I assume you’re familiar with Faust, the 16th-century character of German legend who sold his soul and his moral integrity to the Devil in order to sate his ambition for power. Faust came to mind yesterday as I watched the congressional Republicans grovel at the feet of their demagogic master.
There once was a time — like, two months ago — when Republicans assumed that they’d run the show, that they’d bend Trump to their collective will, that he’d basically function as a signature machine for the legislative items on their ideological wish list. But instead, it’s already clear that he is bending them. Republicans are seemingly powerless to resist the gravitational pull of Trumplandia.
The Faustian pact, a craven work in progress, goes something like this: They will ignore or deflect all the abhorrent and dangerous behavior that makes Trump manifestly unfit to be president, and they will forfeit deeply held convictions that have defined the GOP for generations (free trade, budget-balancing, anti-Russian toughness, and much more) in exchange for the unchecked opportunity to finally achieve their longstanding dream of shredding the federal safety net. (Assuming, of course, that Trump is fine with the shredding. Who knows if he is. He probably doesn’t know if he is.)
Maybe they think they can reclaim their souls after they get what they want from Trump — a signature on massive tax cuts that will gladden the rich and burden the poor, a right-wing Supreme Court nominee, that kind of stuff. Maybe they think that all their goodies can be garnered before he blunders us to the brink of a trade or shooting war, and before he destroys our democratic norms. Maybe. But they’re playing with fire — at our expense.
At their congressional retreat in Philadelphia yesterday, the Visigoth showed up to promote himself and play the seer: “This Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we’ve had in decades — maybe ever.” But to do what? It seems as if their basic function is to spinelessly bow and scrape.
For starters, they’re suddenly fine with pledging as much as $15 billion to build Trump’s border wall, without requiring that savings be found elsewhere in the federal budget. Amazing! Because last I heard, Republicans were always vigilant about pinching pennies and balancing the books. When states needed disaster aid, or when states needed money to thwart the Zika virus, or when Michigan needed money to fix the water in Flint, Republicans essentially said, “Not a chance, not unless we cut something else in the budget. We will not tolerate reckless overspending.”
So much for that firmly held belief.
Last night, Trump told manservant Sean Hannity that “a balanced budget is fine, but sometimes you have to fuel the well in order to really get the economy going.” And in order to “fuel the well” (how do you fuel a well? someone should tell Trump that the phrase is “prime the pump”), he wants not only $15 billion for the wall, but up to $1 trillion for roads and bridges. And yet, most Republicans haven’t uttered a peep of protest. If President Obama had ever suggested that sum for infrastructure, if he’d ever voiced disdain for a balanced budget, Republicans would’ve chewed the carpet.
Also, as recently as a year or two ago, Republicans were stalwart supporters of free trade, of the international pacts that send goods to and fro around the world. Once upon a time — way back in 2015 — roughly 90 percent of House Republicans voted Yes to give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And as late as this week, Speaker Paul Ryan was lauding the deal on his House website. But this week, when Trump pulled us out of the deal, Ryan and his minions lapsed into supine silence.
And when Trump rants like a loon or uncorks a wild lie, most Republicans duck and cover. In the words of one New York Times reporter (an ex-Penn student of mine), they have perfected “the senatorial speed-walk, the winking deflection, the jittery laughter.” Surely you’ve seen those moments. They’re like hostage videos.
Fortunately, a few Republicans are still practicing free speech. John McCain is adamant that Trump’s endorsement of torture will never supersede the laws that ban it. Lindsey Graham says that slapping a tax on Mexican imports (as floated yesterday by the White House) would collide with the reality that Mexico is our third-largest trading partner — and that such a tax would hike domestic consumer prices. Some Texas congressmen say that, projected expenses aside, a border wall is just plain nuts.
And a few House Republicans openly worry about the fevered world inside Trump’s head. Mark Sanford, having heard Trump disgorge his garbage about massive voter fraud, tells The Times: “I think you can move from real to bizarre if you don’t watch out … A fellow member turned to me and pointed to [the voter fraud lie] and said, ‘That’s what third-world dictators do.’ They just repeat the same misinformation over and over and over again until it sinks in.”
So the big question is how far Republicans are willing to go to abet this disaster at the expense of whatever is left of their souls, their convictions — and our way of life.