No Siren Song: The Need to Take the Long View of History

In Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Odysseus heeds the warning of Circe and orders his crew to use ear wax to make themselves deaf to the calls of the sirens who will lure them to their deaths. Odysseus also orders his crew to tie him to the ship’s mast so he cannot be thrown off course by seductive and deceitful songs.

His was a short-term sacrifice for the long-term goal of returning to his home and his family.

A similar short-term sacrifice now needs to be made by Senate Republicans for the long-term good of the country.

In the fast-moving impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, the onslaught of news includes the Syria withdrawl of U.S. troops, the now-redacted announcement the G7 would take place at a Trump property as well as Trump’s brazen, public request to China — an enemy of the United States — to investigate his political opponent and presumptive challenger for the 2020 presidency, Joe Biden.

All of this signals to pundits and his core supporters his ability to flout norms and get away with it.

Yet in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” with White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Fox host Chris Wallace said  he had “talked to a very well-connected Republican in Washington, someone whose name you would know well, who says that if the House votes to impeach and it gets to a trial in the Senate, there’s now a 20 percent chance enough Republicans would vote with Democrats to impeach the president.”

Yet so many elected Republicans remain mum.

This is at a time when Republican voters are shifting their stance on impeachment. According to CNN, “One third of moderate/liberal potential Republicans in our latest CNN poll said they wanted Trump impeached and removed last week, while about two-thirds didn’t want that. Back in late May, the split was 16% for impeachment and removal and 81% against it.”

When Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) recently labelled Trump’s actions “troubling,” the president responded with vulgar, demeaning tweets about Romney.

But isn’t saving the country worth a retaliatory social media storm? Perhaps not.

In spite of continued instances of Trump’s dereliction of duty, the vast majority of Senate Republicans are united against impeaching him. Besides the obvious political calculus of the difficulty in winning re-election in districts where the president is more popular than incumbent senators, there is another dynamic at play.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) recently responded to a constituent asking when she would act on impeachment with a shoulder-shrugging: “The president is going to say what the president is going to do.”

Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes that the Senate Republicans compromise their own integrity by inaction. He states, “The greater the compromise, the more fierce the justification for it — and the greater the need to denounce those who call them out for their compromise.”

The nonstop news cycle may be keeping Senate Republicans mired in the present, holding a relatively short-term perspective rather than pondering the longer-term effects of their actions.  Yet, pulling them out of a short-term perspective may be exactly what is needed now.

Having spent over 20 years as a researcher and consultant on organizational issues, with particular attention to societal context, I am familiar with academic research on the antecedents of ethical behavior.  One study identifies the power of  long-term orientation — that is, planning for and considering the future, as well as valuing traditions of the past — on determining ethical behavior.

The power of a long-term perspective was brought home in an innovation workshop I participated in years ago.  The workshop leader spoke about how he and his wife struggled with the decision of whether or not to have children. Initially, they’d made a list of pros and cons that seemed evenly balanced. They were stuck and unable to decide.

They realized, however, that they had tied their thinking to relatively immediate impacts of the decision, such as whether or not they’d be able to afford a certain type of housing, and immediate changes that would be needed to continue in their careers.

But they then challenged themselves to consider the long-term impacts of different decisions. So they imagined their lives over a span of decades, and pondered what their lives would be like with children, and without children.

He said they were struck with the emptiness that they both felt they’d experience without children in their lives.  In the end, they made the decision to have a child.

Of course, the future of American democracy is even more urgent and bears a much broader historic global impact than one family’s decision. But some new thinking of the long-term consequences may be what is of the greatest importance to this country. History teaches us as much.

In the 1950s, Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy hunted Communists, often indiscriminately.  His actions destroyed careers, leading to the blacklisting of writers and actors whose  incomes were lost and personal lives ruined.

After an expose by investigative journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1954, McCarthy lost power.  “McCarthyism” is now synonymous with character defamation, indiscriminate allegations, and unsubstantiated charges.  Some  have pointed out similarities between McCarthy and Trump.

Interestingly, Roy Cohn was McCarthy’s chief counsel during the red scare of 1954. He went on, of course, to be Trump’s consigliere during his early real estate career. Cohn died in 1986, yet Trump has reportedly asked, “Where is my Roy Cohn?” during fraught episodes in public life. This is one of those times.

Apparently it is difficult for most Senate Republicans to resist the lure and power of a larger-than-life, overpowering personality who has mastered the ability to manipulate, bully, wheedle, and insinuate himself into public prominence.

As the majority of Republican senators stand united against impeaching Trump and almost all refrain from speaking out on his wrongdoing, they would be wise to consider the long-term impact this inaction has not just on their political legacy, but on the future of our country and the world as we know it.

As in the classic myth, only ignoring a deceitful call for support can ensure the better long-term outcome.

Katherine Giscombe is the founder of Giscombe and Associates consulting firm, focusing on organizational change and diversity and inclusion.

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