The denarius, ancient Rome’s silver coin, was supposedly the daily wage of a manual worker. If so, the tax cuts that the richest 1 percent of Americans will receive if the Affordable Care Act is repealed – tax cuts that are, obviously, the real reason for repeal – would amount to the equivalent of around 500 pieces of silver each year.
What inspired this calculation? The spectacle of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, defending Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey.
Everyone understands that Comey was fired not because of his misdeeds during the campaign – misdeeds that helped put Trump in the White House – but because his probe of Russian connections with the Trump campaign was accelerating and, presumably, getting too close to home. So this looks very much like the use of presidential power to cover up possible foreign subversion of the U.S. government.
And the two leading Republicans in Congress are apparently OK with that cover-up, because the Trump ascendancy is giving them the chance to do what they always wanted, namely, take health insurance away from millions of Americans while slashing taxes on the wealthy.
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So you can see why I find myself thinking of Judas.
For generations, Republicans have impugned their opponents’ patriotism. During the Cold War, they claimed that Democrats were soft on communism; after 9/11, that they were soft on terrorism.
But now we have what may be the real thing: circumstantial evidence that a hostile foreign power may have colluded with a U.S. presidential campaign, and may retain undue influence at the highest levels of our government. And all those self-proclaimed patriots have gone silent, or worse.
Just to be clear, we don’t know for sure that top Trump officials, and maybe even Trump himself, are Russian puppets. But the evidence is obviously enough to take seriously – just think about the fact that Michael Flynn stayed on as national security adviser for weeks after Justice Department officials warned that he was compromised, and was fired only when the story broke in the press.
And we know how to resolve the remaining uncertainty: independent investigations conducted by officials with strong legal powers, insulated from partisan political influence.
So here’s where we stood as of Thursday evening: 138 Democrats and independents had called for the appointment of a special prosecutor; just one Republican had joined that call. Another 84 Democrats had called for an independent investigation, joined by only six Republicans.
At this point, in other words, almost an entire party appears to have decided that potential treason in the cause of tax cuts for the wealthy is no vice. And that’s barely hyperbole.
How did a whole party become so, well, un-American? For this story now goes far beyond Trump.
In some ways conservatism is returning to its roots. Much has been made of Trump’s revival of the term “America First,” the name of a movement opposed to U.S. intervention in World War II. What isn’t often mentioned is that many of the most prominent America-firsters weren’t just isolationists, they were actively sympathetic to foreign dictators; there’s a more or less straight line from Charles Lindbergh proudly wearing the medal he received from Hermann Goring to Trump’s cordial relations with Rodrigo Duterte, the literally murderous president of the Philippines.
But the more proximate issue is the transformation of the Republican Party, which bears little if any resemblance to the institution it used to be, say during the Watergate hearings of the 1970s. Back then, Republican members of Congress were citizens first, partisans second. But today’s GOP is more like a radical, anti-democratic insurgency than a conventional political party.
Political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have been trying to explain this transformation for years, fighting an uphill battle against the false equivalence that still dominates punditry. As they note, the GOP hasn’t just become “ideologically extreme”; it is “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
So it’s naive to expect Republicans to join forces with Democrats to get to the bottom of the Russia scandal – even if that scandal may strike at the very roots of our national security. Today’s Republicans just don’t cooperate with Democrats, period. They’d rather work with Vladimir Putin.
In fact, some of them probably did.
Now, maybe I’m being too pessimistic. Maybe there are enough Republicans with a conscience – or, failing that, sufficiently frightened of an electoral backlash – that the attempt to kill the Russia probe will fail. One can only hope so.
But it’s time to face up to the scary reality here. Most people now realize, I think, that Donald Trump holds basic American political values in contempt. What we need to realize is that much of his party shares that contempt.