Required reading for Republican members of Congress, for Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Bill Barr, Mike Pompeo, and the full coterie of enablers, collaborators, and sycophants making up the entourage of the president.
Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?
On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.
Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party. Leonhard was put on a team charged with re‑creating Berlin’s city government.
He had one central task: to ensure that any local leaders who emerged from the postwar chaos were assigned deputies loyal to the party. “It’s got to look democratic,” Ulbricht told him, “but we must have everything in our control.”
Leonhard had lived through a great deal by that time. While he was still a teenager in Moscow, his mother had been arrested as an “enemy of the people” and sent to Vorkuta, a labor camp in the far north. He had witnessed the terrible poverty and inequality of the Soviet Union, he had despaired of the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941, and he knew about the Red Army’s mass rapes of women following the occupation. Yet he and his ideologically committed friends “instinctively recoiled from the thought” that any of these events were “in diametrical opposition to our Socialist ideals.” Steadfastly, he clung to the belief system he had grown up with.
The turning point, when it came, was trivial. While walking down the hall of the Central Committee building, he was stopped by a “pleasant-looking middle-aged man,” a comrade recently arrived from the West, who asked where to find the dining room. Leonhard told him that the answer depended on what sort of meal ticket he had—different ranks of officials had access to different dining rooms. The comrade was astonished: “But … aren’t they all members of the Party?”
Leonhard walked away and entered his own, top-category dining room, where white cloths covered the tables and high-ranking functionaries received three-course meals. He felt ashamed. “Curious, I thought, that this had never struck me before!” That was when he began to have the doubts that inexorably led him to plot his escape.
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 someone with backbone, like Wolfgang Leonhard?
At exactly that same moment, in exactly the same city, another high-ranking East German was coming to precisely the opposite set of conclusions. Markus Wolf was also the son of a prominent German Communist family. He also spent his childhood in the Soviet Union, attending the same elite schools for children of foreign Communists as Leonhard did, as well as the same wartime training camp; the two had shared a bedroom there, solemnly calling each other by their aliases—these were the rules of deep conspiracy—although they knew each other’s real names perfectly well. Wolf also witnessed the mass arrests, the purges, and the poverty of the Soviet Union—and he also kept faith with the cause. He arrived in Berlin just a few days after Leonhard, on another plane full of trusted comrades, and immediately began hosting a program on the new Soviet-backed radio station. For many months he ran the popular You Ask, We Answer. He gave on-air answers to listeners’ letters, often concluding with some form of “These difficulties are being overcome with the help of the Red Army.”
In August 1947, the two men met up at Wolf’s “luxurious five-roomed apartment,” not far from what was then the headquarters of the radio station. They drove out to Wolf’s house, “a fine villa in the neighborhood of Lake Glienicke.” They took a walk around the lake, and Wolf warned Leonhard that changes were coming. He told him to give up hoping that German Communism would be allowed to develop differently from the Soviet version: That idea, long the goal of many German party members, was about to be dropped. When Leonhard argued that this could not be true—he was personally in charge of ideology, and no one had told him anything about a change in direction—Wolf laughed at him. “There are higher authorities than your Central Secretariat,” he said. Wolf made clear that he had better contacts, more important friends. At the age of 24, he was an insider. And Leonhard understood, finally, that he was a functionary in an occupied country where the Soviet Communist Party, not the German Communist Party, had the last word.
Famously, or perhaps infamously, Markus Wolf’s career continued to flourish after that. Not only did he stay in East Germany, he rose through the ranks of its nomenklatura to become the country’s top spy. He was the second-ranked official at the Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi; he was often described as the model for the Karla character in John le Carré ’s spy novels. In the course of his career, his Directorate for Reconnaissance recruited agents in the offices of the West German chancellor and just about every other department of the government, as well as at NATO.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?
Leonhard, meanwhile, became a prominent critic of the regime. He wrote and lectured in West Berlin, at Oxford, at Columbia. Eventually he wound up at Yale, where his lecture course left an impression on several generations of students. Among them was a future U.S. president, George W. Bush, who described Leonhard’s course as “an introduction to the struggle between tyranny and freedom.” When I was at Yale in the 1980s, Leonhard’s course on Soviet history was the most popular on campus.
