Does the GOP Love Big Brother?

GOP Republicans and Trump after House votes down Obamacare


Last week, while comparing Donald Trump with Herman Melville’s Maldive shark, I realized that the poem is more about the pilot fish than the shark. While we certainly must take into account Trump’s insatiable appetite for power and praise, that hunger is not complicated. More interesting is how he is pulls Republican fish into his orbit.

To understand the dynamics, The Brothers Karamazov and 1984 prove useful.

Many of us were appalled by the North Korean-style adulation that people poured on Trump last week after the GOP passed its tax plan. Respected Utah senator Orrin Hatch surprised pretty much everyone with his hyperbole:

Mr. President, I have to say that you’re living up to everything I thought you would. You’re a heck of a leader. And we’re all benefiting from it. This president hasn’t even been in office for a year and look at all the things that he’s been able to get done — by sheer will, in many ways … I came from very humble roots. And I have to say that this is one of the great privileges of my life to stand here on the White House lawn with the president of the United States who I love and appreciate so much … We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.

New York Magazine reported on Tennessee’s Congresswoman Marcia Black and the two GOP leaders in Congress:

Tennessee congresswoman Diane Black opted to debase herself with a bit more concision, saying “Thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to have you as our President.”

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan praised Trump’s “exquisite leadership,” and thanked him for “getting us over the finish line.” Mitch McConnell declared Trump’s entire first year in office to be an “extraordinary accomplishment.”

And then there was the vice president. I provide only a snippets since it goes on and on:

–Thank you for seeing, through the course of this year, an agenda that truly is restoring this country.
–You’ve restored American credibility on the world stage.
–You’ve signed more bills rolling back federal red tape than any president in American history.
–You’ve unleashed American energy.
–You’ve spurred an optimism in this country that’s setting records.
–You promised the American people in that campaign a year ago that you would deliver historic tax cuts, and it would be a ‘middle-class miracle.’ And in just a short period of time, that promise will be fulfilled.
–I’m deeply humbled, as your vice president, to be able to be here.”
–Because of your leadership, Mr. President, and because of the strong support of the leadership in the Congress of the United States, you’re delivering on that middle-class miracle.

Blogger Glenda Funk heard Goneril behind Mike Pence’s sycophancy, and that’s one way to explain it—that people, knowing of Trump’s susceptibility to flattery, will ladle it on thick whenever they want to get something out of him. Perhaps the Congressional flattery of the tax plan should be seen in that light, as well as in South Carolina Lindsey Graham’s 180-degree turn from calling Trump a kook unfit to be president to “What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy some kind of kook not fit to be president.”

If Graham becomes secretary of state, maybe he will conclude that “Paris is worth a mass,” to quote French king Henry IV’s rationale for converting to Catholicism.

But what if there’s something more insidious going on? This is the subject of a fine New York Times Michelle Goldberg column last week, where she wondered whether

a critical mass of Republicans like being in thrall to a man who seems strong enough to will his own reality, and bold enough to voice their atavistic hatreds. Maybe Trump is changing Republicans, or maybe he’s just giving men like Pence permission to be who they already were.

Goldberg observed that “the relationship between Trump and many Republicans increasingly looks less like a marriage of convenience than a sadomasochistic affair.”

In other words, GOP Goneril may respect power and authority so much that she actually believes her flattery. The concluding paragraph of 1984 has been going through my head on this matter:

[Winston Smith] gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Time and again, Trump has trampled conventional political wisdom underfoot and survived, appearing to defy the laws of political gravity. The GOP was already starting to move in this direction—refusing to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee was an instance—but Trump has gone far beyond what even McConnell thought was possible. Who knew that someone could openly insult women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and the disabled and get away with it? Who knew that you could shout “fake news” to erase disagreeable facts? Or denigrate any institutions (science, the courts, universities, the FBI) that get in your way. Maybe that’s why a respected senator like Hatch would say, “We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.” Skeptical at first, he now sees the light.

The GOP may be discovering freedom from constraint, as I discussed recently when comparing the current GOP with H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man. I remember how, when attending college in the early 1970‘s, we were amazed at what we could get away with. We could shout profanity in marches, smoke pot, and engage in guilt-free sex. I think Republicans currently are experiencing some of that freedom.

I use the word “freedom” but actually it’s a heady belief in authoritarianism, which seems currently able to override our system of normal checks and balances. Goldberg quotes German-Jewish psychoanalyst and Hitler refugee Erich Fromm, who described authoritarian personalities as “simultaneously craving power and submission”:

The authoritarian character loves those conditions that limit human freedom; he loves being submitted to fate,” he wrote. Fate, in his formulation, can be the laws of the market, the will of God, or the whims of a leader. According to Fromm, authoritarians might make a show of valuing freedom and independence — watchwords of the American right — but long to be ruled by a stronger force.

Fromm owes a debt to Ivan Karamazov’s’s thought experiment about the limitations of Christianity, and those limitations could extend also to democracy. Confronting a Christ who has returned, the Grand Inquisitor tells him that he asked too much of people. They can’t live up to his high standards—“Blessed are those who believe without seeing,” Jesus tells Thomas—and prefer that people tell them what to do and to believe:

And thus, after all Thou has suffered for mankind and its freedom, the present fate of men may be summed up in three words: Unrest, Confusion, Misery! [To be sure, a few have] shared Thy Cross for long years, suffered scores of years’ hunger and thirst in dreary wildernesses and deserts, feeding upon locusts and roots—and of these children of free love for Thee, and self-sacrifice in Thy name, Thou mayest well feel proud. But remember that these are but a few thousands—of gods, not men; and how about all others? And why should the weakest be held guilty for not being able to endure what the strongest have endured? 

Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor would not be impressed with the argument made by Ruth Marcus, a center-left Washington Post columnist who recently challenged citizens to defend democracy as Jesus called for his followers to take up the cross:

[Trump] unleashed my inner patriot. I love my country, for all its flaws and for all its flawed leader.

It is worth the fighting for. I knew this, always, on an intellectual level. The Trump presidency has made me feel it, viscerally and passionately. The ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and implemented through the careful structures and capacious phrases of the Constitution do not merely compel our respect. In the Trump era, they require our passionate defense.

 Once we took for granted, as a given of American democracy, such fundamental values as freedom of the press, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary. Now we have a president who veers between failure to understand their importance and deliberate efforts to undermine them.

Stirring words, but I imagine Congressional Republicans thinking, why worry about the Gordian knot of all these subtleties, all the difficult challenges of existing as a multicultural and pluralist society, when with one swipe of the authoritarian blade, we can get all that we want? Trump is persuading them that their monochromatic view of the world is achievable and they love him for it.

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