In the last few days, President Trump has threatened nuclear war, launched puerile insults at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attacked prominent black athletes for protesting racism, demeaned the embattled war hero John McCain, and disparaged the leaders of his own party. By tradition presidents seek to unite us, but not Trump. He seeks the applause he craves by stoking the anger of an alienated minority.
As this toxic symbiosis aggravates our divisions, the leaders of his nominal party watch like men in a catatonic trance, unable to speak or move. This moral paralysis reflects a psychological malady transmuted to politics.
Stockholm syndrome is “a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy...” Perversely, these bonds deepen when the captor “intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates” the captive. So Trump has subjugated the Republican Party.
Like many victims, the GOP establishment failed to perceive danger before their captor bound and gagged them. Until 2016, they lived within the walls of their own smugness, certain that their fractious primary electorate — evangelicals, business interests, gun rights absolutists, socially threatened whites, and indignant Tea Party adherents — would ultimately unite behind the most “electable conservative” congenial to its donor classes.
But the party didn’t have a coherent governing agenda save for loathing Barack Obama, and its leadership was mortgaged to the wealthy. To conceal this, the establishment relied on diversionary rhetoric directed at the denizens of Washington, ignoring that they were charter members. They gilded this cynical bait-and-switch with thinly-veiled racism directed at immigrants and minorities. But this ploy left the party’s base seething with the visceral instinct that the only way to stop America’s downward spiral was by cleaning house.
Inflamed by his gift for animating their resentments, they became Trump’s accomplices in a hijacking the party.
Never mind that his campaign was a compound of prejudice and promises of economic wonders performed by a strongman with singular and transformative powers. Within the party was a vacuum — the absence of a shared and concrete program for bettering American lives — and Trump filled it with magical thinking unified only by his siren song of self.
Before the establishment knew it, he had become the party’s nominee, chaining its leaders to a white-hot radiator. Captive, they bore mute witness to his self-absorption and disdain for Republican orthodoxy, praying that election day brought liberation.
Instead, their captor became the world’s most powerful man. Captives still, they clung to fantasy. If they whispered pleasing things, their captor would feed them conservative judges while the party’s congressional leaders passed donor-friendly legislation.
Their newly-indulgent captor eagerly awaited the legislative victories they promised him, indifferent to their substance. In turn, fearing his displeasure, they pretended not to notice the daily evidence of his gross unfitness for office.
But their own emptiness betrayed them.
The same internal conflict and incoherence which allowed Trump to capture the nomination has prevented congressional Republicans from passing any legislation which made sense — or any legislation at all.
To his patent contempt, Trump discovered that the incumbency of Obama had concealed that seven years of promising “repeal and replace” was empty of substance. As Trump turned to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi — “Chuck and Nancy” — in search of fresh applause, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan were — yet again — forced to endure his scorn.
Desperate to placate him and restive donors, Ryan and McConnell backed another half-baked Obamacare repeal. Craving a legislative victory, Trump signed on, only to rediscover that the GOP could not muster a majority.
On their part, his captives keep rediscovering the obvious — their kidnapper is a narcissist. Like Trump’s campaign, his White House is a self-centered exercise in self-branding, a vacant hall of mirrors in which he sees nothing but himself.
For the GOP, the most terrible discovery is that his base cares for nothing but him. The party has long relied on voters in whom a need for authority predominates — evangelicals, people of limited education, those threatened by economic or social change. For them, the particulars of Trump’s ideas matter little: their wall is not a thing, but a metaphor. Authoritarian by psychology and instinct, Trump salves their anxieties by promising to repel their enemies and restore their primacy – by whatever means, whoever those enemies may be. To defy him would sunder a party for which he cares nothing.
Trump’s defining need is that his followers trust him alone. Until they stop, the GOP will remain his hostage — and theirs.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.