In Dante’s Inferno, the ninth, most terrible circle of hell is reserved for the worst type of traitors. Dante specifically includes Judas, who betrayed Christ, and Cassius and Brutus, who betrayed and slew Julius Caesar, as the only named persons who inhabit the fourth and final round of this circle. Each is condemned to be gnawed within the three mouths of Satan for all eternity. Judas is being chewed on head first, his legs forever dangling out of Satan’s mouth.
The revulsion felt towards treachery—and particularly treachery against one’s country—is well established. Children in the U.S. learn about Benedict Arnold’s treachery in middle school. Students of World War II learn about the treachery of Vidkun Quisling. Their names (along with that of Judas) have gained such notoriety that they have become epithets describing traitors in general. From a political standpoint, there is not much if any practical distinction between outright treachery and “collaboration.” The Petain government of Vichy France collaborated with the Nazis, as did Quisling’s Norwegian government. Both Petain and Quisling are now universally viewed as traitors, with each possessing a unique litany of justifications for his actions—justifications that are now viewed as shabby excuses for complicity with evil.
With an embattled and unstable Donald Trump making alarming noises about unleashing the military on American citizens and his attempts to delegitimize an election that looks increasingly likely to go against him, there seems to be no better time to examine the motivations of those in the Republican Party who have collaborated with him and are allowing him to be in a position to make these threats. As Anne Applebaum—a renowned historian of the Soviet Union and the former Communist bloc—demonstrates in a tour de force just published in The Atlantic, it’s not as if Republicans looked at their reflections in the bathroom mirror one morning and decided they would betray their country for the interests of Donald Trump. There was self-reflection involved, a weighing of self-interest, costs and benefits—all leading to the conclusion that fealty to Trump outweighed their sworn oaths to defend the Constitution.
The oh-so-telling title of Applebaum’s essay is “History Will Judge The Complicit.” In it, she cites several examples of collaborators throughout 20th Century history—most significantly those who supported totalitarian Soviet puppet regimes in Eastern Europe—and analogizes how the rationales and excuses each used to try to justify their actions mesh perfectly with the behavior of today’s Republican Party in their nearly-collective decision to pay meek obeisance to Donald Trump.
Applebaum explains just what a “collaborator” is.
In English, the word collaborator has a double meaning. A colleague can be described as a collaborator in a neutral or positive sense. But the other definition of collaborator, relevant here, is different: someone who works with the enemy, with the occupying power, with the dictatorial regime. In this negative sense, collaborator is closely related to another set of words: collusion, complicity, connivance. This negative meaning gained currency during the Second World War, when it was widely used to describe Europeans who cooperated with Nazi occupiers. At base, the ugly meaning of collaborator carries an implication of treason: betrayal of one’s nation, of one’s ideology, of one’s morality, of one’s values.
Applebaum notes there can be two types of political collaborators: voluntary and involuntary. People forced at gunpoint to cooperate with a regime out of necessity or a duty to preserve other people’s lives are among the involuntary class of collaborator. Voluntary collaboration, on the other hand, implies either a willingness to collaborate for the sake of “ the national interest,” or an enthusiastic embrace of the enemy borne of outright admiration or alignment with one’s ideology. Describing the latter variety, Applebaum cites Harvard scholar Stanley Hoffman, who in 2007 “observed that many of those who became ideological collaborators were landowners and aristocrats, ‘the cream of the top of the civil service, of the armed forces, of the business community,’ people who perceived themselves as part of a natural ruling class that had been unfairly deprived of power under the left-wing governments.”
But curiously, as she notes, just as “equally motivated” to willingly collaborate were the country’s “losers,” the “social misfits” and political deviants who also saw an opportunity to raise their own standards of living by joining forces with an occupying enemy.
If this is beginning to ring some bells, it should.
Applebaum also cites the work of Czesław Miłosz, a Nobel-prize winning poet who wrote about the mindset of collaboration based on his experiences in working for the Polish government after WWII. In The Captive Mind, Milosz uses a series of biographical portraits to depict the various justifications that collaborators use to justify the betrayal of their principles. As Applebaum points out, these are all transferable to the behavior of the modern Republican Party in selling out their principles, and even selling out their oath to serve the American people, to a demagogue like Donald Trump. In fact the near-total abdication of their souls to Trump—even in the face of his blatantly apparent cruelty, crudeness, self-interest, and lack of any commitment to democratic principles—is closer to the historical reality of collaboration than are those voices that dissent or object. That is because collaboration is a way of ensuring conformity, and conformity is more pleasurable, more rewarding, and ultimately safer than nonconformity.
