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Anne Applebaum’s ‘Collaboration’

Anne Applebaum (Photo by David Zorrakino/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Anne Applebaum has a long Atlantic essay comparing Republican leaders who support Donald Trump to Eastern Europeans who collaborated with Soviet-sponsored regimes. She’s not just anybody making these claims. She has written a number of books about the Soviet empire, including Iron Curtain, a great book about the Sovietization of Eastern Europe. I drew on it for my own forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies. Right or wrong, Anne Applebaum is an authority.

She begins by comparing two young German communists who were raised in Russia, in exiled communist families, and who returned to Soviet-controlled East Germany as members of the ruling elite. One became disillusioned and defected; the other became head of the Stasi. What made the difference? Closer to home, she talks about how both Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney had strongly denounced Donald Trump before the 2016 election. Graham ended up becoming one of Trump’s strongest Senate supporters, while Romney is uniquely hated by the president. What accounts for the radically different outcomes?

Applebaum writes:

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.

She goes on to detail the many ways the Trump administration has overturned the old order. She talks about how Trump began his administration by insisting on the truth of something that was easily proven to be a lie: the size of his inauguration crowd. This set a pattern:

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.

Keep this thought in mind for a minute. Let me say here that Applebaum’s article is rather long, and I don’t want to quote it at length. I think it’s pretty devastating, though I don’t agree with all of it (and will go into that a bit below). I do not at all think it’s ridiculous or offensive for her to use the Soviet Bloc experience as a lens through which to understand what has been happening in America, politically, these past few years. For one, if I did, I would be a hypocrite. For another, it really does give her some deep insights. I’m not going to quote the parts of her piece that I agree with, because there’s so much there. When I encourage you to read the whole thing, I mean it. It’s really good, and I think she is mostly correct.

A note for those who are just coming to this post from Twitter. As longtime readers know, I was never for Trump, and withheld my vote in 2016, but I was so sick of the GOP Establishment that I did not identify as a Never Trumper. I was willing to give him a shot. I hate to say it, but the Never Trumpers have been mostly vindicated. This is not at all to say that I want the old GOP Establishment back — I emphatically do not! — but it turns out that character really does count. It is the Republican Party’s tragedy that the person who broke the back of the dessicated and intellectually bankrupt old guard was an incompetent sleaze. But here we are. The one thing that makes me hopeful for conservative politics going forward is that after the catastrophe of Trump, there will be no return to the status quo. Was it worth the judges? If you had asked me in January, I would have said, “Maybe so.” Now, in June, after the year we have had, and the way he has utterly failed to rise to the challenges, I would say not.

Back to Applebaum’s essay. Here is one very small defense of GOP “collaborators,” and why their situation is different from their would-be counterparts living under dictatorship. The Republican lawmakers who went along with Trump were responsible to their voters back home. If they had not supported Trump, they would have been primaried. It is true that a morally responsible GOP lawmaker would have sooner resigned, or face defeat, rather than seriously compromise his or her conscience. It does not absolve you to say, “Hey, I was just doing what my voters wanted me to do.” Still, it’s important to remember that if there is moral stain for having collaborated with Donald Trump, the stain is with voters too.

The part of her essay that hits home with me comes in a section in which Applebaum talks about the rationalizations collaborators use for standing with a political leader they know is bad news. This is the part:

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.

Now, wait a minute. Let us note that this “Vichy logic” is exactly the logic feminists used to justify sticking with Bill Clinton (because Republicans might end abortion). And it’s how practical politics works. Was it Vichy logic when Louisiana Republican voters in 1991 voted for the crook Edwin W. Edwards because his opponent David Duke was intolerable? I held my nose and voted for EWE, in violation of my conservative beliefs, because I could not bear to think that an unrepentant Klansman could become governor. I know conservatives who plan to vote for Biden this November, and are sick about it, because they cannot bear four more years of Trump.

How do you tell the difference between succumbing to “Vichy logic,” and simply being realistic about the choices in front of you, and choosing the lesser of two evils? If the choice is between Hitler and liberalism, well, that’s no choice at all. But Trump, however bad, isn’t Hitler, or close to it, and it distorts the choice conservatives actually hd, and have, facing them regarding Trump and his opponents.

