So completely has the GOP become Donald Trump’s personal chorus of sycophants that their thin cries of protest over tariffs evoke the quavering voices of captives in a hostage video.
Trump’s character was never in doubt — liar, narcissist, philanderer, conspiracy theorist, publicity hound, habitue of bankruptcy court, and shameless self-brander, preposterously repurposed as a reality show tycoon. But, as president, he has conscripted an entire political party to enable his pathology — exposing its moral and philosophical emptiness.
Like the timorous courtiers of a needy and unstable despot, Republicans contort themselves in paroxysms of praise. Heedless of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Truman, and two Roosevelts, Orrin Hatch bloviated, “We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.”
Cabinet meetings evoke a puppet politburo competing to avoid Siberia by satiating their Dear Leader’s insatiable need for craven hosannas. Most recently, Chief Toady Mike Pence broke his previous record for serial servility by praising Trump 14 times in under three minutes. Soon enough we may learn that Trump, not Jesus, is our strategically sanctimonious vice president’s personal savior.
Sadly, servility is substance. One tributary is the congressional GOP’s belief that, in his infinite indifference, Trump will enact the wish list of right-wing interest groups — especially donors. But the other, it seems clear, is the stuff of a political bondage film: the deep Republican craving for an authoritarian leader.
Authoritarianism, of course, runs deep among religious conservatives. But the Republican Party has become a collection of cults in the grip of mythology and paranoia — fearful of minorities, obsessed with guns, dismissive of science, enraged at cultural change, and angry at the perceived condescension of polyglot blue-state America. Trump’s contempt for democratic norms translates as the strength to force their distemper on America at large.
This visceral tribalism helps explain the remarkable ease with which Trump has obliterated his party’s supposed principles. Pious evangelicals like Pence now prostrate themselves before a president whose lawyer paid off a porn actress. Constitutionalists who deplored Barack Obama’s exercises of executive power cheer Trump’s attacks on our judiciary.
The party’s ethicists and moralists stand mute while he conceals his tax returns, encourages his family and businesses to profit from his presidency, and uses his properties to extract income from Republican political events and the representatives of foreign governments. Its pillars of decency let his repeated racial slurs and insinuations pass unremarked.
Worst of all is the party’s willingness to countenance its leader’s suspicious affinity for Vladimir Putin, his refusal to defend our electoral institutions from attack, and his frenzied efforts to conceal his campaign’s ties to Russia. Sticklers for law enforcement echo his attacks on the DOJ and FBI; erstwhile tribunes of national security countenance his slanders on our intelligence agencies. The GOP’s new reality is clear: It has chosen its toxic avatar over loyalty to America and its institutions.
By kowtowing to their derelict and disloyal leader, they undermine our democracy, weaken our resistance to an aggressive foreign adversary, and enlist millions of Americans in Trump’s subversive fake reality. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, they have unleashed what they cannot control — most Republicans disbelieve the established fact that key members of Trump’s campaign collaborated with Russia and detest the Russia investigation as a groundless and politically motivated effort to discredit America’s president.
Will such a party protect the integrity of Robert Mueller’s investigation? Or demand that Trump safeguard our electoral institutions from the further attacks predicted by our intelligence agencies? Doubtful. Since January 2017, only Trump, the base, and their paymasters have mattered to the GOP. Like Dreamers and murdered schoolkids, America is on its own.
Lest that sound too harsh, consider what the GOP is doing to future generations — and how completely they have abandoned their stated principles: this time as the guardians of fiscal rectitude.
To give Trump and the party’s donor base a victory, the GOP jammed through a tax bill that will increase the deficit by $1 trillion. They then compounded this fiscal profligacy with a budget deal which, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, will cause the federal government to run trillion dollar deficits “indefinitely.”
No longer is the GOP a coherent party serving its vision of the national interest. It has mutated into a sycophantic shell from a banana plutocracy, serving an odious caudillo who serves only himself — and Vladimir Putin.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.