History Will Judge the Complicit
Maybe it isn’t surprising that the implications of “Trump First” were not immediately understood. After all, the Communist parties of Eastern Europe—or, if you want a more recent example, the Chavistas in Venezuela—all advertised themselves as advocates of equality and prosperity even though, in practice, they created inequality and poverty. But just as the truth about Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution slowly dawned on people, it also became clear, eventually, that Trump did not have the interests of the American public at heart. And as they came to realize that the president was not a patriot, Republican politicians and senior civil servants began to equivocate, just like people living under an alien regime.
In retrospect, this dawning realization explains why the funeral of John McCain, in September 2018, looked, and by all accounts felt, so strange. Two previous presidents, one Republican and one Democrat—representatives of the old, patriotic political class—made speeches; the sitting president’s name was never mentioned. The songs and symbols of the old order were visible too: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; American flags; two of McCain’s sons in their officer’s uniforms, so very different from the sons of Trump. Writing in The New Yorker, Susan Glasser described the funeral as “a meeting of the Resistance, under vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.” In truth, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the 1956 funeral of László Rajk, a Hungarian Communist and secret-police boss who had been purged and murdered by his comrades in 1949. Rajk’s wife had become an outspoken critic of the regime, and the funeral turned into a de facto political rally, helping to set off Hungary’s anti-Communist revolution a couple of weeks later.
Instead, Anonymous concluded that remaining inside the system, where they could cleverly distract and restrain the president, was the right course for public servants like them. Anonymous was not alone. Gary Cohn, at the time the White House economic adviser, told Bob Woodward that he’d removed papers from the president’s desk to prevent him from pulling out of a trade agreement with South Korea. James Mattis, Trump’s original secretary of defense, stayed in office because he thought he could educate the president about the value of America’s alliances, or at least protect some of them from destruction.
This kind of behavior has echoes in other countries and other times. A few months ago, in Venezuela, I spoke with Víctor Álvarez, a minister in one of Hugo Chávez’s governments and a high-ranking official before that. Álvarez explained to me the arguments he had made in favor of protecting some private industry, and his opposition to mass nationalization. Álvarez was in government from the late 1990s through 2006, a time when Chávez was stepping up the use of police against peaceful demonstrators and undermining democratic institutions. Still, Álvarez remained, hoping to curb Chávez’s worst economic instincts. Ultimately, he did quit, after concluding that Chávez had created a loyalty cult around himself—Álvarez called it a “subclimate” of obedience—and was no longer listening to anyone who disagreed.
In authoritarian regimes, many insiders eventually conclude that their presence simply does not matter. Cohn, after publicly agonizing when the president said there had been “fine people on both sides” at the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, finally quit when the president made the ruinous decision to put tariffs on steel and aluminum, a decision that harmed American businesses. Mattis reached his breaking point when the president abandoned the Kurds, America’s longtime allies in the war against the Islamic State.
But although both resigned, neither Cohn nor Mattis has spoken out in any notable way. Their presence inside the White House helped build Trump’s credibility among traditional Republican voters; their silence now continues to serve the president’s purposes. As for Anonymous, we don’t know whether he or she remains inside the administration. For the record, I note that Álvarez lives in Venezuela, an actual police state, and yet is willing to speak out against the system he helped create. Cohn, Mattis, and Anonymous, all living freely in the United States of America, have not been nearly so brave.
I, personally, will benefit. These, of course, are words that few people ever say out loud. Perhaps some do quietly acknowledge to themselves that they have not resigned or protested because it would cost them money or status. But no one wants a reputation as a careerist or a turncoat. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, even Markus Wolf sought to portray himself as an idealist. He had truly believed in Marxist-Leninist ideals, this infamously cynical man told an interviewer in 1996, and “I still believe in them.”
Many people in and around the Trump administration are seeking personal benefits. Many of them are doing so with a degree of openness that is startling and unusual in contemporary American politics, at least at this level. As an ideology, “Trump First” suits these people, because it gives them license to put themselves first. To pick a random example: Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, is a former Georgia governor and a businessman who, like Trump, famously refused to put his agricultural companies into a blind trust when he entered the governor’s office. Perdue has never even pretended to separate his political and personal interests. Since joining the Cabinet he has, with almost no oversight, distributed billions of dollars of “compensation” to farms damaged by Trump’s trade policies. He has stuffed his department with former lobbyists who are now in charge of regulating their own industries: Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky was for 21 years the CEO of the American Soybean Association; Brooke Appleton was a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association before becoming Censky’s chief of staff, and has since returned to that group; Kailee Tkacz, a member of a nutritional advisory panel, is a former lobbyist for the Snack Food Association. The list goes on and on, as would lists of similarly compromised people in the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and elsewhere.
