"Why Are We Living Like This?"
Three years after January 6, the question remains.
One of my all-time favorite television shows is The Walking Dead. I thought the first six seasons or so of the zombie-apocalypse drama were pretty great. But like most long-running television series, it eventually jumped the shark. And if you ask fans when they believe that moment was, most would probably answer with the Negan storyline.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Negan was a top villain from the graphic novels the series was based on. The charismatic, always-talking, barbed-wire-bat wielding heel (played by actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan) led an army of loyalists called The Saviors. They brutalized and effectively enslaved other communities of survivors to “provide” resources for them. Negan and his crew would regularly take a large portion of the other communities’ food, weapons, equipment, and even their people in exchange for “protecting” those communities… which really meant just not killing them (and even that was subject to change).
Negan ruled by fear. Any demonstration of disloyalty to him was met with swift and torturous consequences. Even his top generals were expected to kneel in his presence, and accept their leader’s status as their own. “I am Negan,” they would often identify themselves.
It was an intriguing storyline at first, as the Negan regime put the show’s smaller group of protagonists in a terrible, seemingly hopeless situation. Fans were naturally expecting the story-arc to lead to the good guys, across multiple communities, banning together and forming a rebellion against Negan and The Saviors. That did eventually happen.
The problem from a television-series perspective, however, was how long it took. Each and every week, Negan would humiliate, intimidate, and sometimes mutilate the good guys (and even some reluctant or incompetent bad guys). He’d take them to the woodshed, demand unconditional loyalty, and reliably get his way… usually after offering up a long-winded, molasses-paced speech or anecdote. And maddeningly, most weeks, there would be a prime opportunity for one of the bullied good guys to effectively take out Negan on their own, and end the threat to them and everyone else once and for all.
But every single time, that character would ultimately lose their nerve… or become distracted… or be deterred by an act of God… or be double-crossed by someone else. Something would always prevent it from happening, and Negan’s reign would continue on for another week. The nauseating formula was followed over and over to the point of absurdity.
The arc went on for an entire two seasons, amounting to two full years, in real-time, for the show’s once dedicated audience. Viewership declined significantly during that time, as longtime fans grew increasingly frustrated with the monotony of it all. They just wanted Negan dead, or in some other way removed from the show, so that the series could move on in a new direction. They were sick and tired of watching the characters they’d invested so much time in, prior to the storyline, regularly (and at times needlessly) reduced, in one way or another, to rubble.
In one episode, a bit-character named Gordon defects from The Saviors; he’s had enough of Negan’s rule. When he’s captured, he laments to the henchman who apprehended him, a character named Dwight, “There’s no choice. No way but [Negan’s] way. Thug swoops in with a baseball bat and a smile, and we're all so scared that we gave up everything. But there's only one of him and all of us, so why are we living like this?”
“Good question,” I remember saying out loud at the time. It was as if Gordon were channeling the sentiments of millions of Walking Dead fans.
Dwight, who was once friends with Gordon, knows what his old buddy is saying is true. He’s empathetic to him. But Dwight has given up so much of his own pride, dignity, and decency for Negan (including marriage rights to his own wife) that he can’t bring himself to let Gordon go free. Granting Gordon his freedom would afford the escapee something Dwight had long ago given up hope on for himself: a chance at something better. If Dwight had to be eternally miserable in service to Negan, Gordon had to as well.
I was reminded of that scene the other day as I was reading a piece in the New York Times. The article detailed a slew of fresh presidential endorsements Donald Trump has received from fellow Republicans, just three years after the events of January 6 saw Trump leaving office under a cloak of disgrace. He was a pariah, even to top leaders and loyalists in his party.
You could be forgiven for not remembering that part of the story, since the sentiment didn’t last long (at least not publicly). Once the Republican base rallied around Trump, and demanded the same of their Republican representatives (sometimes with threats and harassment), the vast majority of GOP leaders abandoned their first taste of political freedom and rectitude in years. Fearing for their political careers, they chose, once again, to drop to a knee and pledge slobbering servitude to the scoundrel who’d cost them the House, the Senate, the presidency, their moral and ethical standards, many of their policy positions, and their very dignity.