Separately, each man’s story makes sense. But when examined together, they require some deeper explanation. Until March 1949, Leonhard’s and Wolf’s biographies were strikingly similar. Both grew up inside the Soviet system. Both were educated in Communist ideology, and both had the same values. Both knew that the party was undermining those values. Both knew that the system, allegedly built to promote equality, was deeply unequal, profoundly unfair, and very cruel. Like their counterparts in so many other times and places, both men could plainly 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?
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.
Since the Second World War, historians and political scientists have tried to explain why some people in extreme circumstances become collaborators and others do not. The late Harvard scholar Stanley Hoffmann had firsthand knowledge of the subject—as a child, he and his mother hid from the Nazis in Lamalou-les-Bains, a village in the south of France. But he was modest about his own conclusions, noting that “a careful historian would have—almost—to write a huge series of case histories; for there seem to have been almost as many collaborationisms as there were proponents or practitioners of collaboration.” Still, Hoffmann made a stab at classification, beginning with a division of collaborators into “voluntary” and “involuntary.” Many people in the latter group had no choice. Forced into a “reluctant recognition of necessity,” they could not avoid dealing with the Nazi occupiers who were running their country.
Hoffmann further sorted the more enthusiastic “voluntary” collaborators into two additional categories. In the first were those who worked with the enemy in the name of “national interest,” rationalizing collaboration as something necessary for the preservation of the French economy, or French culture—though of course many people who made these arguments had other professional or economic motives, too. In the second were the truly active ideological collaborators: people who believed that prewar republican France had been weak or corrupt and hoped that the Nazis would strengthen it, people who admired fascism, and people who admired Hitler.
Hoffmann 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 of France in the 1930s. Equally motivated to collaborate were their polar opposites, the “social misfits and political deviants” who would, in the normal course of events, never have made successful careers of any kind. What brought these groups together was a common conclusion that, whatever they had thought about Germany before June 1940, their political and personal futures would now be improved by aligning themselves with the occupiers.
Like Hoffmann, Czesław Miłosz, a Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet, wrote about collaboration from personal experience. An active member of the anti-Nazi resistance during the war, he nevertheless wound up after the war as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in Washington, serving his country’s Communist government. Only in 1951 did he defect, denounce the regime, and dissect his experience. In a famous essay, The Captive Mind, he sketched several lightly disguised portraits of real people, all writers and intellectuals, each of whom had come up with different ways of justifying collaboration with the party. Many were careerists, but Miłosz understood that careerism could not provide a complete explanation. To be part of a mass movement was for many a chance to end their alienation, to feel close to the “masses,” to be united in a single community with workers and shopkeepers. For tormented intellectuals, collaboration also offered a kind of relief, almost a sense of peace: It meant that they were no longer constantly at war with the state, no longer in turmoil. Once the intellectual has accepted that there is no other way, Miłosz wrote, “he eats with relish, his movements take on vigor, his color returns. He sits down and writes a ‘positive’ article, marveling at the ease with which he writes it.” Miłosz is one of the few writers to acknowledge the pleasure of conformity, the lightness of heart that it grants, the way that it solves so many personal and professional dilemmas.
We all feel the urge to conform; it is the most normal of human desires. I was reminded of this recently when I visited Marianne Birthler in her light-filled apartment in Berlin. During the 1980s, Birthler was one of a very small number of active dissidents in East Germany; later, in reunified Germany, she spent more than a decade running the Stasi archive, the collection of former East German secret-police files. I asked her whether she could identify among her cohort a set of circumstances that had inclined some people to collaborate with the Stasi.
She was put off by the question. Collaboration wasn’t interesting, Birthler told me. Almost everyone was a collaborator; 99 percent of East Germans collaborated. If they weren’t working with the Stasi, then they were working with the party, or with the system more generally. Much more interesting—and far harder to explain—was the genuinely mysterious question of “why people went against the regime.” The puzzle is not why Markus Wolf remained in East Germany, in other words, but why Wolfgang Leonhard did not.
