Discover more from Letters from an American
May 26, 2023
While we wait to learn more about a possible budget deal under which Republicans would agree to raise the debt ceiling before June 5, the date Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says will see the U.S. run out of funds, there is an interesting story coming out of Texas that might well shed light on the current dynamics in the Republican Party.
On Wednesday, witnesses testified before the Republican-led Texas House General Investigating Committee about how the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, has committed crimes in office, including trying to hide an affair, using his office to help a donor, building a culture of fear in his office, using his power to retaliate against opponents, misusing official information, and abusing his office. As attorney general, Paxton is in charge of overseeing the enforcement of the law in the state.
On Thursday the committee voted unanimously to recommend that Paxton be impeached and removed from office, citing 20 counts, including bribery and retaliating against whistleblowers, for his impeachment.
Paxton is not unused to trouble. He has been under a felony indictment for securities fraud since 2015, successfully holding off the charges through repeated delays. In 2020, eight of his top advisors accused him of abusing his office to help a wealthy donor, Nate Paul, resist an FBI investigation. But he has maintained his popularity with Republican voters in Texas by standing as a fervent Trump supporter and attacking the Biden administration, and party leaders would not turn on him.
That formula appears to be less potent than it used to be. It turns out that the House committee began investigating Paxton in March, after he tried to get $3.3 million of taxpayer money to settle a lawsuit with four whistleblowers who said he retaliated against them after they tried to expose his unsavory relationship with Paul.
Apparently aware of what was about to drop, Paxton on Tuesday accused House speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, of being drunk at a public hearing and said he should resign. Once news of the committee vote dropped, Paxton on Friday attacked the “illegal impeachment scheme” and asked supporters to descend on the Texas Capitol for the impeachment vote. Paxton accused those calling for his impeachment of helping President Biden.
“The House is poised to do exactly what Joe Biden has been hoping to accomplish since his first day in office: sabotage our work, my work, as attorney general of Texas,” Paxton said. He refused to take questions. Right-wing figures, including the head of the Texas Republican Party and key Trump advisors—but not Trump himself—have declared their support for him. Texas governor Greg Abbott has stayed silent.
The full House will take up the question of Paxton’s impeachment tomorrow, with both Paxton’s supporters and Democratic supporters coming for the event.
Patrick Svitek of the Texas Tribune noted today that the impeachment effort has set off “a political earthquake in Texas.” “Republicans have chosen to remain largely silent
during years of alleged misconduct and lawbreaking by the attorney general. Now they will have to take a public stand,” he wrote. Local observers recognize the battle as one between far-right extremists, represented by Paxton, and Republicans who are trying to recover the party from the Trump wing.
There is likely a political calculation behind this move. Texas is a crucially important state for 2024, and voters are angry at the apparent corruption of prominent Republican figures like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Some leaders are likely eager to cut loose some big fish to reassure voters that they are not, in fact, the party of corruption. But in states that are currently dominated by Republicans so thoroughly that they are essentially one-party states, there are indeed systemic corruption problems because there is not the oversight that a healthy opposition party brings.
Both Paxton’s actions and his attempt to dismiss his Republican accusers as working for Biden appear to be a classic example of the behavior of political leaders in a one-party state. He has allegedly used his office to reward friends, retaliate against enemies, and avoid accountability for apparent lawbreaking. This pattern is common in authoritarian governmental systems; it was also common in the American South from about 1874 to 1965, when the Voting Rights Act that protected Black voting finally broke the one-party region dominated by white men.
Tomorrow, as Republican leaders in Texas look toward the 2024 election, they are going to have to decide whether to back an apparently corrupt attorney general who is popular with the Republican base or appeal to Republicans turned off by how extreme the party has become and get rid of him.
It will take a majority of the 149-member House to send the articles of impeachment to the Texas Senate for a trial. All 64 House Democrats will likely vote for impeachment. It is not clear what the Republicans will do.