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Republican Party’s dilemma: Selling its soul paid dividends, but debts have come due

Many Republican leaders understood Donald Trump was a dangerous narcissist who was unfit for the presidency but in their own Faustian bargains decided to ride his coattails in pursuit of shared goals or their own lofty ambitions.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump
There are stories familiar to children and adults that pose a quandary in which short- or medium-term benefits come at the expense of disastrous ultimate consequences. The origin of one popular legend is a book published anonymously in 1587 in which the character Faust makes a pact with the devil. He receives magical powers for a number of years, but in the end, it costs him his soul. A similar story in the New Testament Gospel of Luke describes Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil for 40 days. The devil shows him “all the kingdoms of the world” and promises to give Jesus “their glory and all this authority. … If you will worship me it will all be yours.”

These and similar stories serve as common-sense conversation starters about ethics. Faust receives something of great value, but it costs him his soul. When we face similar temptations, how will we act? They were also teaching tools to guide moral decision-making. Jesus rejected the devil’s tempting offers and so should his followers.

McConnell’s calculation

The Republican Party’s present dilemma is it sold its soul in exchange for extensive benefits, but debts are coming due. How and why has a longer history, but I begin with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s clear statement of the Republican Party’s approach to governing during the presidencies of Barack Obama. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” (National Journal, Nov. 4, 2010). This sell-your-soul political calculation was as astute as it was destructive to the nation. Although Obama served two terms, blocking every initiative of his administration by every possible means meant pressing national problems festered and, as intended, created a political backlash favorable to Republicans as the 2016 election approached.

This first Faustian bargain led to others after worsening national problems created political space for an authoritarian demagogue to be elected president. Many Republican leaders understood Donald Trump was a dangerous narcissist who was unfit for the presidency but in their own Faustian bargains decided to ride his coattails in pursuit of shared goals or their own lofty ambitions. They tolerated and reinforced his racist taunts, misogyny, cozying up to dictators and white supremacists, bungling of the pandemic, rejection of science and disparagement of facts, decimation of government agencies, divisive lies, caging of children at the border, self-serving conspiracy theories and seditious efforts to subvert democracy itself. Many liked that he opposed abortion and immigrants, stacked courts with conservative judges, cut taxes to benefit the wealthy, rolled back environmental protections and pulled out of international climate accords. Most evangelical Christians believed Trump was sent by God. Many Trump enablers feared the wrath of the Tweeter in Chief and his rabid followers.

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Living in a parallel universe

As a result of these Faustian bargains the Republican Party, a majority of Republican voters, and Republican elected officials have abandoned democracy and chosen to live in a parallel universe of their own making. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans believe the election was stolen from President Trump and 77 percent of Trump voters think he is the victim of massive fraud. This big lie spawned judicial and legislative coup attempts and violent insurrection orchestrated by Trump, his family and personal lawyer, and local, state, and federal Republican officials.

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
Culpability extends to Republicans in all levels of government. Seventeen Republican state attorneys joined a frivolous Texas lawsuit (quickly dismissed by the U.S Supreme Court) to overturn the presidential election results. More than 120 of the 196 Republican members of the House of Representatives, including Minnesota Reps. Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber and Jim Hagedorn, signed an amicus brief in support. After failing at the ballot box and in the courts, two-thirds of Republicans in the U.S. House, including Hagedorn and Michelle Fischbach, along with seven senators, voted against the routine certification of the Electoral College. They violated their oath to defend the Constitution and voted to subvert democracy just minutes after the violent siege of the Capitol by domestic terrorists incited by Trump and his confidants. In a poll taken after the siege, 45 percent of Republicans supported the assault on the Capitol.

GOP will need to splinter

Debts are now due. Going forward, the Republican Party will need to splinter in order for it and the nation to heal. I hope Republicans in the U.S. Senate who believe in democracy will break with the party or form an independent caucus within it to cooperate with Democrats to address pressing national problems. The situation is particularly dire in the U.S. House, where the majority of Republican members, including the four Minnesotans, represent angry whites actively engaged in sedition. Our nation needs the minority of small-d democrats among House Republicans to break with their colleagues and work to thwart their lies and authoritarian ambitions. Let us hope that the well-being of the nation guides their decision-making during the critical months to come.

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is Emeritus Professor of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

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