Here is another pair of stories, one that will be more familiar to American readers. Let’s begin this one in the 1980s, when a young Lindsey Graham first served with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps—the military legal service—in the U.S. Air Force. During some of that time, Graham was based in what was then West Germany, on the cutting edge of America’s Cold War efforts. Graham, born and raised in a small town in South Carolina, was devoted to the military: After both of his parents died when he was in his 20s, he got himself and his younger sister through college with the help of an ROTC stipend and then an Air Force salary. He stayed in the Reserves for two decades, even while in the Senate, sometimes journeying to Iraq or Afghanistan to serve as a short-term reserve officer. “The Air Force has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” he said in 2015. “It gave me a purpose bigger than myself. It put me in the company of patriots.” Through most of his years in the Senate, Graham, alongside his close friend John McCain, was a spokesperson for a strong military, and for a vision of America as a democratic leader abroad. He also supported a vigorous notion of democracy at home. In his 2014 reelection campaign, he ran as a maverick and a centrist, telling The Atlantic that jousting with the Tea Party was “more fun than any time I’ve been in politics.”
While Graham was doing his tour in West Germany, Mitt Romney became a co-founder and then the president of Bain Capital, a private-equity investment firm. Born in Michigan, Romney worked in Massachusetts during his years at Bain, but he also kept, thanks to his Mormon faith, close ties to Utah. While Graham was a military lawyer, drawing military pay, Romney was acquiring companies, restructuring them, and then selling them. This was a job he excelled at—in 1990, he was asked to run the parent firm, Bain & Company—and in the course of doing so he became very rich. Still, Romney dreamed of a political career, and in 1994 he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts, after changing his political affiliation from independent to Republican. He lost, but in 2002 he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a nonpartisan moderate, and won. In 2007—after a gubernatorial term during which he successfully brought in a form of near-universal health care that became a model for Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act—he staged his first run for president. After losing the 2008 Republican primary, he won the party’s nomination in 2012, and then lost the general election.
Both Graham and Romney had presidential ambitions; Graham staged his own short-lived presidential campaign in 2015 (justified on the grounds that “the world is falling apart”). Both men were loyal members of the Republican Party, skeptical of the party’s radical and conspiratorial fringe. Both men reacted to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump with real anger, and no wonder: In different ways, Trump’s values undermined their own. Graham had dedicated his career to an idea of U.S. leadership around the world—whereas Trump was offering an “America First” doctrine that would turn out to mean “me and my friends first.” Romney was an excellent businessman with a strong record as a public servant—whereas Trump inherited wealth, went bankrupt more than once, created nothing of value, and had no governing record at all. Both Graham and Romney were devoted to America’s democratic traditions and to the ideals of honesty, accountability, and transparency in public life—all of which Trump scorned.
Both were vocal in their disapproval of Trump. Before the election, Graham called him a “jackass,” a “nutjob,” and a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” He seemed unhappy, even depressed, by the election: I happened to see him at a conference in Europe in the spring of 2016, and he spoke in monosyllables, if at all.
Romney went further. “Let me put it very plainly,” he said in March 2016, in a speech criticizing Trump: “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.” Romney spoke of “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.” He called Trump a “con man” and a “fraud.” Even after Trump won the nomination, Romney refused to endorse him. On his presidential ballot, Romney said, he wrote in his wife. Graham said he voted for the independent candidate Evan McMullin.
But Trump did become president, and so the two men’s convictions were put to the test.
A glance at their biographies would not have led many to predict what happened next. On paper, Graham would have seemed, in 2016, like the man with deeper ties to the military, to the rule of law, and to an old-fashioned idea of American patriotism and American responsibility in the world. Romney, by contrast, with his shifts between the center and the right, with his multiple careers in business and politics, would have seemed less deeply attached to those same old-fashioned patriotic ideals. Most of us register soldiers as loyal patriots, and management consultants as self-interested. We assume people from small towns in South Carolina are more likely to resist political pressure than people who have lived in many places. Intuitively, we think that loyalty to a particular place implies loyalty to a set of values.
But in this case the clichés were wrong. 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. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office,” he said, is “perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”
One man proved willing to betray ideas and ideals that he had once stood for. The other refused. Why?
