As Donald Trump lays the groundwork for setting federal troops against the American population, Anne Applebaum asks: What causes people to abandon their principles in support of a corrupt regime? And how do they find their way back? Like the Vichy French in the 1940s or East Germans in 1945, high-ranking members of the Republican Party in 2020 America have chosen to accept an alien ideology that is in sharp conflict with their own values. By aiding and abetting President Trump even as his lies are repeatedly exposed, they’ve become complicit—and, with tear gas in the streets and more than 100,000 dead from the coronavirus, the price of collaboration has already turned out to be extraordinarily high.
For the cover of The Atlantic’s July/August issue, staff writer Anne Applebaum has written “History Will Judge Trump’s Enablers Harshly,” a forceful indictment of high-ranking Republicans such as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, and Senator Lindsey Graham—who have abandoned their own ideals in favor of enabling Trump to repeatedly put his own interests above America’s. “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?” Applebaum writes. “Each violation of our Constitution and our civic peace gets absorbed, rationalized, and accepted by people who once upon a time knew better.”
In a sweeping essay that draws on both current reporting and the lessons of history, Applebaum seeks to understand why some people prove willing to betray ideas and ideals they once stood for, while others refuse. Looking at the case of East Germans during the Cold War, Applebaum considers Wolfgang Leonhard and Markus Wolf. Both men were raised in prominent German Communist families, but Wolf became a member of the corrupt Communist regime, while Leonhard became a critic. Both men could see the gap between propaganda and reality. Yet one remained an enthusiastic collaborator while the other could not bear the betrayal of his ideals. Why? More recently, Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney both ran for president against Trump in 2016, and both refused to support him when he became the Republican nominee. But once elected, Applebaum writes, “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.” Again: Why?
Applebaum considers several reasons Republican leaders continue to enable Trump: Is it a desire to be closer to power, or sincere ideological belief? Pure corruption, or simply fear? One former administration official tells Applebaum it’s because “they are scared” of being attacked by Trump on Twitter, of being mocked or embarrassed, of losing their social circles or being disinvited to parties. They are scared that their friends and supporters, and especially their donors, will desert them. Applebaum writes: “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.”
So while Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman found the courage to report on the president’s improper telephone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, and Trump’s former deputy assistant Fiona Hill testified against him, top-ranking Republicans remain silent. Applebaum asks: “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?”
Read “History Will Judge Trump’s Enablers Harshly” at The Atlantic. The July/August issue of the magazine will continue to publish at The Atlantic across the coming weeks.