In the past few weeks, Donald Trump has gone from saying that no, he didn’t collude with a foreign dictatorship to interfere with the U.S. election, to doing it on live TV, asking the government of China to investigate Joe Biden and his son, for no clear reason.
Exactly two prominent Republicans denounced this: Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney. Marco Rubio took the brave course of pretending it didn’t happen, dismissing it as “not a real request.” Other Republicans, and much of the conservative rank and file, made a seamless move from declaring that Trump never did it to affirming that of course he did it. And it was good.
All of this has me wondering: Is this the idol to whom conservatives have decided to sell their souls?
If you want to see the process by which a soul is corrupted, consider the case of Rush Limbaugh, the talk show host who became an icon of small-government conservatism—back before he decided that spending and deficits don’t matter.
Most of us listened to Rush at some point or another, because he sometimes had a genuine capacity to address big issues in a thoughtful and interesting way. But he always had a thumb on the intellectual scales, and that came out in the open in 2006, when Republicans lost the House of Representatives and Limbaugh expressed relief that he would no longer have to carry water for the unworthy. That’s how he actually put it:
The way I feel is this: I feel liberated, and I’m going to tell you as plainly as I can why. I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don’t think deserve having their water carried. Now, you might say, “Well, why have you been doing it?” Because the stakes are high! Even though the Republican party let us down, to me they represent a far better future for my beliefs and therefore the country’s than the Democrat party does and liberalism.
I’m a radio guy! I understand what this program has become in America and I understand the leadership position it has. I was doing what I thought best.
The beginning of the corruption was partly Limbaugh’s sense of his own power and influence, and his desire to maintain that influence even if it meant cutting a few corners. But notice the other part of the corruption: the idea that anything is justifiable in the battle to defeat a hated enemy. Fast forward 13 years and see how this works out.
Following his defense of Trump’s shakedown of the Ukrainian president, a rant in which he accused Fox News Channel of being in the pocket of Never Trumpers, Limbaugh went on to say, of Trump’s public call for China to investigate his political opponents, “This Is Why You Love Donald Trump”:
This is the reason you love Trump. . . . Whatever it is that upsets them [the “Washington Media”], he doubles down on it, and gives ’em another dose of it while telling the truth. . . . [T]his is the stuff he does that just coalesces his support with his voters and his base . . . . This is the stuff he does that they love. This is the pushback.
That Limbaugh is being a complete hypocrite is a trivial observation. If a Democratic president had been caught doing this, of course Limbaugh would be screaming for his impeachment with equal volume and ferocity. What is more interesting is the rationale he offers: a simple appeal to hatred of the opposition—as a justification, as an inducement, as an end in itself.
If Trump has done something that “upsets the Washington media,” conservatives no longer have to bother asking whether it was good or bad, whether anyone is right or wrong to be upset by it. The very fact that it upsets “the media” is justification enough.
The big thing we’ve discovered over the past four years is the number of people for whom the actual content of ideas and policy is largely irrelevant, compared to the pure tribal satisfaction of venting their hatred for the “elites” and the “mainstream media.” The source of Donald Trump’s bizarre allure among conservatives is the constant, unrelenting intensity with which he allows them to indulge in this—a form of tribal hatred that is all the purer precisely because it has been freed from any pretense of having to be loyal to abstract principles.
In short, conservatives have sold their souls for the sheer pleasure of partisan hatred. And it’s not going to be easy to break this spell.
For the last few years, outside observers have believed, time and again, that surely the latest revelation will be so blatant that conservatives will have to draw back from their support of Trump.
Well, that’s not how it works when you have sold your soul. Once people are corrupted and drawn in, there is a kind of sunk-cost fallacy that pulls them farther down. Having already compromised their principles to go along with Trumpism, they need to keep on justifying their original investment by minimizing or making excuses for every new awful thing he does.
They have to keep on justifying Trump, because otherwise they would have to face up to the reality of how foolish and venal they have been all along.
One of the last-ditch excuses we’ve been hearing for this is that Republicans’ response to the impeachment inquiry is retaliation for Democrats circling the wagons around Bill Clinton in 1998. The Democrats sold their souls for Clinton, so why shouldn’t Republicans do the same for Trump?
They might want to ask how that worked out for the Democrats.
The Clintons notoriously hollowed out the Democratic party apparatus, filling it with a whole ecosystem of hacks and grifters who existed to serve the interests of a single, hyper-ambitious, political family. The result, in the last election, is that Democrats ended up clearing the field for their weakest, least charismatic candidate and lost an easily winnable election to their most hated opponent.
If there is justice in the world—and for once I find myself hoping that there isn’t—the result of Republicans selling their souls to Trump will be the election of Elizabeth Warren in 2020.
If that prospect isn’t enough, spare a moment to contemplate the fate of Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina who first resisted Trump, then reluctantly supported him, then became a reliable Trump sycophant.
One of the central issues of Graham’s long political career is that he is a foreign policy hawk, advocating that America be active and vigilant in the fights against tyranny and radical Islam. Now observe Graham’s reaction when, late Sunday night, Trump decided to sell out our best allies in the Middle East, the Kurds—the people who stood and fought effectively against the Islamic State when nobody else was doing it, and who are now about to be attacked by the Turkish dictatorship with Trump’s go-ahead. Where does this leave Senator Graham? Completely on the sidelines:
I don’t know all the details regarding President Trump’s decision in northern Syria. In process of setting up phone call with Secretary Pompeo. If press reports are accurate this is a disaster in the making.
There is nothing more pathetic than being a senator whose signature issue is foreign policy—and having to confess publicly that you were left out of the loop and you’re begging for a meeting just to figure out what the hell is going on. But why should Trump have consulted Graham? He’d already sold his soul. He’d already indicated that he will back Trump no matter what, so why should Trump bother to inform him about future compromises that will be required?
This is where everyone will end up, eventually.
Conservatives have been drawn from small compromises to bigger and bigger ones, from venial sins to mortal ones. There is no bottom to it.
That is the inevitable logic of selling your soul.