To the American reader, references to Vichy France, East Germany, fascists, and Communists may seem over-the-top, even ludicrous. But dig a little deeper, and the analogy makes sense. The point is not to compare Trump to Hitler or Stalin; the point is to compare the experiences of high-ranking members of the American Republican Party, especially those who work most closely with the White House, to the experiences of Frenchmen in 1940, or of East Germans in 1945, or of Czesław Miłosz in 1947. 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.
Not even Trump’s supporters can contest this analogy, because the imposition of an alien ideology is precisely what he was calling for all along. Trump’s first statement as president, his inaugural address, was an unprecedented assault on American democracy and American values. Remember: He described America’s capital city, America’s government, America’s congressmen and senators—all democratically elected and chosen by Americans, according to America’s 227-year-old Constitution—as an “establishment” that had profited at the expense of “the people.” “Their victories have not been your victories,” he said. “Their triumphs have not been your triumphs.” Trump was stating, as clearly as he possibly could, that a new set of values was now replacing the old, though of course the nature of those new values was not yet clear.
Almost as soon as he stopped speaking, Trump launched his first assault on fact-based reality, a long-undervalued component of the American political system. We are not a theocracy or a monarchy that accepts the word of the leader or the priesthood as law. We are a democracy that debates facts, seeks to understand problems, and then legislates solutions, all in accordance with a set of rules. Trump’s insistence—against the evidence of photographs, television footage, and the lived experience of thousands of people—that the attendance at his inauguration was higher than at Barack Obama’s first inauguration represented a sharp break with that American political tradition. Like the authoritarian leaders of other times and places, Trump effectively ordered not just his supporters but also apolitical members of the government bureaucracy to adhere to a blatantly false, manipulated reality. American politicians, like politicians everywhere, have always covered up mistakes, held back information, and made promises they could not keep. But until Trump was president, none of them induced the National Park Service to produce doctored photographs or compelled the White House press secretary to lie about the size of a crowd—or encouraged him to do so in front of a press corps that knew he knew he was lying.It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes.
The lie was petty, even ridiculous; that was partly why it was so dangerous. In the 1950s, when an insect known as the Colorado potato beetle appeared in Eastern European potato fields, Soviet-backed governments in the region triumphantly claimed that it had been dropped from the sky by American pilots, as a deliberate form of biological sabotage. Posters featuring vicious red-white-and-blue beetles went up all across Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. No one really believed the charge, including the people making it, as archives have subsequently shown. But that didn’t matter. The point of the posters was not to convince people of a falsehood. The point was to demonstrate the party’s power to proclaim and promulgate a falsehood. Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar.
These kinds of lies also have a way of building on one another. It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes. Social scientists who have studied the erosion of values and the growth of corruption inside companies have found, for example, that “people are more likely to accept the unethical behavior of others if the behavior develops gradually (along a slippery slope) rather than occurring abruptly,” according to a 2009 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This happens, in part, because most people have a built-in vision of themselves as moral and honest, and that self-image is resistant to change. Once certain behaviors become “normal,” then people stop seeing them as wrong.
This process happens in politics, too. In 1947, the Soviet military administrators in East Germany passed a regulation governing the activity of publishing houses and printers. The decree did not nationalize the printing presses; it merely demanded that their owners apply for licenses, and that they confine their work to books and pamphlets ordered by central planners. Imagine how a law like this—which did not speak of arrests, let alone torture or the Gulag—affected the owner of a printing press in Dresden, a responsible family man with two teenage children and a sickly wife. Following its passage, he had to make a series of seemingly insignificant choices. Would he apply for a license? Of course—he needed it to earn money for his family. Would he agree to confine his business to material ordered by the central planners? Yes to that too—what else was there to print?
After that, other compromises follow. Though he dislikes the Communists—he just wants to stay out of politics—he agrees to print the collected works of Stalin, because if he doesn’t do it, others will. When he is asked by some disaffected friends to print a pamphlet critical of the regime, however, he refuses. Though he wouldn’t go to jail for printing it, his children might not be admitted to university, and his wife might not get her medication; he has to think about their welfare. Meanwhile, all across East Germany, other owners of other printing presses are making similar decisions. And after a while—without anyone being shot or arrested, without anyone feeling any particular pangs of conscience—the only books left to read are the ones approved by the regime.
