As I have watched the relationship between Donald Trump and the Republican party develop over the past few years, I have been reminded of a psychological phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Ben Franklin Effect.
Franklin famously wrote, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged." Put another way, we are more likely to do someone a big favor when we’ve already done them a smaller, unrelated favor.
Many establishment Republicans initially recoiled from Trump’s coarse, offensive language. (For example, there were many public repudiations of his claim that he could simply grab women “by the p----”.) But he refused to admit wrongdoing, demanded support from Republicans (who believed they were stuck with him on the ticket), and got that support. The GOP did him the favor of standing by him through what now seems like a relatively minor infraction — “locker room talk” — and he won. (So-called “locker-room” talk is emblematic of rape culture and perpetuates and excuses heinous behavior.)
Since then, the GOP has done one favor after another for Trump. With each thing he has done or said that was previously beyond the pale of presidential behavior (for example, not putting his businesses in a blind trust), the GOP has failed to hold the line and has thus lowered the threshold of acceptable behavior more and more.
Like a child who tests boundaries to see how much he can get away with, Trump has spent a lifetime pushing the bounds of acceptable behavior and continues to do so in the White House. A case in point here is his announcement and reversal on hosting the G7 at the Trump Doral resort--he would have gone through with it, but his GOP allies finally said it was a bridge too far.
And now the GOP is down in the muck, up to its neck in a swamp of corruption, defending a man who has, at the very least, abused his power for personal political gain, and, at worst, compromised our national security (not to mention putting lives at risk in more than one hot war abroad).
Now it would take such a great shift in mindset to repudiate Trump — it would involve so much cognitive dissonance — that Republicans in Congress simply cannot muster the will to face facts. He could, indeed, stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and the GOP would do nothing, blame someone else, or ask what is being done to bring other murderers to justice.
History has plenty of examples of leaders who have done similar things — asking small favors or concessions at first, stepping up their extremity over time, until the leader and his allies have completely altered the rules of what is socially, politically or even legally acceptable.
Sometimes there has been a way to inch back from the precipice of catastrophe, sometimes societies have launched themselves off the proverbial cliff.
Backing away from this president will require some painful soul-searching on the part of those who have, to date, conceded to and enabled a man whose only real goal has been to advance his own interests—interests that have occasionally intersected with the GOP’s.
The cost has been high. The price tag is the moral integrity of the Republican Party and its members in Congress. Are you willing to pay?
Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell is a theater scholar living in Salt Lake City.