For Applebaum, the things liberals and progressives demand are normative. It really is true that with Democrats in power, pro-abortion extremism will be government policy. If you think abortion is the extermination of innocent life, then this is a very big deal. Liberals often mock religious conservatives over our concerns about how gay rights is eroding religious liberty, putting “religious liberty” in scare quotes, as if the concerns we have are fake. But they are real, and beyond that, every Democrat in Congress has come out for the Equality Act, which would write sexual orientation and gender identity into US civil rights law. Liberals understandably see this as just, and many have no comprehension of why conservatives disagree that homosexuality and transgenderism are the same thing as race. These are radical transformations of American law and culture.

Also with immigration: it is perfectly normal for a people to be concerned that immigration is changing the character of the culture in ways they don’t like. The Democrats, broadly speaking, are for open borders — and prior to Trump, the GOP was ineffective on the immigration issue. High rates of immigration change countries permanently. This may be a good thing, or a bad thing, or a mixed thing — but it is a really big thing. 

What bothers me about this aspect of Applebaum’s argument is that she lacks any sympathy for the conservative point of view, in the sense that she doesn’t appear to be aware of how radical the left has become on cultural issues. There seems to be no room in her moral imagination to understand how a conservative can despise Trump, but be so afraid of what the Democratic Party and the cultural left are bringing to the country that they would conclude voting for Trump is the lesser evil.

Moreover, Applebaum is a fine writer and an insightful thinker, but she is blind to how liberalism, in its current iteration, strikes many of us on the Right as inclining to soft totalitarianism. Applebaum is married to Radek Sikorski, a prominent Polish liberal, and is no doubt fiercely opposed to the views of the Polish politician Ryszard Legutko. But his book The Demon In Democracy explains this very well. Let me put it like this: she is blind to how establishment liberals like her collaborate with the illiberal left, and in so doing violate the principles they supposedly stand for.

The examples are legion, but I’ll speak about them in the present moment. We are watching right now a fast-moving coup by the illiberal, identity-politics left of American institutions, aided and abetted by liberal establishmentarians who are too afraid to defend liberal principles. We have seen the collapse first on college campuses, where administrations have repeatedly surrendered to emotional demands of protesters. Here, from 2015, is Yale Prof. Nicholas Christakis trying to defend liberalism, using reason, against an illiberal mob. He stood alone. Yale’s administration backed the mob. This is happening across academia, and long has been. It has ramped up massively in this past week. It’s also happening in media, and in corporations. Race-conscious, identity-politics progressivism has finally displaced liberalism — mostly because liberals of Applebaum’s class lacked the courage to stand on principle.

It’s easy for her to see the collaboration of the Republican leadership with the corrupt and illiberal Trump, but she’s blind to the collaboration of her own class with the corruption of liberalism from the identity-politics left. I don’t know Anne Applebaum, and will presume good faith on her part, so I suspect that she is honestly unaware of how ideological her own class is, and how frightening they are to a lot of conservative who have felt pushed by what she calls “Vichy logic” into supporting Trump, simply as self-protection.

Just this morning I heard from a reader who works inside an elite educational institution. Its students come from the ranks of the most well-off Americans. It is a liberal institution, in the best sense. It has not had racial problems. Yet its administration, undergoing the same moral panic that is sweeping the US ruling class now, is considering implementing a strict regimen of ideological education, under the guise of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He worries about the future of the institution, and the corruption of its mission by identity politics. And he’s right to worry.

Look at how it has corrupted The New York Times. From the transcript of the “town hall meeting” within the newspaper last fall, this question to executive editor Dean Baquet:

Staffer: Hello, I have another question about racism. I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, “OK, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?”

This should have been an easy question to answer, from the point of view of defending professional journalistic standard. Baquet waffled. Flash-forward to this week, and the shocking turmoil within the newspaper, the premier journalistic institution in America, over its publication of Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed. The woke younger generation within the paper is in the process of overthrowing the older liberal generation. Baquet and the Times senior leadership are “collaborating,” in the Applebaum sense, with leftists who have no respect for the liberal order. This kind of thing is happening in elite institutions — academic, media, entertainment, corporate — all over America. The George Floyd killing was the catalyst these radicals needed to consolidate what they have been doing for a very long time, thanks to the collaboration of the liberal establishment leadership.

To repeat: I think Applebaum’s overall essay is mostly correct in her criticism of how GOP leaders have collaborated with Trump. The history of totalitarianism really is helpful in illuminating how this works. My objection is that she cannot see how her own left-liberal caste has been long doing the same thing with the illiberal, identity-politics left, and concealing from themselves the sellout of old-fashioned liberalism. My upcoming book Live Not By Lies talks about this. It’s not going to be out until September; until then, read Legutko’s Demon In Democracy, which explains this phenomenon well.

Anyway: read Applebaum’s essay.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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