The Contagious Corruption of Ken Paxton

Let’s talk about leadership again. Last week, I wrote about Vivek Ramaswamy and the power of unprincipled leaders to exploit civic ignorance. This week, I want to address the power of leadership to shape character and the problem of corruption in the era of Trump. And for this discussion, we’ll turn to Texas.

A very good thing is belatedly happening in the Lone Star State. Republicans are on the verge not merely of expelling one of their own from office, but of expelling someone with the most impeccable of MAGA credentials. The suspended Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, is facing an impeachment trial in the Texas Senate, and if the early votes are any indication, it’s not going well for him. He’s already lost a number of motions to dismiss the case by margins approximating the two-thirds majority that will be necessary to convict him — and this is an upper chamber that Republicans control 19 to 12.

Paxton faces impeachment in large part because seven of his top deputies blew the whistle on him in 2020, claiming that he had engaged in bribery and abuse of office. The charges against Paxton, to which he pleads not guilty, center primarily on his relationship with an investor named Nate Paul. Paxton is accused of providing favors to Paul, including using the power of his office in an attempt to stop foreclosure sales of Paul’s properties, ordering employees not to assist law enforcement investigating Paul and even providing Paul with “highly sensitive information” about an F.B.I. raid on his home.

And what did Paxton get in return? Paul reportedly helped Paxton remodel his home and employed Paxton’s mistress. (Paxton’s wife, Angela Paxton, is a Republican state senator who is attending the hearings but is barred from voting on the charges against her husband.)

But that’s hardly the complete list of Paxton’s misdeeds. He’s still facing criminal charges — which I’ve long considered questionable — stemming from a 2015 state indictment for securities fraud, and his treatment of the whistle-blowers is also under public scrutiny. Soon after coming forward, every whistle-blower either resigned, was fired or was placed on leave. When they sued for retaliation and improper firing, Paxton attempted to use $3.3 million in taxpayer funds to settle the lawsuit.

In addition, following the 2020 election, Paxton filed one of the most outrageous lawsuits in the entire Republican effort to overturn the presidential result. He sued Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, seeking an order preventing those states from voting in the Electoral College. The suit was so transparently specious that Texas’ respected then-solicitor general, Kyle Hawkins — who was appointed to the post by Paxton — refused to add his name to the complaint. The Supreme Court dismissed the case without even granting it a hearing.

Naturally, none of these scandals truly hurt Paxton with Texas Republican voters. He won his 2022 primary runoff against George P. Bush by 36 points. He defeated Democrat Rochelle Garza in the general election by 10 points. Texas primary voters — like Republican primary voters in many other states — decided once again that character is irrelevant so long as their candidate fights the right enemies.

But that’s not the end of the story. What’s happening now is a Texas-size version of the civil war that rages across the right. Is it possible for Republicans to police their own, or does Paxton’s devotion to Donald Trump and his zealous commitment to the culture wars excuse his misconduct, however egregious? Is it possible for Republicans to potentially start the slow and painful process of healing the G.O.P.?

I date my interest in the moral power of leadership back to 1998, when I was shocked that a number of my progressive friends could shrug their shoulders not just at Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern (though I could see their argument that his adultery was a personal matter) but also at his dishonesty under oath. The country was at peace and prosperous, they noted. Besides, weren’t Republicans hypocrites? Newt Gingrich was an adulterer. Bob Livingston, the Louisiana Republican and speaker-designate to succeed Gingrich, also confessed to extramarital affairs and stepped down.

In the midst of these revelations, the Southern Baptist Convention — the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — gathered at its annual convention in Salt Lake City and tried to make the simple case to the American people that character counts. It passed a resolution on the moral character of public officials containing this memorable line: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”

Putting aside the words about God’s judgment, I suspect that a broad range of Americans, regardless of faith, would agree with the basic premise: Corruption is contagious.

But why? Consider the relationship between leadership and our own self-interest. Most of us belong to organizations of some type, and unless we’re leading the organization, our income, our power and even our respect within the community can depend a great deal on the good will of the men and women who lead us. In very tangible ways, their character creates our path through our careers, our churches and our civic organizations.

Thus, if a leader exhibits moral courage and values integrity, then the flawed people in his or her orbit will strive to be the best versions of themselves.

But if a leader exhibits cruelty and dishonesty, then those same flawed people will be more apt to yield to their worst temptations. They’ll mimic the values of the people who lead them.

Let me use an analogy I’ve used before: Think of a leader as setting the course of a river. It’s always easier to swim with the current. Yes, you can swim against the current for a while, but eventually you’ll exhaust yourself, and you’ll either yield to the current or leave the stream altogether.

And what is the moral current of Trumpism? For Donald Trump’s supporters, tactics that would normally be utterly unacceptable on moral grounds instead become urgent priorities. In this moral calculus, Paxton’s absurd lawsuit against Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin isn’t a mark of shame, but rather a badge of honor.

Paxton’s aggressive loyalty to Trump, in other words, acts as a form of indulgence that grants him license in his personal and professional life. Paxton’s acknowledged sins, including his affair, are cheap and tawdry. Yet a constellation of Republican stars are rallying to his side, led by Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ted Cruz and Steve Bannon. Because he’s a fighter. He goes to war against the left, and if the age of Trump teaches us anything, it’s that the current of his leadership flows eternally toward conflict and self-interest, consequences be damned.

It’s hard to overstate how much this ethos contradicts the Christianity that Paxton purports to proclaim. In fact, scriptures teach that the role of the godly man or woman isn’t to yield to power, but to confront power when that power is corrupt. The mission is to swim against the cultural current. That brings me to one of the most grievous abuses of scripture during the Trump presidency — the constant comparison of Trump to King David.

Trump is flawed, his supporters acknowledge. But so was David, they argue, and God blessed David. Scripture calls him a man after God’s own heart. But David’s virtues did not excuse his vices. In one of scripture’s most memorable passages, the prophet Nathan not only directly confronted the king but also declared a harsh judgment for David’s sins. And what was David’s response? Repentance. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he said. He then penned a poignant, penitent psalm. “God, create a clean heart for me,” he begs. “Do not banish me from your presence,” he pleads.

Does any of that sound like Donald Trump? Does that bear any resemblance to the religious right in the age of Trump? Of course not. The contagious corruption of a broken president and a broken party has turned the hearts of millions of Christians away from scripture’s clear moral commands. They have chosen not to swim against the tide.

But the battle is not lost, not entirely. In Ken Paxton’s office there were people who had the courage to confront their leader. They put their careers on the line to confront Texas’ legal king. And even if Paxton himself doesn’t have the integrity to repent and accept the consequences, there are other Republican leaders who can impose consequences themselves. They can start the process of altering the current of the Republican river, away from corruption and deception and back toward integrity and respect for the rule of law.

The trial of Ken Paxton may well be the most important political trial of the year. It is in Austin that the G.O.P. directly confronts the enduring legacy of Donald Trump and asks itself, will we completely remake ourselves in his malign image? Or do we possess enough lingering moral fortitude to resist his leadership and at least begin respecting the truth once again?

America needs two healthy political parties, and not just because healthy parties create better policies. Healthy parties create better leaders, and better leaders can help repair the fabric of a party, a nation and a culture that has been torn and frayed by a man who told America that the road to power was paved with mendacity, self-indulgence and conflict. Defeating Trump and his imitators is the first step onto a better path.

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