Using Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney as examples, Applebaum illustrates how two men, both claiming to have some semblance of principles, behaved once they fell under the presidential orbit of Donald Trump. Noting that both had vehemently criticized Trump prior to his election, she shows how Graham ultimately showed his so-called principles about “patriotism, duty and honor” (which he had attributed to his military experience in the JAG corps) to be nonexistent, turning himself into one of Trump’s fiercest supporters beyond all logic, despite the amorality, corruption, and self-absorption of Trump himself:
It was Graham who made excuses for Trump’s abuse of power. It was Graham—a JAG Corps lawyer—who downplayed the evidence that the president had attempted to manipulate foreign courts and blackmail a foreign leader into launching a phony investigation into a political rival. It was Graham who abandoned his own stated support for bipartisanship and instead pushed for a hyperpartisan Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. It was Graham who played golf with Trump, who made excuses for him on television, who supported the president even as he slowly destroyed the American alliances—with Europeans, with the Kurds—that Graham had defended all his life. By contrast, it was Romney who, in February, became the only Republican senator to break ranks with his colleagues, voting to impeach the president.
Graham’s surrender to Trump was shocking, but Applebaum thinks she understands it. His behavior, and most importantly his rationale, mirrored the same justifications that officials in the Nazi-collaborating Vichy French government employed. The Republican Party is displaying exactly the same rationalizations for their behavior that collaborators in the Vichy regime—as well as collaborators in Sovietized Eastern Europe—exhibited. As Applebaum observes: “These are experiences of people who are forced to accept an alien ideology or a set of values that are in sharp conflict with their own.”
And that, according to Applebaum, is exactly what Trump has done from the outset to the Republican Party: He imposed an alien ideology, by claiming to possess different values from “traditional” Republicans. Examples cited by Applebaum include Trump’s campaigning as a “populist” and his phony promises to “drain the swamp,” and above all, attacking fact-based reality at every turn.
This began with his patent lying about size of his inauguration crowds, a seemingly trivial matter that gradually cascaded into a habitual and relentless refashioning of “reality” to be whatever he said it was. The number of absolute lies (over 19,000 at last count) delivered by Trump, the wholesale corruption of our federal agencies with political supporters lacking any experience in government or even their agency’s subject matter, and the insistence on his own infallibility were, according to Applebaum, not intended to convince thinking Americans of their truth but instead to convince his supporters in the Republican Party that he could simply lie and lie again with impunity and get away with it; that he could corrupt an entire branch of government and get away with it; and now, that he can grossly mishandle a national public health crisis and still get away with it. As Applebaum states: “Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar.”
As Applebaum states, corruption to a large body of people does not happen suddenly—it happens gradually, like a “slippery slope,” as people (here, Republicans) “abandon their existing value systems” through a process where such corruption is normalized. Republicans have normalized Trump’s lies and learned to reflexively blink at his corruption. In doing so, and by allowing their own sense of competence and “patriotism” to be co-opted by Trump, they have abandoned whatever responsibility they once felt towards the American people.
Meanwhile, with this kind of sycophantic following Trump has done whatever he wants, which is to fulfill his own interests and create what is certainly the most corrupt administration in American history while using racism and xenophobia when necessary to achieve those ends. His antipathy towards any legal or Constitutional restraints on his power are established; his sneering dismissal of science, the military, and our intelligence services are all matters of record; his complete abandonment of our strategic alliances is probably irreparable. As Applebaum puts it: “He meets his own psychological needs first; he thinks about the country last. The true nature of the ideology that Trump brought to Washington was not ‘America First,’ but rather ‘Trump First.’”
By now the disaster of the Trump presidency is laid bare. We are experiencing an economic calamity even as people are dying from a grossly mishandled public health crisis. Our streets are literally on fire with people protesting chronic racial injustice, and the rest of the world looks on, aghast at what this country has become. Why then do Republicans continue to act as collaborators with such a regime?
Applebaum says that the same justifications are those set forth in Milosz’ work, The Captive Mind, noted above. They are the same tortured excuses collaborators have told themselves throughout history to justify their betrayal of the people they are supposed to represent. Applebaum distills some of them for us.
“We can use this moment to achieve great things.”
“We can protect the country from the president.“
“I, personally, will benefit.”
