step by step

Jonah Goldberg:

For five years now, we’ve watched as one political and psychological levee after another has been broken. If in 2016, I’d have hypothetically described the events that led to Trump’s first impeachment to, say, Lindsey Graham, he’d have been appalled. But he’d also have insisted such a scenario was farfetched. If I told him he’d be a shameless apologist for Trump, he’d have been profoundly offended. He’d probably even have been sincere. But because of a series of decisions he made over the course of Trump’s presidency, Graham acclimated to political and psychological appeasement to Trump.

But in 2019, even after that first impeachment and the years Graham spent incrementally selling his soul to Trump, if I hypothetically described the events that led to the second impeachment, he’d still have said, “There’s no way I would stick with Trump if he did all that.” This isn’t even speculation. We saw that Lindsey Graham resurface for a few days after the siege of the Capitol.

“Count me out,” Graham declared in the well of the Senate. In an interview he added that he’d “never been so humiliated and embarrassed for the country.” But now, he’s back in Renfield mode.

This is an old story. Most people don’t start out corrupted or evil. They make a series of seemingly easy and harmless decisions for short-term gain until one day the person they see in the mirror has suddenly become a villain. Whether it’s King Saul, Michael Corleone, or Walter White, the path to ruin is one long series of choose-your-own-adventure decisions. 

This is cogent and quite helpful to me. I think I better understand the Republican capitulation to Donald Trump when I think of their decision to nominate him as the GOP Presidential candidate in 2016 as the equivalent of Walter White’s decision to hold Krazy-8 captive in a basement. 

Breaking bad walter and krazy 8 episode 3

I mean, it seemed like a good idea at the time — it seemed like the only real option. But then, once you have him in the basement, what do you do with him? Until you decide, you are as much his prisoner as he is yours.

So Walt sits down with a legal pad to map out the plusses and minuses of releasing Krazy-8 … and realizes that if he lets him go the end result will be the murder of Walt’s whole family. So he has to kill him. Killing Krazy-8 is basically the equivalent of electing Trump President. From that point on there seems to be no path back to a normal way of life. 

This is how the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking leads inexorably to the Fallacy of Sunk Costs, and then back to the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking again. 

In the end, having succumbed to the tyranny of his sunk costs, Walt has to watch — with genuine agonized horror, but also with at least a subliminal awareness of his own culpability — the execution of his brother-in-law, Hank. This is January 6, 2021. Trump supporters didn’t want that to happen — and yet they willed everything that led up to it, everything that made it inevitable. 

Walt eventually was forced, by the return of his cancer, to make a reckoning with his long slow slide into evil. Not a full reckoning, perhaps, but something of one. But clinging to the fantasy of a stolen 2020 election is, above else, a way to avoid reckoning with the real character of one’s sequence of decisions. 

Though the world reckons with those who cannot confront their own decisions. As Kevin Williamson writes in a brilliant essay Goldberg quotes, 

When Trump was elected in 2016, Republicans already controlled the House of Representatives and the Senate. In 2021, they control the board of commissioners in Minnehaha County, S.D., and several very highly regarded hills of beans. Trump never got even to 50 percent approval, the first president in a generation to stay underwater for his entire term in office — and also the first since Herbert Hoover to see his party lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term. Trump-aligned figures are hearing footsteps in Republican states, with Senator Ted Cruz, for example, having come within a few points of losing reelection to a callow nobody in a race in which he lost every city in Texas more populous than Lubbock.

One in six of the people who identified as Republicans on Election Day in 2020 no longer associate themselves with the Republican party — only 25 percent of American voters do. That’s the political price of January 6 and Trump’s post-election shenanigans. Any more unity, and Republicans will be holding their next convention in a corner booth at Denny’s.

May 15, 2021

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