That is, of course, what it was, and maybe still is—a Faustian bargain in which Republican leaders tolerated, if not condoned, the continued acceptance of Donald Trump as the leader of the Grand Ole Party. It has been an enormously expensive bargain.
The pathology of lies, the vicious attacks on honorable people who wouldn’t support him, the attempted coup to stay in power, and his tolerance, even his cultivation, of racists, antisemites, and nativist insurrectionists, it seems, simply didn’t matter.
That said, this column is not really about former President Trump. It is, instead, about Republicans who have shown a willingness and, in some cases, enthusiasm for redefining the very purpose of their and my former Party. Their aim hasn’t been to champion Republican ideals and principles but rather to attain and cling to power for the sake of power, no matter the toll or damage to America’s constitutional democracy.
Belatedly, a growing number of Republicans appear to be acknowledging, perhaps halfheartedly, that their Faustian “bargain” with a former president simply isn’t worth the damage it is causing their Party nor their sense of self-respect.
Like the lead character in Christopher Marlow’s 16th-century play, “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus,” many of today’s Republican politicians have lived with a hellish bargain. They would tolerate the self-serving mischief of a former president in return for the largess they received in return. Generally, Republican politicians simply wanted his endorsement or, at a minimum, his forbearance.
Other public and corporate entities simply wanted his support for causes near and dear to them. Some wanted tariff protection. Some wanted tighter border security. Some wanted lower taxes. Some wanted fewer regulations. Some wanted support for Israel. Some wanted revised trade agreements with our immediate neighbors to the north and south. Some corporations wanted and obtained merger approval.
While few in his Party were genuinely enthused over Trump, they were all besotted with the power his embrace conferred and downright fearful of his stinging ire. They understood the power of his red-hat constituency. They valued his praise and feared his rebuke. Few in his Party would take issue with anything he did or said. Criticism of any kind was a cardinal sin. In return for their fidelity, he would toss them a bouquet from time to time. It became the greatest Faustian bargain in the history of American politics.
My point is not to equate our former president with Marlow’s demonic Mephisto but rather to recognize the widespread abandonment of principle, and to a great extent, morality, by Republican politicians and other public personalities in exchange for the favor of a primary-election endorsement or, an even lesser crumb from the table, simply not being ridiculed or otherwise attacked by Trump. That was and is the Faustian bargain.
Republicans, in return for Trump’s support or just not being criticized by Trump, tolerated unprecedented peacetime budget deficits, protectionist tariffs that raised prices but accomplished little of real value, and Republican trade deficits that exceeded those of prior Democratic administrations.
As former Republican Senator Jeff Flake observed in his excellent book Conscience of a Conservative, “If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?”
And then there was the breathtaking crudeness of gratuitous attacks leveled at fellow Republicans who didn’t show fidelity to their standard bearer. John McCain was no longer an admired American patriot who deserved the appreciation of a grateful nation; Liz Cheney was just another RINO, and Mitch McConnell blew the midterms.
But there were, and are, also Trumpian heroes in this Mephistophelian world. There’s Marjorie Taylor Green, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Louie Gohmert, Lauren Boebert, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Mark Finchem, Kari Lake, Blake Masters, and scores of other sycophants who would obligingly corrupt discourse as well as the peaceful transfer of power in the United States.
The Mephistophelian spell seemed unbreakable until the Kanye West conclave of racists and antisemites dining in the splendor of Mar-a-Lago pushed, to the breaking point, Republican tolerance for their Party’s standard bearer who had welcomed the antisemites with open arms, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Here is what we know for sure. The former president welcomed an antisemitic pal who now calls himself Ye, and another virulent antisemite, Nicholas Fuentes, to dinner. The former president claims he didn’t know anything about Ye’s guest, Fuentes. Understand this: He knew! Duh! as the kids would say. Traveling companions and hirelings of an outspoken antisemite are sure to be antisemites. No one else knowingly travels with virulent antisemites and racists.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro dismissed the former president’s protestations of ignorance with a bit of advice for the ages. “A good way not to accidentally dine with a vile racist and antisemite you don’t know is not to dine with a vile racist and antisemite you do know.”
Other Republicans have finally had enough. Listen to them:
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie: “There is no place for antisemitism or white supremacists in the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s recent actions and history of poor judgment make him untenable as a candidate for our Party.”
Former Vice president Mike Pence: “I think he should apologize for it, and he should denounce those individuals and their hateful rhetoric without qualification.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana: “President Trump hosting racist antisemites for dinner encourages other racist antisemites. These attitudes are immoral and should not be entertained. This is not the Republican Party.”
Senator Mitt Romney: “I think it’s disgusting to invite people like that to meet with a former President of the United States. It’s been clear that there’s no bottom to the degree to which President Trump will degrade himself and the nation.”
Sen. John Thune: “That’s just a bad idea on every level.”
Former Senator Rob Portman: “It was wrong and inappropriate to have that meeting. White supremacy has no place in our nation’s culture, and it’s antithetical to anything we stand for as Americans.”
So, what to make of all of this? The Republican Party and its individual members have reached a critical decision point. They can find a new standard bearer, and there are many from which to choose. Or, the Grand Ole Party can continue to follow this petulant pied piper. There are lessons in history and lore, such as the story of the long-defunct Whigs who convened 166 years ago in Baltimore and haven’t been heard from since, or the young kids who followed another piper 738 years ago in a place called Hamelin. Neither story turned out well for the piper’s followers.