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The Texan Trump

Illustration by Yuan Jiang

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s career has been mired in controversy. He is the subject of an ongoing Department of Justice investigation, the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the State Bar of Texas, and was impeached by the GOP-controlled state House last May, all on separate charges. However, Paxton has thus far avoided any legal consequences. As a result, he continues to occupy one of the most influential government positions in Texas, responsible for representing the state’s legal interests, launching and supporting criminal investigations, and overseeing state voting laws and election results. Paxton represents a new trend within the Republican Party, which has facilitated the rise of increasingly anti-democratic and morally dubious figures in Texas and throughout the nation. This new establishment is driven by an ideology aptly called Trumpism, which moves away from conservatism in favor of potentially authoritarian right-wing populism stemming directly from former President Donald Trump. Paxton’s controversies are a microcosm of the problems the United States has been grappling with since 2020 and show how Trumpism has taken root in Texas, exempting powerful political figures from legal repercussions and posing a direct threat to national democracy.

Paxton has a prolific and well-documented history of corruption. Shortly after being sworn in as Attorney General in 2015, he was indicted for securities fraud. The case is now in limbo in the county court system, where Paxton’s lawyers are trying to move it to a more amenable judge’s jurisdiction. Five years later, four Paxton staffers alerted federal investigators of potential bribery. According to the whistleblowers, Austin real estate mogul Nate Paul remodeled Paxton’s house before giving a job to Paxton’s alleged mistress. In exchange, Paxton carried out a number of favors on Paul’s behalf, including using state resources to investigate Paul’s business adversaries. Upon learning of the identities of the four whistleblowers, Paxton fired each one, prompting the group to sue Paxton for professional retaliation. Paxton then attempted to settle the lawsuit for 3.3 million dollars, intending to have taxpayers foot the entire bill.

The Texas House General Investigating Committee then launched its own inquiry into the issue, and the bipartisan committee accused Paxton of committing three felony offenses, all involving the misuse of public money, expertise, and information for Paul’s benefit. Last May, the committee recommended impeachment, and the GOP-controlled House obliged with an overwhelming 121-23 margin, resulting in Paxton’s suspension as Attorney General. In September, the vote passed to the state Senate—the only body with the power to convict the Attorney General and remove him from office. However, in the intervening months, Senate Republicans, led by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, fiercely attacked the way the House carried out the impeachment proceedings. In the Senate, all but two Republicans voted to acquit, and Paxton was promptly reinstated as Attorney General. All the while, Paxton continues to use state resources and campaign funds to fund his expensive legal battles.

While Paxton has ignited a political firestorm in Texas, he has had a similarly destructive influence on national electoral politics. As a major Trump ally, Paxton unsuccessfully attempted to overturn 2020 election results in four states by filing a petition to the Supreme Court. Just before January 6, 2021, when insurrectionists invaded the nation’s Capitol building, Paxton posted a tweet with the hashtag “#StopTheSteal” on social media. He continues to maintain that President Joe Biden won the election unfairly, hypocritically calling for Biden to be “held accountable.” As a result of these actions, the State Bar of Texas is in the process of suing him for professional misconduct, alleging a fabrication of evidence that warrants the removal of his law license. 

The House’s overwhelming verdict in May seemed to show that Texas Republicans as a whole were ready to remove Paxton. The investigative committee, which included both GOP and Democratic leaders, was convinced by findings of corruption, and it appeared that Paxton would finally face legal consequences. The members of the Texas Senate are not necessarily further right or more aligned with Paxton than those in the House, making the drastic disparity in party consensus between the two chambers puzzling. 

Ahead of the Senate impeachment, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presided over the trial, received a $3 million donation from a pro-Paxton PAC, Defend Texas Liberty. Notably, one of the leaders of the PAC promised political retribution to any senator who voted against Paxton. Following this donation, Patrick denounced the House impeachment hearings, claiming that they were carried out quickly and carelessly. Paxton and Patrick have particularly targeted House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) and, along with Trump, have endorsed his primary challenger. Patrick has also endorsed other challengers of House Republicans who supported Paxton’s impeachment, acting in line with the PAC’s promise of political revenge.

Paxton and Patrick have managed to stay relatively popular with voters by characterizing the variety of proceedings against Paxton as leftist witch hunts. When GOP Speaker Phelan continued to speak out against Paxton following the Senate trial, he was labeled as a sellout or fake conservative. The rhetoric is virtually identical to that surrounding Trump opponents, as Republican leaders who speak out against the former president are labeled as “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only, and ongoing trials are dismissed as politically motivated. The continued power of a Trump endorsement means that in both the Texas and national Republican parties, the majority of representatives get in line. Republican politicians fail to confront corruption head-on out of fear that their conservative credentials will be questioned. The same phenomenon is clearly evident in electoral politics. Ken Paxton’s willingness to contest national elections is evidence that Trumpism paints the simple act of accepting election results as not hard-line enough. It is unfair for Texans, as the new Republican Party establishment prevents fraudsters from being held accountable and may use political influence to counteract democratic decisions. 

Paxton seems to exist above the law. Beyond mere unfairness, his evasion of punishment means that he continues to exercise the substantial power vested in the Attorney General’s office. As he proudly threatens political accountability and refuses to accept election results, non-Republican Texas voters feel as if the system is irrevocably stacked against them. On a national level, Paxton-style disregard for the law could mean increased willingness to use political influence to change electoral outcomes in swing states. The triumph of Trumpism in Texas means that Paxton, who brazenly used state resources for his own corrupt benefit, remains in Austin overseeing Texas state election laws. If the trend continues nationwide, a figure with the same malicious disregard for the law and Constitution could occupy the Oval Office.