The Republicans and Donald Trump: A Faustian Bargain (Annotated)
Once upon a time, Republicans presented themselves as the party of principle — as avatars of fiscal as well as personal responsibility, small but sound government, law and order, and, in the international community, reliable leadership of the free world.
But, no more. In the GOP’s deepening alliance with our faker of a president Donald Trump, principle clearly is no longer operative — and the need to hold on to power is.
Eighteen months in, proofs of Republican betrayal abound. Most egregiously: After decades of haranguing Democrats for their spend-y ways, Trump explodes the debt and deficit with his $2 trillion tax cut to corporations and the rich, and Republicans are fine with it. Likewise, the former national security scourges are hanging back from forcing Trump to deal with documented Russian interference in our elections.
Compounding this betrayal, Republicans also once presented themselves as avatars of Christian morality, but what would Jesus think of His flock embracing a man who’s a sinner in so many ways — racist, misogynist, xenophobe, liar, marital buccaneer? (Staunchest members of the flock, Evangelicals, rationalize their pro-Trump support by pointing to his pro-life stance and appointment of two more conservatives to the Supreme Court.)
In their comprehensive betrayal of both political principle and Christian morality, then, the GOP can now be said to be the party of the unprincipled and amoral Donald Trump. (For how, see “Frontline” documentary, “Trump’s Takeover,” here.) This also can be said: In sacrificing principle and morality for power, Republicans have made a Faustian bargain with the Devil, a notion voiced by various commentators, both conservative (here, here, and here) and liberal (here and here).
Of course, it may be that, as Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva writes in The Guardian, Republicans made their Faustian bargain because, al fondo, they are “more interested in their help-the-rich agenda than the future of our democracy” and, thus, they are O.K. both with dismantling the social safety net that the new $2 trillion deficit justifies, as well as with Trump’s “daily racism [and] constant demeaning of other people.” In which case, the GOP’s moral bind is even knottier — by many orders of magnitude. (And, of course, there is the primal Faustian bargain that the Founding Fathers made with the Southern states, allowing the evil institution of slavery to continue.)
As a concept, “Faustian bargain” is pretty universally understood: It means selling your soul — the best of who you are, that which you cannot do without and still be — for whatever worldly objective it is that you desire: money, power, career. People “get” that if you pay with your soul, you have paid far too much.
Curious about the source, and hoping poetry would appeal to Republicans to reform altogether, I went to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic poem, “Faust” (all 486 pages of it), and Christopher Marlowe’s play, “Dr. Faustus.” Like many, I knew what Faustian bargain meant, but had not read the original. I confess I was disappointed (and thus took a pass on Thomas Mann’s novel, “Dr. Faustus”).
First, surprisingly, Faust puts up no moral struggle at all — none — in ceding his soul to the Devil in his quest to “have all secrets at my fingertips.” Goethe’s Faust even says, “With me, best leave morality alone!” In Marlowe, when the Devil asks, “And tell me, Faustus, shall I have thy soul?” Faustus a few lines later responds, “Ay, I give it thee.” As bargaining goes, and certainly as moral struggle goes, it’s all way too easy.
Which, come to the point, describes the remarkable ease with which Congressional Republicans, except for a few rebels like Sen. Jeff Flake, have sealed the (moral) deal with Trump.
Marlowe’s Faustus, aiming explicitly to become “the great Emperor of the world,” even dictates the bargain’s terms, instructing the Devil what to tell Lucifer, his lord:
“Say he surrenders up to him his soul.
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness;
Having thee ever to attend on me;
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.”
Another surprise: Faust is a lecher. Marlowe’s Faustus admits, “I am wanton and lascivious.” When the Devil procures a slattern, Faustus sneers, “A plague on her for a hot whore!” Goethe’s Faust acts even more despicably: When Mephistopheles procures the innocent Margaret for Faust (“I’ll sing a few moralizing bars, / All the better to seduce her”), Faust goes on to kill her brother, yet somehow it’s Margaret, now with his child, who goes to prison, not he! (As the Devil says, “With the police, I’m well in: / But not so much so with the courts.”) Does Faust feel remorse for his criminal act? Not at all; he’s off to conjure Helen of Troy, history’s most beautiful woman. The Goethe is full of misogynistic reference — “whore,” “hag,” “witch-bitch.” (Good to know #MeToo lurks ahead on history’s timeline.) Still, Margaret gets recompense: When Faust dies, soul unsaved, she steps in: “Allow me to teach him.”