Perdue’s department also employs an extraordinary range of people with no experience in agriculture whatsoever. These modern apparatchiks, hired for their loyalty rather than their competence, include a long-haul truck driver, a country-club cabana attendant, the owner of a scented-candle company, and an intern at the Republican National Committee. The long-haul truck driver was paid $80,000 a year to expand markets for American agriculture abroad. Why was he qualified? He had a background in “hauling and shipping agricultural commodities.”
I must remain close to power. Another sort of benefit, harder to measure, has kept many people who object to Trump’s policies or behavior from speaking out: the intoxicating experience of power, and the belief that proximity to a powerful person bestows higher status. This, too, is nothing new. In a 1968 article for The Atlantic, James Thomson, an American East Asia specialist, brilliantly explained how power functioned inside the U.S. bureaucracy in the Vietnam era. When the war in Vietnam was going badly, many people did not resign or speak out in public, because preserving their “effectiveness”—“a mysterious combination of training, style, and connections,” as Thomson defined it—was an all-consuming concern. He called this “the effectiveness trap”:
The inclination to remain silent or to acquiesce in the presence of the great men—to live to fight another day, to give on this issue so that you can be “effective” on later issues—is overwhelming. Nor is it the tendency of youth alone; some of our most senior officials, men of wealth and fame, whose place in history is secure, have remained silent lest their connection with power be terminated.
In any organization, private or public, the boss will of course sometimes make decisions that his underlings dislike. But when basic principles are constantly violated, and people constantly defer resignation—“I can always fall on my sword next time”—then misguided policies go fatally unchallenged.
In other countries, the effectiveness trap has other names. In his recent book on Putinism, Between Two Fires, Joshua Yaffa describes the Russian version of this syndrome. The Russian language, he notes, has a word—prisposoblenets—that means “a person skilled in the act of compromise and adaptation, who intuitively understands what is expected of him and adjusts his beliefs and conduct accordingly.” In Putin’s Russia, anyone who wants to stay in the game—to remain close to power, to retain influence, to inspire respect—knows the necessity of making constant small changes to one’s language and behavior, of being careful about what one says and to whom one says it, of understanding what criticism is acceptable and what constitutes a violation of the unwritten rules. Those who violate these rules will not, for the most part, suffer prison—Putin’s Russia is not Stalin’s Russia—but they will experience a painful ejection from the inner circle.
For those who have never experienced it, the mystical pull of that connection to power, that feeling of being an insider, is difficult to explain. Nevertheless, it is real, and strong enough to affect even the highest-ranking, best-known, most influential people in America. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, named his still-unpublished book The Room Where It Happened, because, of course, that’s where he has always wanted to be. A friend who regularly runs into Lindsey Graham in Washington told me that each time they meet, “he brags about having just met with Trump” while exhibiting “high school” levels of excitement, as if “a popular quarterback has just bestowed some attention on a nerdy debate-club leader—the powerful big kid likes me! ” That kind of intense pleasure is hard to relinquish and even harder to live without.
LOL nothing matters. Cynicism, nihilism, relativism, amorality, irony, sarcasm, boredom, amusement—these are all reasons to collaborate, and always have been. Marko Martin, a novelist and travel writer who grew up in East Germany, told me that in the 1980s some of the East German bohemia, influenced by then-fashionable French intellectuals, argued that there was no such thing as morality or immorality, no such thing as good or evil, no such thing as right or wrong—“so you might as well collaborate.”
This instinct has an American variation. Politicians here who have spent their lives following rules and watching their words, calibrating their language, giving pious speeches about morality and governance, may feel a sneaking admiration for someone like Trump, who breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He lies; he cheats; he extorts; he refuses to show compassion, sympathy, or empathy; he does not pretend to believe in anything or to abide by any moral code. He simulates patriotism, with flags and gestures, but he does not behave like a patriot; his campaign scrambled to get help from Russia in 2016 (“If it’s what you say, I love it,” replied Donald Trump Jr., when offered Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton), and Trump himself called on Russia to hack his opponent. And for some of those at the top of his administration, and of his party, these character traits might have a deep, unacknowledged appeal: If there is no such thing as moral and immoral, then everyone is implicitly released from the need to obey any rules. If the president doesn’t respect the Constitution, then why should I? If the president can cheat in elections, then why can’t I? If the president can sleep with porn stars, then why shouldn’t I?