“I must remain close to power.”
“My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse.”
“I am afraid to speak out.”
Applebaum deftly shows how each one of these excuses/rationales has been trotted out or otherwise displayed by Republicans to justify their collaboration with this lawless and amoral regime. From the dubious “bravery” of Anonymous, who you may recall piqued the nation with their “inside account” of the administration’s foibles while claiming to be part of the Resistance, to unnamed officials who decide to ignore the massive onslaught of corruption as long as they get their own pet projects to work on. From people like John Kelly and Jim Mattis, who said they believed they could act as a “failsafe” to prevent the country from imploding but proceeded to quit and fade out of the public view, to cowards like John Bolton and Paul Ryan, who left the administration and their party, respectively, because of Trump and Trumpism yet were too afraid or too opportunistic, even afterwards, to call him out. Of course, there’s also the blatantly self-interested—the Sonny Perdues, the Scott Pruitts, and any of those who view a plum administration position as a mere stepping stone to lucrative careers on K Street. All of these collaborators have exhibited one classic excuse or another.
It is Applebaum’s analysis of the true sycophants—such as Mike Pompeo, William Barr, and Mike Pence, whose collaboration with Trump is not based on excuses but dogmatic religious fanaticism—that is most horrifying.
The three most important members of Trump’s Cabinet—Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General William Barr—are all profoundly shaped by Vichyite apocalyptic thinking. All three are clever enough to understand what Trumpism really means, that it has nothing to do with God or faith, that it is self-serving, greedy, and unpatriotic. Nevertheless, a former member of the administration (one of the few who did decide to resign) told me that both Pence and Pompeo “have convinced themselves that they are in a biblical moment.” All of the things they care about—outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, and (though this is never said out loud) maintaining a white majority in America—are under threat. Time is growing short. They believe that “we are approaching the Rapture, and this is a moment of deep religious significance.”
The fact that collaborators in the Trump administration tell themselves comforting stories to justify their actions is bad enough, but when the collaborators are motivated solely by a desire to impose their religious nuttery on the American population and are given the power to do just that, we are in truly perilous territory. This is particularly the case with Barr, whose role as attorney general and head of the Justice Department gives him nearly limitless power to impose his delusional worldview on the most vulnerable in our society. Our country was specifically designed to prevent the imposition of an official “religion” for this very reason.
But the consequences of collaboration probably reached their apotheosis in the conduct of Republicans during the impeachment saga. The GOP-controlled Senate failed to muster a single vote, save that of Mitt Romney, to convict a patently guilty president on charges of obstruction of justice. Applebaum, probably correctly, attributes this appalling inaction to fear of speaking out. As she points out, we are living with the fatal consequences of that act of cowardice and collaboration today:
[I]in March, the consequences of that decision became suddenly clear. After the U.S. and the world were plunged into crisis by a coronavirus that had no cure, the damage done by the president’s self-focused, self-dealing narcissism—his one true “ideology”—was finally visible. He led a federal response to the virus that was historically chaotic. The disappearance of the federal government was not a carefully planned transfer of power to the states, as some tried to claim, or a thoughtful decision to use the talents of private companies. This was the inevitable result of a three-year assault on professionalism, loyalty, competence, and patriotism. Tens of thousands of people have died, and the economy has been ruined.
All of this, and all that waits for us in the coming months, are the consequences of a knowing Republican collaboration with an administration whose incompetence and malevolence is unmatched by any in U.S. history. And yet, Republicans still show no sign of opposition. No voice of objection is raised to decry the torrent of perpetual cruelty and inhuman disregard, even as a deadly virus sweeps through the population, even as the world turns its back on an America it no longer recognizes. Applebaum frankly asks of these Republicans: How low will you allow the country to go?
Come November, will they tolerate—even abet—an assault on the electoral system: open efforts to prevent postal voting, to shut polling stations, to scare people away from voting? Will they countenance violence, as the president’s social-media fans incite demonstrators to launch physical attacks on state and city officials?
To these open questions Applebaum simply attaches a small piece of advice to those who have compromised whatever integrity they once possessed in the service of this one awful man. She quotes Władysław Bartoszewski, a survivor of Auschwitz and former prisoner of both the Nazis and the Soviets, who later rose to the position of foreign minister in his home country of Poland. Bartoszewski’s advice? Just try to be a decent human being, because that is the way you will be remembered.
Whether any Republicans will actually follow that advice remains to be seen.