republicans, on the other hand, almost inevitably decide that their only mistake in the past was being too timid and insufficiently ruthless. To the question, “Can we get away with this?” they almost always answer, “Why not? Who’s going to stop us?” Unfortunately, more often than not they turn out to be right.