This, of course, was the insight of the “alt-right,” which understood the dark allure of amorality, open racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny long before many others in the Republican Party. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic, recognized the lure of the forbidden a century ago, writing about the deep appeal of the carnival, a space where everything banned is suddenly allowed, where eccentricity is permitted, where profanity defeats piety. The Trump administration is like that: Nothing means anything, rules don’t matter, and the president is the carnival king.
My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse. When Marshal Philippe Pétain, the leader of collaborationist France, took over the Vichy government, he did so in the name of the restoration of a France that he believed had been lost. Pétain had been a fierce critic of the French Republic, and once he was in control, he replaced its famous creed—Liberté, égalité, fraternité, or “Liberty, equality, fraternity”—with a different slogan: Travail, famille, patrie, or “Work, family, fatherland.” Instead of the “false idea of the natural equality of man,” he proposed bringing back “social hierarchy”—order, tradition, and religion. Instead of accepting modernity, Pétain sought to turn back the clock.
By Pétain’s reckoning, collaboration with the Germans was not merely an embarrassing necessity. It was crucial, because it gave patriots the ability to fight the real enemy: the French parliamentarians, socialists, anarchists, Jews, and other assorted leftists and democrats who, he believed, were undermining the nation, robbing it of its vitality, destroying its essence. “Rather Hitler than Blum,” the saying went—Blum having been France’s socialist (and Jewish) prime minister in the late 1930s. One Vichy minister, Pierre Laval, famously declared that he hoped Germany would conquer all of Europe. Otherwise, he asserted, “Bolshevism would tomorrow establish itself everywhere.”
To Americans, this kind of justification should sound very familiar; we have been hearing versions of it since 2016. The existential nature of the threat from “the left” has been spelled out many times. “Our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature,” wrote Michael Anton, in “The Flight 93 Election.” The Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham has warned that “massive demographic changes” threaten us too: “In some parts of the country it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” This is the Vichy logic: The nation is dead or dying—so anything you can do to restore it is justified. Whatever criticisms might be made of Trump, whatever harm he has done to democracy and the rule of law, whatever corrupt deals he might make while in the White House—all of these shrink in comparison to the horrific alternative: the liberalism, socialism, moral decadence, demographic change, and cultural degradation that would have been the inevitable result of Hillary Clinton’s presidency.
The Republican senators who are willing to express their disgust with Trump off the record but voted in February for him to remain in office all indulge a variation of this sentiment. (Trump enables them to get the judges they want, and those judges will help create the America they want.) So do the evangelical pastors who ought to be disgusted by Trump’s personal behavior but argue, instead, that the current situation has scriptural precedents. Like King David in the Bible, the president is a sinner, a flawed vessel, but he nevertheless offers a path to salvation for a fallen nation.
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.” Barr, in a speech at Notre Dame, has also described his belief that “militant secularists” are destroying America, that “irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith.” Whatever evil Trump does, whatever he damages or destroys, at least he enables Barr, Pence, and Pompeo to save America from a far worse fate. If you are convinced we are living in the End Times, then anything the president does can be forgiven.
I am afraid to speak out. Fear, of course, is the most important reason any inhabitant of an authoritarian or totalitarian society does not protest or resign, even when the leader commits crimes, violates his official ideology, or forces people to do things that they know to be wrong. In extreme dictatorships like Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, people fear for their lives. In softer dictatorships, like East Germany after 1950 and Putin’s Russia today, people fear losing their jobs or their apartments. Fear works as a motivation even when violence is a memory rather than a reality. When I was a student in Leningrad in the 1980s, some people still stepped back in horror when I asked for directions on the street, in my accented Russian: No one was going to be arrested for speaking to a foreigner in 1984, but 30 years earlier they might have been, and the cultural memory remained.
In the United States of America, it is hard to imagine how fear could be a motivation for anybody. There are no mass murders of the regime’s political enemies, and there never have been. Political opposition is legal; free press and free speech are guaranteed in the Constitution. And yet even in one of the world’s oldest and most stable democracies, fear is a motive. The same former administration official who observed the importance of apocalyptic Christianity in Trump’s Washington also told me, with grim disgust, that “they are all scared.”
