Many years ago, when we played what we called “penny-ante poker,” there was always an unhappy participant who, as the evening wore on, slid more and more of his chips (or coins) to the middle of the table and recovered very few of them.
This guy didn’t want to give up, but neither did he have very good cards to play. He wasn’t good at bluffing, he didn’t want to rock the boat, he was perhaps a tad masochistic, so he would grudgingly go along when someone raised the stakes.
He would “see” the aggressor, but never raise him, and he would repeatedly sigh and mutter, “In for a dime, in for a dollar.”
It seems like today’s Republicans, especially those in the Trump administration or elected members of Congress, have cast themselves in the ill-fated card player’s role. They are not master con artists like their leader (though sycophant-in-chief Lindsey Graham tries desperately to play the part), but they seem drawn into playing every hand the same way. They know it’s a losing hand, but they don’t dare raise and they can’t seem to fold.
Except today’s Republicans are playing with human lives. They are doing so with the currency of a nation’s form of government, its standing in the world, built on 230 years of constitutional stability, which has been threatened by many things but never a chief executive like Trump, who would lead us all to perfidy just to protect his fragile ego, or probably his extra-superhold comb-over.
Republicans knew in 2015 (and before) that this man was disastrously ill-suited to the presidency, but he was meaner, tougher and more cunning than anyone who stood in his way, with an innate sense of how to win the race to the bottom by inspiring the very worst in human nature. With a combination of privilege and malignant narcissism, he learned to indulge his id without restraint, trampling those who challenged him in his moral gutter or tried to take a slightly higher road, such as the curb. (This all started with New York real estate, after all.)
As always, it was Trump who was best at scapegoating, striking the greatest fear into whatever base he had, touching the nerve of what most angered or threatened them, even as he stroked his ego by amusing them with sadistic humor, poking cruel fun at the handicapped, women, minorities, and the foibles he unerringly spotted in those who dared to disagree with him. It was the classic con game, where the biggest charlatan somehow persuaded his victims he was one of the first amongst fake equals — while he proceeded to bilk them of what little they had left.
And yet the conditions were ripe for Trump’s ascension (runaway capitalism, unresolved culture wars, racist backlash to the election of a black president, etc., etc.). You can blame Trump in small part for the morass in which this country finds itself, but it’s kind of like blaming a turkey vulture for tearing apart roadkill. We all have our survival mechanisms. In any case, neither Trump nor the vulture would attack something that was capable of fighting back.
We’d have been rid of Trump several years ago if Republicans had backbones. But their Machiavellian opportunism has been cultivated for years with hypocrisy for fertilizer; they loved their half of the devil’s bargain they made with Trump, in which he advanced their agenda while they ignored …
where should I start? His vulgarity, his immorality, his corruption, his sadistic cruelty (racism, sexism, ableism, white nationalism), his quest for democracy-killing authoritarianism, his pathological mendacity, his petty vindictiveness — in short, his incapacity for any positive, cross-culturally admired human trait, except the brutal will to succeed at any cost. And that is a trait admired mainly by those who, left behind, seem destined to find the most monstrous voice of their generation to follow. But that’s another story, in which Democrats are hardly without blame.
So now Republicans are so heavily bought into the Cult of Trump that each new outrage elicits a distracted shrug followed by a litany of excuses, ranging from “witch hunt” to “fake news,” to accusations of “Democratic overreach.” In the latest case of the Ukraine phone call, the best they can seem to do is whine, “They’d impeach over this after Hillary’s emails?” and now with his appeal to China to interfere with our next election on his behalf, “Oh, it was a joke.” Uh-huh.
As Trump sagely tweeted a couple of years ago, “I Could Stand In the Middle Of Fifth Avenue And Shoot Somebody And I Wouldn’t Lose Any Voters.” Amen.
Because what started out as a great-looking bargain — “We Republicans get a tax cut and a couple of Supreme Court justices, industrial deregulation, higher border fences, and all we have to put up with is some crude language and a little corruption?” — has snowballed into a subversion of all they claimed to value, including a livable future for themselves and their descendants.
But still the Republicans are holding their cards and not finding a way out of the game. And they know if they fold ‘em, he’ll scold ‘em, and they’ll be out of power and in a world of hurt before Sweet Old Donald is through with them. Worse yet, they don’t dare call his bluff.
“In for a dime, in for a dollar.”
What about, “In for the collapse of Western society”? Or, “In for the Sixth Great Mass Extinction”?
Hard to win with a hand like that.
Steve Klinger is a veteran community journalist and college English instructor based in southern New Mexico. Frequently skeptical about the capacity of the written word to inspire activism, he also writes songs, hoping to add the power of music to his topical lyrics.