Politics and Literature: The GOP and Tolkien's Saruman

As a lover of literature, I find that the best stories in fiction are the ones that carry a relevance that goes beyond the framework of the tale and can be applied to the life of the reader, regardless of that reader's background, beliefs, and life experiences. Perhaps this is why J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book. Sure, on the surface, it doesn't look at all like a tale with any parallels in modern American life. How can a tale full of wizards, orcs, and mystical rings do anything other than provide a fantastical escape from the doldrums of everyday existence?

And yet a book that gave us nothing to relate to would not carry the timeless quality of Tolkien's most famous work. And the truth is that The Lord of the Rings, a story published over 60 years ago about a mythical realm of hobbits and dragons, holds themes and concepts that seem to be pulled directly from 21st-century headlines and conversations. Some of these are broader ideas, such as environmentalism, the horrors of war, and the corrupting influence of power, which would find relevance in any day and age. And then there are others that seem so specific and relevant to current events that it's hard to believe they were written half a world away and the better part of a century ago.

While completing my most recent reread of The Lord of the Rings, I came across one such passage in the argument Saruman presents to Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring:

The Elder Days are gone... The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see. And listen, Gandalf, my old friend... I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against us the old allies and policies will not avail us...This then is one choice before you, before us. We must join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf... Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose.

If you have not read The Lord of the Rings before, some brief context. Saruman is trying to convince his fellow wizard, Gandalf, of the wisdom of allying themselves with the dark lord Sauron (the "Power" mentioned in the passage). As Saruman sees it, Sauron's victory is inevitable. If we cannot defeat this Power outright, he argues, perhaps we can work to manipulate it from within so that we can achieve our broader goals.

I've always enjoyed this passage and what it has to say on the broader idea of power, influence, and the corrupting nature of both. It stands on its own. But as I read it again, I was struck by how closely Saruman's argument aligns with a much more current mindset in today's political sphere. 

This line in particular stands out to me: We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose. How many otherwise reasonable Republicans, both elected officials and private citizens, have we heard make this exact case for aligning themselves with Trump? "Of course I don't like Trump personally. But look at the movement he has built! Sure, he built it by playing to fear, xenophobia, and bigotry, and I'd rather it hadn't happened that way. But he's in charge now, and think of all we can accomplish with him in office! Besides, if 'good people' like us work with him, we can help to prevent him from doing anything too egregious."

And, much like Saruman's proposal to Gandalf, this line of thinking is rational on its surface. Who would say no to such an opportunity to help shape the world in such a manner? If the only options are to work with this new source of Power or be destroyed by it (in the form, perhaps, of Trump organizing his supporters in a Tea Party-esque wave of primary challenges against those Republicans who dare to resist him), surely only a fool would choose the latter path.

And yet Gandalf rejects Saruman's entreaties. He does so because he can see another option, the most obvious option to him and the one which doesn't even enter Saruman's mind. Don't use this Power.  Cast it into the fire, so to speak.

He sees what Saruman either cannot see or chooses not to: the Power itself is entirely corrupting. It does not build new things; it tears them down. It is fueled by cruelty, malice, and hatred. The right thing to do is not to accept it or to try and change it from within, but to reject it utterly. Only in doing so can one truly escape its influence.

This is the choice facing your average Republicans right now. They can work with Trump, knowing that doing so means embracing the bigotry, xenophobia, fear, and anger that is the lifeline of his "movement." This will result in a number of quick wins for the GOP: a conservative on the Supreme Court, the removal of regulatory oversight, and a smaller federal government. It must be incredibly enticing. 

Or they can reject Trump and everything he stands for. They can denounce a movement that was built not on hope but on hate. They can make a statement that conservative views and beliefs are not synonymous with the narcissistic man-child currently holding the banner of their party. 

Doing so would be far from easy. The criticism from Trump and his base (which is also a not-insignificant portion of their base) would be harsh. Republicans in office could face primary challenges and losses of support, while private citizens may take flack from friends and family for refusing to toe the line. But the most important decisions are always the most difficult. I hope my Republican friends, family, and representatives will come to find their inner Gandalf and reject the Power being offered.