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Texas Republicans put Ken Paxton above the law

Paxton's acquittal confirms that Republicans believe a man with the right politics cannot break the law.

“If this can happen to him, it can happen to anybody.”

These were some of the parting words Ken Paxton’s defense team offered Friday to the state senators tasked with deciding whether to impeach the suspended Texas attorney general. If Paxton isn’t acquitted, his defense warned, anyone could become the next victim of a Bush family-fueled witch hunt to take down the last true God-fearing, conservative leaders in Texas, and maybe the whole country.

It’s sage advice for any of us who may get elected to a statewide post only to leverage the office’s influence in an effort to grease the skids for a shady real estate developer. Who among us has not directed our subordinates to engage in elaborate and unethical legal finagling for the benefit of our favorite campaign donor? There but for the grace of Ken Paxton go we.

Ken Paxton may be the name in the court record, but the real defendant is the concept of democracy itself, and that trial goes on.

And the Texas Senate understood the threat: Saturday afternoon, the chamber acquitted Paxton on all charges.

The claims against Paxton were serious, even sensational. Among them were allegations that the attorney general had traded favors to secure a job for his extramarital companion, with the details of his affair aired in full view of Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, who has been barred from voting on her husband’s guilt or innocence.

But the charges, though dramatic, were a sideshow. Ken Paxton may be the name in the court record, but the real defendant is the concept of democracy itself, and that trial goes on. At issue is not whether Ken Paxton is guilty (or whether a jury of his self-interested Republican peers is capable of finding him guilty), but whether a man with the right politics — right-wing Trump politics — can actually break the law at all.

This was the drum Paxton’s defense team beat throughout eight days of testimony: As duly elected attorney general, Paxton isn’t just above the law, he is the law. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it mirrors the arguments Donald Trump’s defenders are making, and it’s no accident that Team Trump and Team Paxton have backed each other every step of the way. Their aim is twofold: first, to establish that Trump and Trump-aligned politicians are fundamentally beyond accountability, empowered to do whatever they want by virtue of their election to office. And second, to assert that any entity that suggests such politicians can be held accountable is de facto corrupt, having necessarily failed to defer to righteous authority. 

Underneath all this authoritarian squabbling is a patriarchy in crisis — a veritable panic over whether anyone, even our best-behaved and beloved Republican boys, has a right to question the heads of their political household. Indeed, Paxton’s trial was a parade of male bluster and buffoonery — from defense counsel Tony Buzbee’s incessant hollering to prosecution counsel Rusty Hardin’s goofy grandpa routine. It took a week for either side to bring women’s voices into the mix, only doing so when it came time to dig into the salacious Paxton-affair stuff.

Paxton’s defense argued not that he didn’t do anything wrong, but that, as the man in charge, he couldn’t possibly do anything wrong, whatever he may have done. They even brought in a sitting deputy attorney general to testify that the attorney general’s office exists to serve the man himself, not the people or the state of Texas. It was breathtaking, heart-stopping testimony: No one has the right to say “boo” to Daddy.

Whether we’re talking about Paxton or Trump, the hysterical fragility of these men chills the blood.

The past two weeks in Texas have been a truly unbridled display of powerful men grasping for ever more authority, tussling over who sits in the big chair at the dinner table. And how unnecessary! Whether we’re talking about Paxton or Trump, the hysterical fragility of these men, men who have everything but who cannot stop themselves from demanding more, chills the blood. 

Their desperate bids for control are riddled with paranoia and self-victimization. Team Paxton resorted to paying online trolls in an effort to drum up support for the disgraced attorney general. Right-wing supporters created bizarre AI memes suggesting that Trump and Paxton are the only thing standing between an out-of-control FBI and the average American. Their hope is to convince voters that Trump and Paxton are simultaneously just little guys like us — helpless victims of a liberal police state (forget “blue lives matter” for now, I guess) — and strong, powerful father figures who will protect us from the bad guys.

Paxton’s acquittal will be a boon for Trump, but it won’t stop either one of these odious, self-pitying men from playing victim for as long as possible, even as they rig and run the entire game. Now, both Paxton and Trump get to brag that they stood up to corrupt officials and won — and that, if we know what’s good for us, we’ll keep them in office to keep the woke mob away from our own doorsteps.

They don’t want us to trust what we already know: The threat is not at our doorstep. It’s the man already inside the house.