Funny things can happen as you get older, as you accumulate assets—a home, a car, bank accounts—and a family, as you pass the peak of your career. Maybe you lose your capacity for outrage or your passion for doing good. Maybe you lose your hope for a better world.
The thing is, it doesn’t happen overnight. It happens in the light of day, but so slowly you can miss it.
This came up for me in reading Anne Applebaum’s August article in the Atlantic Magazine on how the Republican leadership became Donald Trump’s collaborators. You can read it here.
As I frequently wrote, Trump himself has not been so interesting to me given his mental state; of far greater interest is his interaction with other, saner people, and specifically with how he managed to convince well over 70 million people to vote for him. Many people have mental illness, but not seventy million. And yes, I get he was a symptom of something systemic, not a cause.
Applebaum explored how Republican Congress people and senators became essentially collaborators and colluded in his efforts to sabotage democracy, his politicization of the coronavirus, and the corruption he brought into the office.“It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes.”
Mostly, with small lies. It started with Trump’s insistence that the number of people who came to Washington, DC for his inauguration surpassed all previous ones, and especially Barack Obama’s. That was his reality, and he demanded that everyone adjust. If the National Parks Service had different figures, clearly theirs were wrong and should be changed. If they had photos showing something different, clearly those photos were wrong and should be doctored to show his version of reality. It was bizarre and laughable, something we expect from heads of state who get 99% of the vote time and time again for 30 years.
But, as Applebaum showed, it was precisely the smallness of it that made it work. It’s no big deal, Republicans could say. We have this new guy who wants confirmation that he’s the most popular guy around. He’s an ass, but if that’s what it takes to make him happy, what’s the big deal? It’s not like we’re talking policy or big world decisions, right? We accommodate him on this small thing and start on the right foot.
But that wasn’t the right foot, for it didn’t stop there. It never does. Then comes his refusal to put his holdings in trust, he brings his family into the new business (i.e., the White House) even when there are conflicts of interest, he pardons former allies who go to prison, etc. One compromise leads to another to another to another. He misuses his power as president to dish up dirt in Ukraine about Joe Biden and his son. It’s slow and gathers momentum. Senators and Congress people who usually love to talk to reporters learn to make a quick exit when asked questions about this, hurrying down the hallways to duck for cover, remain strategically silent, or solemnly utter smoke screens in the Sunday talk shows.
The longer they do this, the more we wonder: When will they make a stand? What will finally push them over the limit? But as Applebaum shows, it gets trickier and trickier because, after you cave in on your basic values and principles for a long time, what’s finally the straw that breaks your back? In fact, why should there be anything to break your back when it’s held up this long? And if you’ve lied all this time and finally decide to speak your conscience, what’s that going to say about your past lies and evasions? How do you reconcile it all—because we want to, don’t we? We want to put together all the parts of our story, all the parts of ourselves, into one coherent whole.
In the end, it might be easier not to take a stand at all.
Hard to believe it started with a small lie about how many people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration.
What amazes me is that Anne Applebaum wrote her article a couple of months before the election, a couple of months before Trump’s blatant attempt to steal it, colluded (to this day) by a majority of the Republicans in the Congress and Senate. For me, it climaxed early, when two Georgia Republican senators demanded that their Republican State Secretary resign due to irregularities in the voting process, for which they had no proof. They were ready to toss one of their own to the wolves because he wouldn’t collaborate.
Joe Biden is no radical; he was a senator of long standing, someone who liked to work across the aisle and didn’t hew to radical ideologies. You’d think Republican senators would place a call to congratulate him, maybe go out on a limb and say they look forward to working together. These things were once so standard nobody thought twice about them.
You realize what courage it took for Mitt Romney to be the only Republican senator to vote in favor of impeaching Donald Trump. He may have disappointed Liberals by not backing other things, but he stood alone in that Senate chamber and that took guts. He also congratulated Joe Biden immediately after the election. Basically, he decided not to be in thrall.
Applebaum reminds us how many people in history were ready to stand up to some fat-headed honcho with far greater risks and in much more brutal circumstances than these Republican leaders.
And me, I ask myself. What do I shut my eyes and ears to? I don’t think it’s blatant lies, but am I losing my edge? It’s not hard to do that in the face of a pandemic that lays waste our health and safety, it’s not hard to ignore the little lies, the small stories I tell myself: I’m older now, how dedicated do I have to be? Why maintain that alertness and vigilance? And as for my vows to serve and save all beings, well, those are clearly impossible.
They were impossible before, they’re impossible now. So what’s new? From Bernie I learned a practice that is edgier and more costly than anything I’d ever imagined. A new relationship with life, draining and replenishing all the time across the years. A love worth protecting at all costs.