These “leaders” had been presented with the perfect opportunity to finally be rid of Trump (a guy most of them secretly despise and know is bad for the country). All it would have taken was a united front on a richly deserved impeachment ruling and subsequent conviction, which nearly all of them understood was the appropriate and patriotic thing to do. But with precious few exceptions, they were ultimately paralyzed by the fear of losing their political careers in the next primary. So, they fell right back in line, and back to their personal and professional misery.
Additionally, many of them showed genuine spite for those among their ranks who did put the country before politics when it really mattered. Their anger didn’t stem from a belief that party-dissenters like Liz Cheney were morally, ethically, or constitutionally wrong in what they did. On the contrary, the animosity came from their own lack of strength and courage to follow Cheney’s lead. As Gordon was to Dwight, Cheney and company were (and continue to be) a haunting reminder of what many Trump hang-ons perhaps once were, and wish they could be again.
It can’t be expressed often enough just how many Republican leaders secretly want to be rid of Trump. The sentiment is shared in off-record exchanges all the time. They feel that way not because they’re afraid of him “draining the swamp” or routing out the “deep state,” or any other lame MAGA platitude. It’s because they know he’s glaringly unfit for office, he’s bad for the country, and he’s done immense electoral damage to the Republican Party.
There have been hints in the years since January 6 that Republicans might finally part ways with Trump. They were easy to pick up on in the wake of the 2022 midterms, when Trump-endorsed MAGA candidates were largely responsible for turning the projected “red wave” into a trickle, and the Democrats holding the U.S. Senate.
But as with those two exhausting seasons of The Walking Dead (which the show never recovered from), each opportunity has been painfully squandered. Even most of Trump’s presidential primary opponents have been afraid to capitalize off of the former president’s most glaring political liabilities, from his multiple criminal indictments, to his efforts to overturn U.S. democracy, to his provocation of the January 6 riot, to his lavishing of praise on those who committed violence in his name, to his increasingly unhinged, autocratic rhetoric.
Evoking such topics are considered bad MAGA manners, after all — punishable by Trump and his loyalists, who remain in control of the party in absence of a united front against them. Unless something dramatically changes, Trump will continue to own the Republican Party for the foreseeable future. Heck, every member of the GOP House leadership is already officially supporting his re-election campaign, despite Nikki Haley dominating Trump’s general-election numbers in poll after poll.
The details of Trump’s renewed support are, as expected, pathetically sad. As reported by Jonathan Swan, Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman in the aforementioned Times piece:
Mr. Trump works his endorsements through both fear and favor, happily cajoling fellow politicians by phone while firing off ominous social media posts about those who don’t fall in line quickly enough. In October, he felled a top candidate for House speaker, Representative Tom Emmer, by posting that voting for him “would be a tragic mistake!” On Wednesday, Mr. Emmer capitulated and endorsed him.
“They always bend the knee,” Mr. Trump said privately of Mr. Emmer’s endorsement, according to a person who spoke to him.
And Mr. Trump is privately ranting about and workshopping nicknames for other holdouts, like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
“Ted — he shouldn’t even exist,” Mr. Trump said recently of Mr. Cruz, a 2016 rival, according to a person who heard the remarks and recounted them soon after. “I could’ve destroyed him. I kind of did destroy him in 2016, if you think about it. But then I let him live.”
They always bend a knee.
He shouldn’t even exist.
I let him live.
Those lines feel like they could have been pulled directly from one of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s scripts. But unlike with Negan, Trump’s boot-lickers aren’t weighing matters of life and death in their miserable pledge of allegiance to Trump. They’re just scared about their political future. That’s where their disgrace comes from.
"Why are we living like this?” It’s a question assuredly asked often by Republican leaders behind closed doors.
The answer is simple: Because you choose to, out of cowardice.