They are scared not of prison, the official said, but of being attacked by Trump on Twitter. They are scared he will make up a nickname for them. They are scared that they will be mocked, or embarrassed, like Mitt Romney has been. They are scared of losing their social circles, of being disinvited to parties. They are scared that their friends and supporters, and especially their donors, will desert them. John Bolton has his own super PAC and a lot of plans for how he wants to use it; no wonder he resisted testifying against Trump. Former Speaker Paul Ryan is among the dozens of House Republicans who have left Congress since the beginning of this administration, in one of the most striking personnel turnovers in congressional history. They left because they hated what Trump was doing to their party—and the country. Yet even after they left, they did not speak out.
They are scared, and yet they don’t seem to know that this fear has precedents, or that it could have consequences. They don’t know that similar waves of fear have helped transform other democracies into dictatorships. They don’t seem to realize that the American Senate really could become the Russian Duma, or the Hungarian Parliament, a group of exalted men and women who sit in an elegant building, with no influence and no power. Indeed, we are already much closer to that reality than many could ever have imagined.
n February, many members of the Republican Party leadership, Republican senators, and people inside the administration used various versions of these rationales to justify their opposition to impeachment. All of them had seen the evidence that Trump had stepped over the line in his dealings with the president of Ukraine. All of them knew that he had tried to use American foreign-policy tools, including military funding, to force a foreign leader into investigating a domestic political opponent. Yet Republican senators, led by Mitch McConnell, never took the charges seriously. They mocked the Democratic House leaders who had presented the charges. They decided against hearing evidence. With the single exception of Romney, they voted in favor of ending the investigation. They did not use the opportunity to rid the country of a president whose operative value system—built around corruption, nascent authoritarianism, self-regard, and his family’s business interests—runs counter to everything that most of them claim to believe in.
Just a month later, 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.
This utter disaster was avoidable. If the Senate had removed the president by impeachment a month earlier; if the Cabinet had invoked the Twenty-Fifth Amendment as soon as Trump’s unfitness became clear; if the anonymous and off-the-record officials who knew of Trump’s incompetence had jointly warned the public; if they had not, instead, been so concerned about maintaining their proximity to power; if senators had not been scared of their donors; if Pence, Pompeo, and Barr had not believed that God had chosen them to play special roles in this “biblical moment”—if any of these things had gone differently, then thousands of deaths and a historic economic collapse might have been avoided.
The price of collaboration in America has already turned out to be extraordinarily high. And yet, the movement down the slippery slope continues, just as it did in so many occupied countries in the past. First Trump’s enablers accepted lies about the inauguration; now they accept terrible tragedy and the loss of American leadership in the world. Worse could follow. 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?
Each violation of our Constitution and our civic peace gets absorbed, rationalized, and accepted by people who once upon a time knew better. If, following what is almost certain to be one of the ugliest elections in American history, Trump wins a second term, these people may well accept even worse. Unless, of course, they decide not to.
When I visited Marianne Birthler, she didn’t think it was interesting to talk about collaboration in East Germany, because everybody collaborated in East Germany. So I asked her about dissidence instead: When all of your friends, all of your teachers, and all of your employers are firmly behind the system, how do you find the courage to oppose it? In her answer, Birthler resisted the use of the word courage; just as people can adapt to corruption or immorality, she told me, they can slowly learn to object as well. The choice to become a dissident can easily be the result of “a number of small decisions that you take”—to absent yourself from the May Day parade, for example, or not to sing the words of the party hymn. And then, one day, you find yourself irrevocably on the other side. Often, this process involves role models. You see people whom you admire, and you want to be like them. It can even be “selfish.” “You want to do something for yourself,” Birthler said, “to respect yourself.”
For some people, the struggle is made easier by their upbringing. Marko Martin’s parents hated the East German regime, and so did he. His father was a conscientious objector, and so was he. As far back as the Weimar Republic, his great-grandparents had been part of the “anarcho-syndicalist” anti-Communist left; he had access to their books. In the 1980s, he refused to join the Free German Youth, the Communist youth organization, and as a result he could not go to university. He instead embarked on a vocational course, to train to be an electrician (after refusing to become a butcher). In his electrician-training classes, one of the other students pulled him aside and warned him, subtly, that the Stasi was collecting information on him: “It’s not necessary that you tell me all the things you have in mind.” He was eventually allowed to emigrate, in May 1989, just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In America we also have our Marianne Birthlers, our Marko Martins: people whose families taught them respect for the Constitution, who have faith in the rule of law, who believe in the importance of disinterested public service, who have values and role models from outside the world of the Trump administration. Over the past year, many such people have found the courage to stand up for what they believe. A few have been thrust into the limelight. Fiona Hill—an immigrant success story and a true believer in the American Constitution—was not afraid to testify at the House’s impeachment hearings, nor was she afraid to speak out against Republicans who were promulgating a false story of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” she said in her congressional testimony. “The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman—another immigrant success story and another true believer in the American Constitution—also found the courage, first to report on the president’s improper telephone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, which Vindman had heard as a member of the National Security Council, and then to speak publicly about it. In his testimony, he made explicit reference to the values of the American political system, so different from those in the place where he was born. “In Russia,” he said, “offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.” But as “an American citizen and public servant … I can live free of fear for mine and my family’s safety.” A few days after the Senate impeachment vote, Vindman was physically escorted out of the White House by representatives of a vengeful president who did not appreciate Vindman’s hymn to American patriotism—although retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, the president’s former chief of staff, apparently did. Vindman’s behavior, Kelly said in a speech a few days later, was “exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave. He went and told his boss what he just heard.”
