The Saruman trap: When power is corrupt, there is no way to escape its toxic influence

The temptation of intellectuals is often this: the urge to influence the mighty because they lack the skills or the lineage or the luck to rule themselves. At the moment, despite all the investigations and scandals, the stumbles and desertions, Trump and the political party that has succumbed to his bullying and his appeal look like power, at least if you are a conservative thinker. And after several generations of conservative intellectuals coming to think that their job is to shape policy rather than simply articulate truth and outline the consequences of decisions or actions, a future of permanent exile from influence looks unacceptably bleak.

The stakes are not nearly as high for conservative thinkers as they were for the inhabitants of Middle Earth, but the basic idea is worth pondering. Some of them wish to walk back their condemnation of Trump, the animosities that he magnifies and upon which he feeds, the prejudices upon which he plays and the norms he delightedly subverts. They do so not because their original judgments have been proved unjust—far from it—but because, weary of unyielding opposition, they would like to shape things, or at least to hold communion with those who are in the room where the deals are done. But as Gandalf and Galadriel could teach them, the height of wisdom is to fear their own drive for power, to fight the fight in a darkening world even if it looks likely to end in failure, and, above all, to choose to remain their better selves.