Whenever I ponder the despicable impotence of the congressional Republicans – especially now, as we lurch toward a national crisis long in the making – I am reminded of a famous poem by T. S. Eliot:

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw…

There’s a lot more, but you get the drift. And here’s a straw head in action, as captured Tuesday by a reporter in a Capitol Hill corridor:

Q: “Should the Senate act to keep Trump from firing Mueller?”

Sen. Orrin Hatch: “He’s not going to do that.”

Q: “Why do you say that?”

Hatch: “He’s just not going to do it.”

Q: “How can you be so confident?”

Hatch: “I’m quite sure he won’t do it. Unless there’s something else really bad that happens.”

Q: “Why not take up one of these bills to protect [Mueller]?”

Hatch: “I don’t think we should do that.”

Q: “Why not?”

Hatch: “Well, because I don’t think – I think it’s up to the president. I think he should – I don’t think he’s going to do that.”

Q: “But he has openly contemplated it.”

Hatch: “Yeah, I don’t think he’s going to.”

Q: “Has he told you that?”

Hatch: “No.”

As Trump creeps ever closer toward emulating the autocrats in Russia, Turkey, and Hungary, the Republicans who run a so-called equal branch of government continue to disgrace themselves and imperil us. Hatch was joined yesterday by the usual hapless suspects, all of whom meet T. S. Eliot’s criteria for hollow behavior: “Shape without form, shade without color / Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.”

Speaking of a paralyzed force, Senate “leader” Mitch McConnell was asked whether the chamber should take proactive steps to protect the federal investigation into Trump’s multifaceted scandals – most notably, Robert Mueller’s job. He replied: “I haven’t seen any clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed because I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

How much “clear indication” do these people need?

Trump has already sought to fire Mueller at least twice before backing down, and during his tirade earlier this week, he said: “Why don’t I just fire Mueller? … We’ll see what happens. And many people have said, you should fire him.” (Those “many people” are a distinct minority. The latest national Quinnipiac poll says that 69 percent of all voters, including 55 percent of Republicans, want Mueller on the job.)

Worst of all is their catch-22 reasoning. They say there’s no need to protect Mueller because Trump hasn’t done anything “yet” (McConnell) and because Trump won’t do anything “unless there’s something else really bad that happens” (Hatch). But if Trump lashes out by firing Mueller, it will then be too late to protect him. And what would congressional Republicans do if that happens? Would they perchance take action against Trump’s flagrant obstruction of justice?

Here’s an answer from the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn: “I’m not going to speculate as to what we would do.”

How about Paul Ryan? What did the soon-to-be-former House Speaker has reportedly decided not to run for re-election (as yours truly and others predicted), because it’s easier to cut and run than to stand and fight for the soul of his party. Freed from electoral constraints, Ryan could perform a public service by drawing a line in the sand against Trump’s authoritarian impulses, but that isn’t likely to happen – because 89 percent of grassroots Republicans endorse Trump’s cult of personality.

And that best explains the congressional Republicans’ calculated impotence. In a tough midterm year, they need the Trump cultists to show up on election day. If they dared to cross the Leader, they’d risk ticking off “the base” and depressing Republican turnout. It doesn’t matter that Trump is “losing his s–‘t” (as one operative close to the White House tells Politico), because the enablers on Capitol Hill can’t conceive of putting the country first. Instead, it’s party tribalism uber alles.

But it’s Eliot who best captures the cowardice of hollow men:

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar.

Copyright 2018 Dick Polman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at [email protected]