Yet, while neither Goethe nor Marlowe present Faust as a moral character or the bargain he struck with the Devil as a moral struggle, leaving us instead with lots of bad behavior, both works are instructive on human nature and the way of the world generally. And when things fall apart and war ensues, when all morality and ethics are gone, they are especially adept at describing a world that is, in a word, Hell on earth. Rather like our world today.
Of human nature, Goethe reflects on the human being’s natural self-protectiveness: “Let them go and break their heads, / Make the mess they often do: / So long as we’re safe in our beds.” And human fantasy: “O, throw the dice quick, / And let me be rich! / I’ll be the winner! / It’s all arranged badly, / And if I had money, / I’d be a thinker.” And the human tendency to aggrandizement: “[E]ach, incapable of ruling / His inner self, would gladly rule his neighbor’s will.” And, in times of terror like now, this human tendency: “None of us are injured though, / But we all are frightened so.”
Surprisingly, the Devil offers good insights, but then, he’s seen and culled all. “Use your time well: it slips away so fast.” And: “How men torment themselves is all I see.” And: “We grow old but who grows wiser?” And this: “Where’s the moderation you should have learnt?” Goethe’s Faust, when he still has his soul, speaks wisely, as the scholar he is:
“Men usually scorn the things, I’ve found,
That, by them, can’t be understood,
Grumbling at beauty, and the good,
That to them seem wearisome.”
But as the world in the Faust legend goes to ruin, with the poets vividly describing the attendant destruction and suffering, they only indirectly throw light on the policy and character that could yield peace or a better day. The poets are far bigger on damnation than on ruin-avoidance. So, Republicans: Listen up to the damning annotation.
In a word: When “partisan hatred” reigns — “scattering error instead of truth” — and, at the same time, when moral discipline weakens and “sense fails,” then a would-be tyrant is empowered and “ruin comes on running feet.” As Goethe’s Mephistopheles exults, menacingly: “The signs are tumult, force, and what nonsense brings!”
Beware, for one, when words lose their meaning — as today, when news and fact, and truth itself, are characterized by Trump as “fake.” As Goethe’s Mephistopheles says:
“Where sense fails it’s only necessary
To supply a word, and change the tense,
With words fine arguments can be weighted,
With words whole Systems can be created,
With words, the mind does its conceiving,
No word suffers a jot from thieving.”
Mephistopheles goes on:
“My friend, the art’s both old and new,
It’s like this in every age, with two
And one, and one and two,
Scattering error instead of truth.
Men prattle, and teach it undisturbed:
Who wants to be counted with the fools?
Men always believe, when they hear words,
There must be thought behind them, too.”
Beware, for another, partisan hatred. Faust says of partisan zeal’s exigencies: “The law is great, but necessity’s greater.” And when necessity is in the saddle, Mephistopheles exults:
“That’s it! They no longer feel constrained….
They quickly renew eternal strife.
Locked in hereditary bile,
They prove themselves unreconciled:
Far and wide the noise is rife.
In the end, by all the Devils, yes!
Partisan hatred’s still the best,
Till final ruin ends the tale:
Here rise the sounds of utter panic,
And others bitter and Satanic,
Terrify, along the vale.”
Beware, too, ceding rights. “We’ve given away our rights, and hence, / No rights are left for us, not one…. / Now, who’ll help his neighbor? / Each man just help himself.” And beware “imperious yearning”: “He followed his need, and Ilium was gone.”
Moral weakening is limned by Goethe in the tale of Icarus, who flew too near the sun, melting his wax wings and causing his fall. As the Chorus intones:
“Yet, irresistibly, you ran free,
In nets of indiscipline: you
Divorced yourself violently,
From custom, and from rule.”
Rule-breaking leads to chaos, evil. Alluding to the Devil’s cloven feet, the Chorus goes on: “Nothing’s spared! The cloven feet now / Trample on all decency!” (Goethe gibes the modern age in its willful amorality: “in modernity, / Where fools now boast about their sinful stories.” He advises, “Keep living Sacredness to hand.”) Among the human race, the Devil himself deems “the most shameful” to be the religious hypocrites:
“[T]heir prayers are a worse disgrace,
These dandies come, the hypocrites:
They’ve snatched a heap of souls away,
Use our weapons too to do it:
They’re Devils in disguise, I’d say.”
