To conclude each year, I review all the posts from the previous twelve months and reprint one that seems particularly important. Last January, puzzled by the Republican Party’s passivity in the face of Donald Trump’s excesses, I (and others) observed that the GOP appeared to be making a deal with the devil. We were, of course, referring to the Faust or Faustus story.
Christopher Marlowe’s brilliant play shows the inexorable journey downward, the hollowing out, of those who turn their back on principle. The parallels have become increasingly clear as, led by the cynical Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the GOP appears prepared to sacrifice anything for power. Unlike Faustus, who at least makes spasmodic gestures towards regret, Republicans appear to have adopted Trump’s tactic of unscrupulous counterattacks against any who question them. Because the country needs two responsible parties if it is to operate well, we can only pray that Republicans find some way to reconnect with their soul.
Reprinted from January 31, 2017
In his New York Times column yesterday, moderate Republican David Brooks said that GOP lawmakers are making a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump that “will cost them their soul.” “It’s becoming clear,” he writes at one point, “that the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation, and anybody who aligns too closely will end up sharing in the stench.”
I think Brooks is right and it’s worth revisiting Christopher’s Marlowe Doctor Faustus to gauge the price of Faustian bargains and also to figure out how Trump supporters can reconnect with their souls.
In his warning, Brooks quotes a rather remarkable Atlantic article by former George W. Brush official Eliott Cohen. Cohen was initially prepared to work with Trump but then saw the writing on the wall and has since been advising fellow Republicans to shun him:
Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity — substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment.”
Before I parallel Republicans with Faustus, it’s worth noting that Trump himself is already well along the Faustus path. At the beginning of Marlowe’s play, Faustus is a talented scholar who dreams of unlocking the powers of the natural world. He’s been doing well so far, curing whole cities of the plague and easing a “thousand desperate maladies.” Just as winning the presidency was not enough for Trump’s immense ego, however, so Faustus wants yet more acclaim. He dreams of imposing his will in unheard of fashion:
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a mighty god…
As the play progresses, however, Faustus senses that, in the intoxicating pursuit of power, he is losing something important. One sees this in his moments of doubt—when he considers repenting—and also in some of the requests he makes of his devil spirits. For instance, at one point he asks the devil for a wife, which is to say, for a meaningful relationship. To have a soul mate, however, would mean giving up ego and power and making oneself vulnerable to another human being. Faustus refuses such a sacrifice, settling instead for “a hot whore” and then, at the end of his life, a simulacrum of Helen of Troy. His former grandiose schemes forgotten, he becomes more and more trivial and he dies with agonizing regrets.
Trump sounds like a Faustus without the regrets, which means that he is only a black hole. He spends all his energy trying to fill that hole.
Let’s turn now to those formerly principled Republicans who are supporting him. If they give up their values in return for power—if winning comes to mean more to them than country or Constitution—then their lives will feel increasingly trivial. By the end of his life, Faustus is performing magic tricks for emperors, playing a prank on a man who calls him out, and stiffing a horse dealer for $40. This already sounds like Trump’s post-election tweeting, and Republicans may find themselves doing similar things. One only has to see what has happened to figures like Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich—people who squandered their considerable political gifts and have now essentially become scam artists—to see what awaits soul sellers.
When Congressional Democrats were swamped in the 2010 elections, they could at least point to measures that they believed made the country better, like the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus. They worked to improve the lives of their fellow Americans and can carry that with them for the rest of their lives. Losing was a small price to pay.
By contrast, Republicans who go along with Trump’s attacks on Muslims, close their eyes to his misogyny, and find ways to rationalize his constant lying, will be left with his emptiness. That’s the price of selling your soul.
It’s possible to get your soul back, as the Good Angel and later the Old Man tell Faustus. For the GOP at the moment, a good first step would involve standing up to Trump and President Steve Bannon as they sow divisiveness and hate. It takes courage to win your soul back—things worth doing can be hard—but the payoff is immense.
Further thought: Here’s another parallel: Trump won the primary by being willing to say directly what his rivals danced around. Trump speaks directly to American racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. whereas other politicians deliver dog whistles. In other words, they are like Faustus not wanting to face up to the real ugliness of evil. Here he is addressing Mephisophilis, with a jab thrown in at Franciscan friars:
I charge thee to return, and change thy shape;
Thou art too ugly to attend on me:
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;
That holy shape becomes a devil best.