In Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim begins his journey at the borders of Hell. He encounters a mass of people running this way and that. He describes them like this:
These wretches, who never were alive,
were naked and beset
by stinging flies and wasps
These are those who in life lacked passion. They never committed one way or the other, but rather drifted with the wind. They went with the crowd, hoping to avoid trouble, but ended up being caught and tortured for eternity by the stings they wanted to avoid in the mortal life. In death, neither heaven nor hell wants them, because they believed in nothing other than their own safety or comfort.
David Brooks’s column today brought those damned souls to mind. In it, he talks about what we have learned these past 10 days or so about the kind of president Donald Trump is and will be. Excerpts:
Many Republican members of Congress have made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. They don’t particularly admire him as a man, they don’t trust him as an administrator, they don’t agree with him on major issues, but they respect the grip he has on their voters, they hope he’ll sign their legislation and they certainly don’t want to be seen siding with the inflamed progressives or the hyperventilating media.
Their position was at least comprehensible: How many times in a lifetime does your party control all levers of power? When that happens you’re willing to tolerate a little Trumpian circus behavior in order to get things done.
But if the last 10 days have made anything clear, it’s this: The Republican Fausts are in an untenable position. The deal they’ve struck with the devil comes at too high a price. It really will cost them their soul.
None of these traits will improve with time. As former Bush administration official Eliot Cohen wrote in The Atlantic, “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.”
The danger signs are there in profusion. Sooner or later, the Republican Fausts will face a binary choice. As they did under Nixon, Republican leaders will have to either oppose Trump and risk his tweets, or sidle along with him and live with his stain.
Read the whole thing. It’s an important column, even if you are more favorably disposed to Trump than Brooks is. I’d say that’s me, though for different reasons than the GOP legislator of Brooks’s column. I don’t trust Trump, I don’t like Trump, and I don’t agree with everything he stands for, but I am not wholeheartedly opposed to him — not in the way #NeverTrump Republicans were and are — because I believe the system we had needed change, and because I was (and remain) certain that under a Hillary Clinton presidency, the religious liberty of believers who do not share her social progressivism would have been more strongly curtailed. It wasn’t enough to justify a vote for Trump on my part, but it did cause me to abstain, as I saw them both as poisonous.
That said, even we who are more willing to give Trump a chance have to think clearly about what we can tolerate, and what we cannot, because it is very clear that Trump is going to test our limits. David Brooks draws his personal line in a different place than many of us do, but he’s right about this: Trump is going to push right up to everybody’s line, because he is unmoored by conviction and unrestrained by prudence. Congressional Republicans — and conservatives in general — have a moral responsibility to act as a brake on him. But they (we) can’t do that unless we have in our minds clear principles on which we cannot allow ourselves to compromise, or rather, to be compromised. We have to be prepared to lose with honor than win with dishonor, because we fear a judge greater than the voters.
The astonishing audacity and recklessness with which Trump has begun his presidency is a bad sign. For me, it is not so much what he has done (though I do object to some of it) as it is the reckless manner in which he has done it. As every well-raised Southern child knows, manners express morality. Yes, manners are artificial, but they embody a social code that governs the conduct of people who live under it. True, it is always better to do the right thing than to work unrighteousness under the cover of minding one’s manners. But as Brooks points out, there’s something crude and vicious about the way Trump goes out of his way to provoke, to rub the noses of his opponents in the exercise of his power. In Trump’s case, manners express the man.
In other words, we know what kind of president Trump is going to be by the way he has carried out his executive actions so far. He does not consider himself bound by law or custom. He is a law unto himself. That doesn’t make him wrong about everything, but it does serve as fair warning to Republicans and conservatives, both on Capitol Hill and out in the country: sooner or later, he’s going to make us take sides. In the moment of testing, you will only be able to make the right call then if you have prepared your conscience, and exercised it by being more faithful to the Truth than to your president.