The Commons

Readers respond to our July/August 2020 cover story and more.

Katie Martin

The Collaborators

What causes people to abandon their principles in support of a corrupt regime?, Anne Applebaum asked in the July/August issue. And how do they find their way back?

My wife and I (lifelong conservative Republicans turned unaffiliated after the party left us for Donald Trump) typically call the collaborators that Anne Applebaum describes “enablers,” and just tonight (before I read the article) we were discussing different reasons they enable Trump and what it would take for them to abandon him. We named some of the same reasons Applebaum did. Another we’d add is that because they’ve abandoned their principles and ignored everything else Trump has done to this point, they see no way they can justify bailing on him now. How could they seriously explain that now they’re offended or now it’s too much to be able to support? Even as (we believe) most of them are realizing that Trump is dragging the party toward a blue wave, they can’t speak out. They’ve made their bed, and they’re stuck sleeping in it until at least Election Day. What annoys us the most is that many of these collaborators or enablers are going to pretend it never happened when Trump finally leaves the scene.

Joseph Burgess
West Jordan, Utah

If nothing else, your publication and Ms. Applebaum’s words have reassured me that none of this is normal. Thank you.

Stephen Bennett
Lincoln University, Pa.

As a clinical psychologist, I was extremely impressed with Ms. Applebaum’s comprehensive and insightful discussion of the often unconscious motivations that compel people to collaborate with individuals and regimes that represent values inconsistent with their own. Ms. Applebaum wrote about this tendency toward conformity by discussing pairs of people, both past and present, who superficially look similar and yet diverged by either taking a stand or becoming a collaborator. She astutely focused on the characteristics that predict those who are courageous enough to be “decent”—or, as we would say in our Jewish tradition, to be a “mensch.” Excellent article.

Rickey Miller
Thornhill, Ontario

The parallels in Anne Applebaum’s article to the corrupt apartheid politicians of the past and the corrupt African National Congress politicians of the present in South Africa are astounding. Thank you for enriching my understanding of these amoral politicians.

Andre Botha
Johannesburg, South Africa

When I was growing up in Italy, in the 1990s, the public debate was dominated by the figure of Silvio Berlusconi. The most important thing I have learned over the years is that such populist leaders are not divisive per se, but benefit from the divisions already present in a country. By dominating the media debate through their aggressive and elementary communication, they then exacerbate these divisions and manage to turn every issue into an ongoing referendum on their leadership. Doing so, they win.

These leaders can be defeated only through a strong recall to harsh reality. For Italy, the wake-up call was the sovereign-debt crisis of 2011. I believe that in America, this is happening with the protests following the barbaric killing of George Floyd. The most effective way to beat Trump is to listen to the voices of those who are demonstrating.

Francesco Agnellini
Brescia, Italy

Q & A

The rise of risky collateralized loan obligations, or CLOs, means that the U.S. banking system could be on the cusp of calamity, Frank Partnoy warned in the July/August issue (“The Worst Worst Case”). Here, he responds to readers’ questions about the article.

Q: To what degree would the large banks’ collapse affect credit unions? And do you have any advice for consumers who invest in stocks and mutual funds? — Ilbea Fedele, El Monte, Calif.

A: Many readers wrote with these questions. If the Federal Reserve keeps supporting the markets, stocks and mutual funds might be fine even as the real economy deteriorates. Credit unions deserve scrutiny as they take on more risk, particularly in real estate. Regulators seem to be looking harder now, not just at CLOs, but at the other shadowy trillion-dollar risks I warned about. Fingers crossed that we dodge the worst-case scenario.

Q: Why is this not front-page news everywhere? Over and over again we bail out banks and industries, and then we find that they’ve fleeced us again. How can it stop? When will it stop? — Margi Swett, Burlington, Vt.

A: Whether it was coincidence or not, the stocks of a number of banks with particularly large CLO holdings fell sharply just after this article was published. But you’re right to ask why these questions aren’t front-page news. Some answers: Our attention spans are short, finance is complicated, we have other big worries, and bank lobbyists are good at rebuttal and noise. Some journalists continue to warn about CLOs, but they rarely make the front page.

The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

In this issue, Leslie Jamison writes about discovering plenitude in the work of Donald Judd, an artist who shunned the “minimalist” label that was assigned to him. Jamison came to see Judd’s generosity after visiting Marfa, Texas, where, starting in the 1970s, Judd converted a series of buildings—spanning a full city block—into a personal residence and a site for large permanent art installations. As Jamison writes, Judd renovated former offices of the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps into a home for himself and his children, building a pool and constructing an external adobe bathhouse. During fact-checking, the Judd Foundation informed us that Judd built the bathhouse outside the home not because the two-story building lacked a bathroom, as we had originally presumed, but because Judd removed the existing bathroom, which he thought disrupted the symmetry of the interior—as his son, Flavin, put it, “It didn’t work at all for his schematic.” But Judd didn’t stop there: He also built an adobe office of the same size as the bathhouse on the opposite side of the courtyard, to maintain the balance of the complex as a whole.

Judd opposed the unnecessary destruction or alteration of buildings, believing that historical labor should be respected whenever possible. (“In most American cities and towns, there is little concern for old buildings,” he once lamented.) But his desire for symmetry and balance was tantamount.

Stephanie Hayes, Deputy Research Chief

Behind the Cover

This month, at a time when the appetite for radical reform seems to be growing, Danielle Allen, George Packer, and Adam Serwer look back at our country’s history in search of precedents, warnings, and lodestars. Their essays grapple with the successes and failures of the American experiment, from the forging of the Constitution to Reconstruction to the New Deal to the civil-rights movement. For the cover, we created a collage of figures and scenes from various eras of upheaval, depicting the rich multitudes that make up our union.

Oliver Munday, Senior Art Director

Correction: “Anatomy of an American Failure” (September) stated that studies published in The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that hydroxychloroquine was not effective in treating COVID‑19 and was potentially harmful were retracted in June. In fact, the study in the New England Journal of Medicine concerned other drugs taken by coronavirus patients.