Jeff Timmer: The GOP succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome

President Donald Trump at a Battle Creek rally, Dec. 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Warren Zevon wrote the lyric “Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland’s Thompson gun and bought it,” in a 1978 song, referencing the kidnapping and radicalization of the heiress by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). 

If Zevon were alive today he might update that lyric to read, “The GOP read the worst of Donald’s Twitter thumb and no one fought it.” The $64,000 question is why have they so entirely acceded to Trump’s MAGA cult?

No business or organization would tolerate Donald Trump’s daily behavior within the ranks of their employees or membership, let alone its leadership. Yet, since the moment he descended the Jethro Bodine golden escalator in 2015 to announce his candidacy, Trump has engaged in an unceasing assault on traditional American legal and constitutional (let alone Republican) values, conservative thought, and the basic norms of the way an adult human, not just the president, acts. And now nearly half of Americans say, “Meh.”

Virtually everyone who was a Republican prior to spring 2016, whether in the U.S. Senate, Congress, governors’ mansions, state legislatures or party meetings across America, thought Trump to be a performer escaped from a circus sideshow. Nontraditional GOP voters were propelling him to the nomination. By the summer of 2016, real Republicans still considered him largely radioactive bat guano with less than zero chance to defeat Hillary Clinton. 

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Candidates in close races were unwilling to shake his tiny, tiny hand or be seen campaigning with him. The entire party ran for the lifeboats when Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape grabbed the news cycle by the genitalia. Trump commanded no respect. No one valued his political antennae or instincts. No one feared him; what they feared was being associated with him.

Then the political campaigns gods pulled the ultimate prank. Trump won and the sudden shift in the Republican Party that registered on the Richter scale was felt as far away as Moscow and Beijing. He was now their guy, even if they weren’t quite his. They’d keep him on the straight and narrow. 

Such silly Republicans; they still had no idea who they were dealing with. Trump was Trump and would always be Trump. They were not equal to the task. They were, however, unwitting dupes already succumbing to the narcissistic sway of a Fifth Avenue Marshall Applewhite. This was spinelessness at worst; delusional scoliosis at best.

His instability, ignorance and impetuosity upended global markets and security alliances that have provided the relative predictability required for the health of our economy and national security since World War II. His vainglorious and loutish behavior drove every woman not named “Karen” from the Republican Party and brought a Democratic tsunami that tore through Capitol Hill, state capitals, county courthouses and city halls in the November 2018 elections — sweeping thousands of GOP office holders out to sea.

The historic trouncing suffered in the 2018 election should have been a wakeup call for the GOP to confront Trump’s personal toxicity before it subsumed the Party. Yet, even after leading them off a cliff, there was nary a peep of critique from 96% of Republicans. They doubled down on devotion to Trump instead of pausing to take stock of the perilous territory they’d followed him to. They filled their pockets with quarters, laced up their brand-new Nikes, and awaited the sweet release of the mothership’s arrival.

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GOPers acted like they’d been with Trump all along. They justified his actions, and their support, by cherry picking policies or outcomes they agreed with. Republicans attempted to smooth Trump’s unsettling behaviors or by deflection — drawing false equivalencies about political opponents. 

“But judges,” seemed to satisfy many. “Hoax. Witch hunt. Fake news,” became common refrains. “But Hillary, but Obama, but Pelosi, etc.,” also became go-to GOP justification for Trump’s latest outrageous deed or screed du jour. Patty Hearst’s grandfather — a patron saint of yellow journalism — would no doubt love the impact Fox News and conservative talk radio has had on today’s politics, culture, and Trump’s cult of aggrieved minions, much in the way the SLA got inside the head of his granddaughter.

The entire year of 2019 seems lost in a long, continual blur of Russian collusion, Mueller Report, obstruction of justice, Ukraine extortion (“You better stay away from him, he’ll tear your lungs out, Jim. That call was perfect,” to again paraphrase Zevon), White House coverups, and impeachment.

 To be fair, those are some pretty damn serious matters to have occupied our bandwidth. Through that protracted and eventful year, though, like Patty Hearst, even the few remaining reluctant Republicans demonstrated all the signs of Stockholm Syndrome by increasingly identifying with their captor despite the growing perils of their situation. Party adherents metaphorically picked up guns, like she did, changed their names to Tania, and headed off to rob a bank.

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That has been the most startling aspect of Trumpism — how otherwise decent Republicans with long-standing reputations for political normalcy and measured behavior became cravenly submissive to Trump despite the daily deluge of corruption, incompetence, ignorance and buffoonery; along with the moral, ethical and policy hazards that accompany it. 

Trump never was better. They once were.

Now in 2020, his incompetence, dithering and reckless stupidity have led to the avoidable deaths of more than 100,000 Americans, with tens of thousands more to come, and a gigantic smoking crater in the American economy where 40 million jobs and millions of businesses that existed in March are now possibly extinct a mere 90 days later. Still, his Svengali control of the GOP remains firm. Trump is now the Republican Party and those in the Republican Party are now Trump’s — minds, bodies and souls.

Republican candidates at every level of government, in nearly every corner of the United States, may also be facing a looming impact crater extinction event in November. Though still far from certain, many reliable indicators of election outcomes such as presidential job approval, the country’s right track-wrong track, the generic Congressional ballot preference, and nearly every measurable economic gauge point to an election climate more closely resembling the blue wave of 2018 than the nip-and-tuck closeness of 2016.

January through May seem to have been 2020’s shot. The chaser is the alleged murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers. Even though it’s been nearly six decades since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the assassination of Martin Luther King, these incidents continue to happen regularly. We’ve had an African American president. Still racism permeates America. Floyd’s death has now sparked three weeks of massive protests across the entire country. Americans of all colors and backgrounds have exploded into the streets with a passionate and historic, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore,” attitude and show no signs of slowing.

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Trump’s response to the civil — and mostly peaceful — unrest has, not surprisingly, been to amp up his divisive and racially tinged rhetoric. He’s opted for full-throated jingoistic militarism (and even the ham-handed theocratic imagery with the Bible in front of St. John’s Church) to stoke the partisan divisions that have toxified our politics into an all-out culture war. While most of America is outraged, the MAGA-Republican cult is eating it up.

We still have the better part of five months until Election Day. As hellish as the first five months of 2020 have been, there’s great probability the next five will bring heightened division, strife and unrest as Trump begins to feel increasingly cornered. Emotional instability and desperate fear are a toxic cocktail.

Nothing to date has cracked Trump’s confounding grip on his adopted and captive political party. Given the torrent of ineptitude, corruption, and lunacy they’ve cultishly come to embrace thus far, nothing seems likely to break the spell and awaken the suppressed courage and moral compasses of Republicans, or even trigger their instinct for self-preservation. A cult has gotta cult. So be it.

Warren Zevon also wrote a song called Hostage with a line that goes, “I can see me bound and gagged, dragged behind the clown-mobile.” Whether their sycophancy has been a willful choice or the result of brainwashing by the hypnotic Bozo, it’s increasingly likely the ensnared Republicans running in 2020 will be following Trump’s clown car right over the cliff this November. Even then, Trump’s very own Symbionese Liberation Army is likely to feel hostility and aggrieved outrage rather than coming to their senses. 

Goodbye, Tania.