The Saruman Trap
Last week, Eliot A. Cohen used The Lord of the Rings to analyze a phenomenon he observed among the “erstwhile NeverTrumpers” who “attempt to cleanse themselves of the stain of having signed letters denouncing candidate Trump by praising President Trump’s achievements and his crudely framed, rough-hewn wisdom.” When power is corrupt, Cohen argued, there is no way to escape its toxic influence.
I’ve long felt that The Lord of the Rings was underappreciated for its analysis of morality, honor, and the traps that power sets for the unwary and the ambitious. You’re quite right to compare Ross Douthat to Saruman.
However, some conservatives have made a worse bargain than Saruman did. They’ve taken the equivalent of one of the Nine Rings of Power that Sauron handed out to Mortal Men. And in doing so, they’ve become hollowed-out shells. They’ve thrown honor, decency, and everything else that conservatives used to claim was important into the flames in order to grasp political power above what they could have gained on their own.
Kirstjen Nielsen strikes me as a prime example of a thoroughly modern Ringwraith. She’s given up her morality and perhaps her soul to hang on to her position as the head of the Department of Homeland Security.
Unfortunately, no wise and just philosopher-king is lurking in the wilds of America to set everything right. Aragorn isn’t coming to save the day with the banner of the Kings. We must do it ourselves, and it’s going to be hard, if not impossible. My son told me that he believes this to be the task that is set before his generation.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Professor Cohen has hit the nail on the head. The Lord of the Rings story characterizes the struggle of men and women at any time in history who try to fight temptations of personal gain at the expense of personal values.
Eliot Cohen writes a clever and insightful article on the morality embodied in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and he does a good job of applying it to the modern American political landscape. But he applies that lens a bit narrowly when he applies it only to former NeverTrumpers now finding accommodation with our president. Would Democrats have reacted any differently had Hillary won the election and a subsequent investigation turned up credible evidence of malfeasance on the part of her and her team? At the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings, it is not Frodo’s resolution or courage that saves Middle Earth (he cannot bring himself to destroy the Ring), but only his pity for Gollum. That’s a lesson Democrats would be well served to remember.
Daniel H. Smith
Highlands Ranch, Colo.
Eliot Cohen likens Ross Douthat to Saruman, who in The Lord of the Rings made a pitch to the good men of Middle Earth to recognize that Mordor’s time has come, and that they would do well to ally with it. They may even, according to Saruman, come to direct Mordor’s decisions.
It was a trap, of course. Cohen says a recent Douthat column about NeverTrumpers put him in mind of Saruman’s trap.
That is a deeply unfair characterization. I urge you to read the entire column. Douthat has never hidden his contempt for Trump. But he is trying to be what NeverTrumpers like the establishmentarian Eliot Cohen are not: realistic. In his column, Douthat recognizes that whether we like it or not, Trump has changed what it means to be politically conservative in America.
Excellent piece. This is a perfect example of why the study of literature continues to be a critical component of a solid education. Despite our current focus on STEM education, it’s literature that gives us insight into how to understand human nature, politics, law, and culture.
Andrew Parker wrote: Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the rise of fascism. This author’s metaphor is very germane.
Jary May Blige wrote: “The stakes are not nearly as high for conservative thinkers as they were for the inhabitants of Middle Earth.” Ehm, not so sure about this.
While I’ve been reading THE LORD OF THE RINGS aloud to my kids, I’m also reading @flemingrut’s magisterial commentary alongside; @EliotACohen’s in the same vein, letting Gandalf speak clearly & forcefully against any moral shortcut & excusehttps://t.co/C26qTD426G#LOTR #Tolkien— Josh Hale (@expatminister) November 5, 2018
Fwiw I think NeverTrumpers who want to resist Trump himself but see something of use or importance or necessity in populism are closer to Boromir than Saruman:https://t.co/Ol9mtB4Za3— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) November 1, 2018
I think the important insight we can take from this piece is that the Presidency and, by extension, the whole of the Federal government and bureaucracy, is the One Ring, which must be cast into the fire and eternally destroyed. https://t.co/EJHs5mb0Bn— Fr. Brendon Laroche (@padrebrendon) November 1, 2018
Eliot A. Cohen replies:
I appreciate the kind words about “The Saruman Trap.” The Lord of Rings is indeed a modern epic, but we should allow writers a bit of room for whimsy—having a bit of fun while making a serious point. Because it is an epic, LOTR addresses universal themes, and, Democrats being human, I quite agree that they are as subject to temptations of power as Republicans. But it is the latter who are in charge now. As for Rod Dreher, he uses the word establishmentarian in the way Douthat uses the words apostate and convert, i.e., as a way of reading out of a community those whose ideas he does not accept by using a label in place of an argument. I dislike that. I also reject the notion that “Trump has changed what it means to be politically conservative in America.” Just because the Republicans have abandoned conservatism does not mean that I have to. Like an Ent, I don’t change.