The built-in vision of themselves as American patriots, or as competent administrators, or as loyal party members, also created a cognitive distortion that blinded many Republicans and Trump-administration officials to the precise nature of the president’s alternative value system. After all, the early incidents were so trivial. They overlooked the lie about the inauguration because it was silly. They ignored Trump’s appointment of the wealthiest Cabinet in history, and his decision to stuff his administration with former lobbyists, because that’s business as usual. They made excuses for Ivanka Trump’s use of a private email account, and for Jared Kushner’s conflicts of interest, because that’s just family stuff.
One step at a time, Trumpism fooled many of its most enthusiastic adherents. Recall that some of the original intellectual supporters of Trump—people like Steve Bannon, Michael Anton, and the advocates of “national conservatism,” an ideology invented, post hoc, to rationalize the president’s behavior—advertised their movement as a recognizable form of populism: an anti–Wall Street, anti-foreign-wars, anti-immigration alternative to the small-government libertarianism of the establishment Republican Party. Their “Drain the swamp” slogan implied that Trump would clean up the rotten world of lobbyists and campaign finance that distorts American politics, that he would make public debate more honest and legislation more fair. Had this actually been Trump’s ruling philosophy, it might well have posed difficulties for the Republican Party leadership in 2016, given that most of them had quite different values. But it would not necessarily have damaged the Constitution, and it would not necessarily have posed fundamental moral challenges to people in public life.
In practice, Trump has governed according to a set of principles very different from those articulated by his original intellectual supporters. Although some of his speeches have continued to use that populist language, he has built a Cabinet and an administration that serve neither the public nor his voters but rather his own psychological needs and the interests of his own friends on Wall Street and in business and, of course, his own family. His tax cuts disproportionately benefited the wealthy, not the working class. His shallow economic boom, engineered to ensure his reelection, was made possible by a vast budget deficit, on a scale Republicans once claimed to abhor, an enormous burden for future generations. He worked to dismantle the existing health-care system without offering anything better, as he’d promised to do, so that the number of uninsured people rose. All the while he fanned and encouraged xenophobia and racism, both because he found them politically useful and because they are part of his personal worldview.
More important, he has governed in defiance—and in ignorance—of the American Constitution, notably declaring, well into his third year in office, that he had “total” authority over the states. His administration is not merely corrupt, it is also hostile to checks, balances, and the rule of law. He has built a proto-authoritarian personality cult, firing or sidelining officials who have contradicted him with facts and evidence—with tragic consequences for public health and the economy. He threatened to fire a top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, Nancy Messonnier, in late February, after her too-blunt warnings about the coronavirus; Rick Bright, a top Health and Human Services official, says he was demoted after refusing to direct money to promote the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine. Trump has attacked America’s military, calling his generals “a bunch of dopes and babies,” and America’s intelligence services and law-enforcement officers, whom he has denigrated as the “deep state” and whose advice he has ignored. He has appointed weak and inexperienced “acting” officials to run America’s most important security institutions. He has systematically wrecked America’s alliances.
His foreign policy has never served any U.S. interests of any kind. Although some of Trump’s Cabinet ministers and media followers have tried to portray him as an anti-Chinese nationalist—and although foreign-policy commentators from all points on the political spectrum have, amazingly, accepted this fiction without questioning it—Trump’s true instinct, always, has been to side with foreign dictators, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. One former administration official who has seen Trump interact with Xi as well as with Russian President Vladimir Putin told me that it was like watching a lesser celebrity encounter a more famous one. Trump did not speak to them as the representative of the American people; he simply wanted their aura—of absolute power, of cruelty, of fame—to rub off on him and enhance his own image. This, too, has had fatal consequences. In January, Trump took Xi’s word when he said that COVID‑19 was “under control,” just as he had believed North Korea’s Kim Jong Un when he signed a deal on nuclear weapons. Trump’s fawning attitude toward dictators is his ideology at its purest: 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.”
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.
