I think it’s fair to say that one of the things about the Trump campaign and presidency that has caused the most consternation, even among the most deeply cynical of observers, has been the non-response of congressional Republicans to a series of statements, events, behaviors, and tweets that are just objectively horrifying to everyone else, everywhere. It didn’t seem possible that I could hold the GOP in lower esteem than I did in 2015—and yet never in a million years could you have convinced me back then that they’d have stood idly by while Donald Trump insulted his way to the White House and proceeded to dismantle our reputation in the world with his staggering incompetence and immaturity.
Now I don’t know about anyone else, but if I am to maintain any shred of hope for the future of the Republic, I need an explanation for the systemic moral meltdown of the political class on the Republican side of the aisle. It can’t really be that they’re just this craven, right? If they are…well, then politics as we know it is dead and we might as well stop trying. As a last ditch effort to assume salvageable, underlying decency, I’d like to postulate the existence of a psychological phenomenon I call the Plausible Unforeseeability Event Horizon.
Before I describe this phenomenon, let me provide a little background. One of the most affecting books I’ve ever read is called The Fifty Minute Hour, written by the preeminent psychoanalyst Robert Lindner shortly before his death. Published in 1954, it’s a collection of four case studies of particularly compelling and complex patients Lindner worked with. The story that sticks in my head is of a young man, Charles, who stabbed a young woman sixty-nine times with an ice pick and then raped her.
As in each of Lindner’s stories, the layers of this man’s life are peeled back until, by the end, you can scarcely imagine a different ending. Even if you care to dismiss the Freudian analysis, the circumstances of Charles’s childhood were brutal and led, as I see it, inexorably toward a horrible conclusion. Maybe it was the “upbringing since the age of three in a sequence of religious orphanages, where he experienced sadistic beatings that pushed him to identify with his ‘tormentors’ and to become what Lindner calls ‘an afflictor, delighting in giving pain.'” Maybe it was being “plied with alcohol and beaten up by a gang” at the age of eleven. Or maybe it was being sent, at thirteen, “to live with foster parents on a farm, where he does odd jobs and is treated as little more than a farm animal.” Most likely, it was all of those things.
Whatever it was, this obviously raises questions about the kinds of collective and individual failures that produced such a troubled soul. What could society have done differently to protect Charles as a child? Who actively contributed to his psychopathology? Who saw the signs and did nothing? At what moment in Charles’s life did his future become inevitable or, at the very least, foreseeable? When did a bad outcome stop being plausibly unforeseeable?
The question I’ve been asking myself lately is a slight twist on this way of looking at human behavior—an attempt to do it in the present, rather than from the future. That question is this: Is there anything Donald Trump could do today that, when looked back upon in five, ten, twenty years, would seem even remotely surprising? If Donald Trump raped a waitress at Mar-a-Lago this weekend, would anyone be able to plausibly say “Oh god, I didn’t see that coming?” If Donald Trump strangled a reporter to death with his bare hands in response to a question he didn’t like, would anyone be able to plausibly say “Geez, there were no warning signs?” If Donald Trump stripped naked at the Lincoln Memorial and gave a wild-eyed speech demonstrating a very poor understanding of history and/or policy, would anyone be able to say “What the heck? He seemed so smart and normal before!”
The answer to all of those questions—indeed, the answer to any similarly structured question you can imagine about Donald Trump’s behavior—is an emphatic “No.” I defy anyone to suggest an act—short of displaying emotional maturity, intellectual aptitude, or human kindness—that would produce a different answer.
The fact that you won’t be able to do it suggests to me that at some specific moment in the last two years we crossed the Plausible Unforeseeability Event Horizon (PUEH).
And the psychology and politics changed for congressional Republicans the moment we crossed it. As we approached the PUEH, the incentive to denounce and distance themselves from the black hole that is Donald Trump increased at an exponential rate. On the other side of the PUEH, the incentives are essentially reversed. To say now that firing Comey was wrong, that leaking highly sensitive intelligence information to the Russians was bad, that whatever he does today is somehow worse or more dangerous than any of a thousand other things that have come before, would be character suicide. They couldn’t do it without admitting that they’d been wrong to give him passes on a thousand earlier transgressions and that they are thus manifestly unfit to take an unsupervised shit, let alone hold public office.
My gut sense is that the PUEH for Trump was probably the Access Hollywood tape. Intuitively, it felt at the time like openly admitting to being a serial sexual assaulter—someone who felt free to “grab ’em by the pussy”—should have been the last straw, despite it being not even the worst or most dangerous thing he’d done, said, or shown himself to be up to that point. And sure enough, Republicans came as close as they had to jumping ship, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to stop fucking that chicken. After all, the election was approaching, the tape had been recorded years earlier, it was locker room talk, Hillary did email, #Benghazi.
So they let themselves slip past the PUEH—and here we are. I’m not absolving them of their crimes against humanity. I’m merely suggesting that Republicans’ behavior now is perhaps more understandable from a psychological, self-preservation perspective than it was before they reached the PUEH, which is useless information unless they choose to learn from it, which they won’t.