But both Hill and Vindman had some important advantages. Neither had to answer to voters, or to donors. Neither had prominent status in the Republican Party. What would it take, by contrast, for Pence or Pompeo to conclude that the president bears responsibility for a catastrophic health and economic crisis? What would it take for Republican senators to admit to themselves that Trump’s loyalty cult is destroying the country they claim to love? What would it take for their aides and subordinates to come to the same conclusion, to resign, and to campaign against the president? What would it take, in other words, for someone like Lindsey Graham to behave like Wolfgang Leonhard?
If, as Stanley Hoffmann wrote, the honest historian would have to speak of “collaborationisms,” because the phenomenon comes in so many variations, the same is true of dissidence, which should probably be described as “dissidences.” People can suddenly change their minds because of spontaneous intellectual revelations like the one Wolfgang Leonhard had when walking into his fancy nomenklatura dining room, with its white tablecloths and three-course meals. They can also be persuaded by outside events: rapid political changes, for example. Awareness that the regime had lost its legitimacy is part of what made Harald Jaeger, an obscure and until that moment completely loyal East German border guard, decide on the night of November 9, 1989, to lift the gates and let his fellow citizens walk through the Berlin Wall—a decision that led, over the next days and months, to the end of East Germany itself. Jaeger’s decision was not planned; it was a spontaneous response to the fearlessness of the crowd. “Their will was so great,” he said years later, of those demanding to cross into West Berlin, “there was no other alternative than to open the border.”
But these things are all intertwined, and not easy to disentangle. The personal, the political, the intellectual, and the historical combine differently within every human brain, and the outcomes can be unpredictable. Leonhard’s “sudden” revelation may have been building for years, perhaps since his mother’s arrest. Jaeger was moved by the grandeur of the historical moment on that night in November, but he also had more petty concerns: He was annoyed at his boss, who had not given him clear instructions about what to do.
Could some similar combination of the petty and the political ever convince Lindsey Graham that he has helped lead his country down a blind alley? Perhaps a personal experience could move him, a prod from someone who represents his former value system—an old Air Force buddy, say, whose life has been damaged by Trump’s reckless behavior, or a friend from his hometown. Perhaps it requires a mass political event: When the voters begin to turn, maybe Graham will turn with them, arguing, as Jaeger did, that “their will was so great … there was no other alternative.” At some point, after all, the calculus of conformism will begin to shift. It will become awkward and uncomfortable to continue supporting “Trump First,” especially as Americans suffer from the worst recession in living memory and die from the coronavirus in numbers higher than in much of the rest of the world.
Or perhaps the only antidote is time. In due course, historians will write the story of our era and draw lessons from it, just as we write the history of the 1930s, or of the 1940s. The Miłoszes and the Hoffmanns of the future will make their judgments with the clarity of hindsight. They will see, more clearly than we can, the path that led the U.S. into a historic loss of international influence, into economic catastrophe, into political chaos of a kind we haven’t experienced since the years leading up to the Civil War. Then maybe Graham—along with Pence, Pompeo, McConnell, and a whole host of lesser figures—will understand what he has enabled.
In the meantime, I leave anyone who has the bad luck to be in public life at this moment with a final thought from Władysław Bartoszewski, who was a member of the wartime Polish underground, a prisoner of both the Nazis and the Stalinists, and then, finally, the foreign minister in two Polish democratic governments. Late in his life—he lived to be 93—he summed up the philosophy that had guided him through all of these tumultuous political changes. It was not idealism that drove him, or big ideas, he said. It was this: Warto być przyzwoitym—“Just try to be decent.” Whether you were decent—that’s what will be remembered.