GOP Tax Plan and the Invisible Man

Monday

Like much of the country, I’ve been watching in horror as the GOP rushes to bestow billions of dollars upon the wealthy while exploding the deficit and endangering  our social safety net programs. They claim that this will stimulate the economy, but the whole affair is such a sham that one wonders how they get away with it. Won’t people notice when, to cite two small examples, teachers lose deductions for classroom expenses while the wealthy get special write-offs for their private jets?

Maybe the GOP believes that the rules of politics have changed. Maybe Donald Trump’s lesson is that reality can be whatever one wants and that normal political truisms no longer apply. When you’ve undermined all the gatekeeper institutions (science, academe, the courts, etc.) and can dismiss anything you don’t like as “fake news,” then it makes sense to loudly declare the tax bill is good for America while you loot America.

It’s as though Trump has bestowed the ring of Gyges on the GOP. Or to cite a novel that Plato’s parable inspired, H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man is exhilarated when he discovers that he is free of normal constraints. Unfortunately, his unchecked freedom turns him into a monster.

Plato mentions the story of the shepherd Gyges in Book 2 of The Republic. Asserting to Socrates that people behave justly only because they fear the consequences of not doing so, Glaucon tells how Gyges, after finding a ring that renders him invisible, proceeds to seduce the queen, murder the king, and become king himself. While people might publicly applaud a good man who didn’t take advantage of such a ring, Glaucon states that privately they would regard him as a fool.

Socrates eventually counters that the man who wields the ring will always be slave to his appetites and can therefore never be happy. This is of scant consolation to the dead king, however.

Invisible Man describes a “feeling of extraordinary elation” when he realizes that people can’t see him. Confiding his history to a college friend, he says he immediately burned down the house so that others wouldn’t discover his secrets:

“You fired the house!” exclaimed Kemp.

“Fired the house. It was the only way to cover my trail—and no doubt it was insured. I slipped the bolts of the front door quietly and went out into the street. I was invisible, and I was only just beginning to realize the extraordinary advantage my invisibility gave me. My head was already teeming with plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do.”

And a little later:

My mood, I say, was one of exaltation. I felt as a seeing man might do, with padded feet and noiseless clothes, in a city of the blind. I experienced a wild impulse to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people’s hats astray, and generally revel in my extraordinary advantage.

When Kent asks about “the common conventions of humanity,” IM replies that they are “all very well for common people.”

As IM’s madness grows, so do his dark ambitions. Thinking he has successfully enlisted Kemp, he plots ways to wield total power:

“And it is killing we must do, Kemp.”

“It is killing we must do,” repeated Kemp. “I’m listening to your plan, Griffin, but I’m not agreeing, mind. Why killing?”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is, they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes; no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend them.”

Kemp describes IM to the authorities as

mad, inhuman. He is pure selfishness. He thinks of nothing but his own advantage, his own safety. I have listened to such a story this morning of brutal self-seeking…. He has wounded men. He will kill them unless we can prevent him. He will create a panic. Nothing can stop him. He is going out now—furious!”

During the election, Trump boasted, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” On the Access Hollywood bus he was overheard saying, “And when you’re a star, they let you [kiss beautiful women]. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” When Trump learned that he had been elected president, did his head immediately begin “teeming with plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do”?

But why put all the blame for our new politics on Trump? During the Obama administration, Mitch McConnell flouted Senate convention time and again to stymie the president, wielding the filibuster as never before to block judges and other appointments. He defied the Constitution by refusing to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and then, when in power with a GOP president, threw out the filibuster to get the GOP’s nominee confirmed. Senate norms have been under fire for a while now.

And what about Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who appears to regard Trump as the incarnation of John Galt, a man who doesn’t listen to “the common conventions of humanity” but makes up his own rules? The Speaker is like Billy Bush on that Hollywood Access bus, gaping in disbelieving wonder and admiration. No wonder Ryan doesn’t raise any objections to the president’s excesses. His college dreams of being an Ubermensch must seem near at hand.

Maybe that’s why these Congressional leaders are allowing Trump to act with impunity. In their arrangement, they all get to rise above the “common people.”  Unfortunately, the “extraordinary elation” they feel comes from shaking the pillars that support “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Further thought: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how, by crying, “Fake news!” Alabama’s Republican Senate candidate has disappeared a history of teen stalking and molestation. Just think what young district attorney Roy Moore could have done had he really been invisible. As Wells’s creation puts it,

Practically I thought I had impunity to do whatever I chose, everything—save to give away my secret. So I thought. Whatever I did, whatever the consequences might be, was nothing to me. I had merely to fling aside my garments and vanish. No person could hold me.

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