Marlowe, in regard to moral weakening, unleashes the Seven Deadly Sins — Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, Lechery — about which the eager-to-sin Faust says, “O, this feeds my soul!” Note especially Wrath’s destabilizing effect on society, as in our own angry age: “I leapt out of a lion’s mouth….and ever since I have run up and down the world.…wounding myself when I had nobody to fight withal.”
Once underway, momentum toward war, whether civil war or foreign, is well-nigh unstoppable, as Goethe’s worldly Chancellor to the Holy Roman Emperor describes:
“What help can human wit deliver,
Or kindly heart, or willing hand, if fever
Rages wildly through the state, and evil
Itself is broodingly preparing evil?”
The Chancellor goes on:
“Look about, from this height’s extreme,
Across the realm: it seems like some bad dream,
Where one deformity acts on another,
Where lawlessness by law is furthered,
And an age of crime is discovered.”
The Chancellor concludes:
“So all the world will slash and chop,
Destroying just what suit themselves:
How then can that true sense develop
That shows the morally acceptable?”
Those wielding the power to rebalance the chaos, at least theoretically, instead quake or hesitate. Mephistopheles scorns the pusillanimous:
“No one dare to criticize the situation,
Each could, and would improve his station.
Even the smallest wished to be great enough.
But for the best it proved a step too much.”
Once war comes, the byword becomes: Defend yourself. As the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire himself notes:
“From selfishness they learn self-preservation,
Not honor, affection, gratitude, dedication.
No one thinks that when time brings the reckoning,
The neighbor’s house ignites theirs while it is burning.”
While this Emperor is benevolent, beware the would-be emperor who is not. As if speaking of Trump the Vicious Incompetent, Goethe writes: “O Power, Power, will you never, / Sense and Omnipotence treasure?” Elsewhere he says, ala Trump: “To crush the innocent one.… / Is the tyrant’s way to free himself of an embarrassment.”
What is the counter-force? Once ruin comes running, neither Goethe nor Marlowe offer much hope. Goethe does nod to the good people: Despite ruin, “[T]he good will chance it all again. / An ounce of thanks will still please them deeply, / Outweighing tons of ingratitude completely.” And, too, the good reap a “dual prize”: “You show compassion, and it brings you pleasure.” But this hardly reestablishes equilibrium or, crucially, “the morally acceptable.” For that lofty goal, none other than Mephistopheles says, “We demand a higher art” (to which this writer says, “Amen!”). Too late, Faust understands, “We must grasp things in the highest sense.” Of no help at all, especially in a crisis, are “the doubters and their acid wit.”
Clearly, the solution is: Avoid the slide into Chaos in the first place or, once into it, reverse however you can. In Trump’s America, the power to reverse the slide lies with the Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and nominally could check the proto-tyrant. Of course, in the coming midterms Democrats absolutely must retake power, galvanizing to recapture the House, if not the Senate, too.
Yet — this just in — Politico reports new “thinking” among Congressional Republicans, to wit: that even if Democrats retake the House in November, and even if they seek Trump’s impeachment, why, that would “both rally [Trump’s] base and make the president sympathetic to moderates.” This “lose-to-win” gambit, which requires the Senate remain GOP-controlled, has “surfaced spontaneously among a diverse set of conservatives” and “dovetails with the growing conviction….that the president could use congressional gridlock under a Democratic House majority as a….battering ram, offering it up as the picture of Washington intransigence as he vies for reelection.” And if a demonized Nancy Pelosi is reelected by Democrats as Speaker, so this “thinking” goes: Game over!
One can almost hear Mephistopheles snort with laughter and paw the ground.
To recur to Faust and to Mephistopheles’ taunt that “No one dare to criticize the situation,” this appeal to today’s Republicans, who once upon a time were principled: Will no one dare criticize — this nefarious “plan,” this proto-tyrant Donald Trump? Strength being found in numbers, will no one among Republicans dare organize an anti-Trump insurgency? Or will this all be “a step too much”?
The dire fate haunting the Faust legend need not necessarily apply to America, because, even as unhappy and disoriented as we are now, we are not fatalists, we still believe we can make our own fate. So, Republicans: Throw off the Faustian bargain — for your own soul as well as the nation’s.
Finally, Republicans: If an appeal to the soul means little to you, and to the far-gone corrupt it would mean nothing, then bear in mind another verdict. As the English philosopher Francis Bacon said, “The inescapable property of Time is ever more and more to reveal the Truth.” The power-hungry may not care about moral questions, but they do care, desperately, about winding up on the right side of History. Think, then, about History’s final estimation of collaborators and co-conspirators throughout the annals of Time.