Nothing quite so dramatic happened after McCain’s funeral. But it did clarify the situation. A year and a half into the Trump administration, it marked a turning point, the moment at which many Americans in public life began to adopt the strategies, tactics, and self-justifications that the inhabitants of occupied countries have used in the past—doing so even though the personal stakes were, relatively speaking, so low. Poles like Miłosz wound up in exile in the 1950s; dissidents in East Germany lost the right to work and study. In harsher regimes like that of Stalin’s Russia, public protest could lead to many years in a concentration camp; disobedient Wehrmacht officers were executed by slow strangulation.
By contrast, a Republican senator who dares to question whether Trump is acting in the interests of the country is in danger of—what, exactly? Losing his seat and winding up with a seven-figure lobbying job or a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School? He might meet the terrible fate of Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator, who has been hired as a contributor by CBS News. He might suffer like Romney, who was tragically not invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference, which this year turned out to be a reservoir of COVID‑19.
Nevertheless, 20 months into the Trump administration, senators and other serious-minded Republicans in public life who should have known better began to tell themselves stories that sound very much like those in Miłosz’s The Captive Mind. Some of these stories overlap with one another; some of them are just thin cloaks to cover self-interest. But all of them are familiar justifications of collaboration, recognizable from the past. Here are the most popular.
We can use this moment to achieve great things. In the spring of 2019, a Trump-supporting friend put me in touch with an administration official I will call “Mark,” whom I eventually met for a drink. I won’t give details, because we spoke informally, but in any case Mark did not leak information or criticize the White House. On the contrary, he described himself as a patriot and a true believer. He supported the language of “America First,” and was confident that it could be made real.
Several months later, I met Mark a second time. The impeachment hearings had begun, and the story of the firing of the American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was then in the news. The true nature of the administration’s ideology—Trump First, not America First—was becoming more obvious. The president’s abuse of military aid to Ukraine and his attacks on civil servants suggested not a patriotic White House, but a president focused on his own interests. Mark did not apologize for the president, though. Instead, he changed the subject: It was all worth it, he told me, because of the Uighurs.
I thought I had misheard. The Uighurs? Why the Uighurs? I was unaware of anything that the administration had done to aid the oppressed Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China. Mark assured me that letters had been written, statements had been made, the president himself had been persuaded to say something at the United Nations. I doubted very much that the Uighurs had benefited from these empty words: China hadn’t altered its behavior, and the concentration camps built for the Uighurs were still standing. Nevertheless, Mark’s conscience was clear. Yes, Trump was destroying America’s reputation in the world, and yes, Trump was ruining America’s alliances, but Mark was so important to the cause of the Uighurs that people like him could, in good conscience, keep working for the administration.
Mark made me think of the story of Wanda Telakowska, a Polish cultural activist who in 1945 felt much the same as he did. Telakowska had collected and promoted folk art before the war; after the war she made the momentous decision to join the Polish Ministry of Culture. The Communist leadership was arresting and murdering its opponents; the nature of the regime was becoming clear. Telakowska nevertheless thought she could use her position inside the Communist establishment to help Polish artists and designers, to promote their work and get Polish companies to mass-produce their designs. But Polish factories, newly nationalized, were not interested in the designs she commissioned. Communist politicians, skeptical of her loyalty, made Telakowska write articles filled with Marxist gibberish. Eventually she resigned, having achieved nothing she set out to do. A later generation of artists condemned her as a Stalinist and forgot about her.
We can protect the country from the president. That, of course, was the argument used by “Anonymous,” the author of an unsigned New York Times op-ed published in September 2018. For those who have forgotten—a lot has happened since then—that article described the president’s “erratic behavior,” his inability to concentrate, his ignorance, and above all his lack of “affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets and free people.” The “root of the problem,” Anonymous concluded, was “the president’s amorality.” In essence, the article described the true nature of the alternative value system brought into the White House by Trump, at a moment when not everybody in Washington understood it. But even as they came to understand that the Trump presidency was guided by the president’s narcissism, Anonymous did not quit, protest, make noise, or campaign against the president and his party.
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.”A friend told me that each time he sees Lindsey Graham, “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.”
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.Republican leaders don’t seem to know that similar waves of fear have helped transform other democracies into dictatorships.
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.
In 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.What would it take for Republican leaders to admit to themselves that Trump’s loyalty cult is destroying the country they claim to love?
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.
This article appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “The Collaborators.”
Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow of the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Her new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, is published in July.