Ride with an Outlaw, Die with Him

Jake Spoon and Dan Suggs in Lonesome Dove


As mind-blowingly abysmal as Donald Trump has been as president, even more stunning is how the GOP has capitulated. Nor does it appear that Republican legislators or Congressional members will ever abandon him. His banning Muslims, putting kids in cages, trashing the intelligence services, cozying up to Putin, and pressuring Ukraine to slime Joe Biden wasn’t enough, nor apparently is his inept and corrupt handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Many appear to be engaging in their own version of Trumpian magical thinking: if you don’t say anything and keep a low profile, maybe you can sneak your way to reelection without anyone noticing. Or as MSNBC host Joe Scarborough recently put it, “GOP politicians have long believed that ignoring Trump’s unfitness for office is their best political play…”

These Republicans remind me of Jake in Larry McMurtry’s frontier masterpiece Lonesome Dove. Somewhat by chance, he falls in with an outlaw gang and in the end pays for failing to distance himself from them.

A former Texas ranger who has ridden with the greats (Call and Gus), Jake always follows the path of least resistance. Rather than stand upon principle, he does what is most self-serving. Any sense of right and wrong gets left by the wayside.

Riding under the protection of the gang initially appears to provide Jake an easy escape from a past that is catching up with him. Like many in the GOP, however, he discovers to his horror that he has signed up for much more than he bargained for. The outlaws prove to be homicidal maniacs intent upon leaving a trail of blood across Texas and Kansas.

The drama, as it is for formerly reasonable Republicans, lies in watching how Jake tries to escape responsibility for what his comrades are doing. First, there are regrets:

Almost at once, before the group even got out of Texas, Jake had cause to regret that he had ever agreed to ride with the Suggs brothers….Their talk, it seemed, was mostly of killing. Even Eddie, the youngest, claimed to have killed three men, two nesters and a Mexican. The rest of the outfit didn’t mention numbers, but Jake had no doubt that he was riding with accomplished killers.

Jake finds himself wondering what has happened:

Somehow he had slipped out of the respectable life. He had never been a churchgoer, but until recently had had no reason to fear the law.

There are moments when things look up. Maybe Republicans were experiencing Jake’s “lucky feeling” in January, figuring they had paid no political price for Mueller’s findings, Trump’s impeachment, and all the rest:

The lucky feeling came to him as he rode, and the main part of it was his sense that he was about to get free of the Suggs brothers. They were hard men, and he had made a bad choice in riding with them, but nothing terrible had come of it, and they were almost to Dodge. It seemed to him he had slid into bad luck in Arkansas the day he accidentally shot the dentist, and now he was about to ride out of it in Kansas and resume the kind of enjoyable life he felt he deserved.

Trump, however, doesn’t let allies escape his orbit, nor does the Suggs gang. Jack’s mood changes when he realizes the outlaws will not be going to Dodge:

Jake’s happy mood was gone, though the day was as sunny as ever. It was clear to him that his only hope was to escape the Suggses as soon as possible. Dan Suggs could wake up feeling bloody any day, and the next time there might not be sodbusters around to absorb his fury, in which case things could turn really grim.

When rangers Gus and Call, tracking the killing party, realize that Jake is with them, they are first surprised but then figure out what has happened:

Jake would gamble and whore—he always had. No one expected any better of him, but no one had expected any worse, either. Jake hadn’t the nerve to lead a criminal life, in Call’s estimation….

“It’s his dern laziness,” Call said. “Jake just kind of drifts. Any wind can blow him.”

Accountability, which has been in short supply for the Trump administration, comes at long last for Jake, who is captured along with the Suggs brothers. In the eyes of the Texas rangers, a man must answer for his decisions:

Call was thinking of Jake—that a man who had ridden with them so long could let such a thing happen. Of course, he was outnumbered, but it was no excuse. He could have fought or run, once he saw the caliber of his companions.

Gus, meanwhile, when told by Jake that he was “aiming to leave them first chance I got,” replies, “You should have made a chance a little sooner. A man that will go along with six killings is making his escape a little slow.”

We’ll see if the voters hold Republicans to account for not leaving after seeing the caliber of their companion. As Call lays it out for Jake,

Ride with an outlaw, die with him. I admit it’s a harsh code. But you rode on the other side long enough to know how it works. I’m sorry you crossed the line, though.

Jake’s reply fails to convince:

I never seen no line….I was just trying to get to Kansas without getting scalped.

In the end, with rough frontier justice, Jake’s former companions hang him along with the others. “Die he or justice must,” as God puts it in Paradise Lost.

Too many in the GOP have been trying to get to reelection without being scalped by Trump or Trump fanatics. Unfortunately, by riding with a racist, misogynist, authoritarian, and incompetent conman, they have lost sight of ethical lines. We’ll see in November whether there is a metaphorical hanging.

Further thought: Looking back, I see that I made exactly this comparison two years ago and apologize for repeating myself. In that post, which you can find here, I reflect on a passage that I’d forgotten about but which captures Trump himself to a T:

Jake just dreamed his way through life and somehow got by with it.

The pandemic death toll, however, like those killed by the Suggs gang, bring an end to such dreaming.

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