The last days have brought plenty of reasons for schadenfreude. Many of my friends seem to be seized by a mood of dizzy excitement. I get why. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn faces time in jail. Donald Trump may have incriminated himself with yet another impulsive tweet. Impeachment, though still a distant prospect, looks a lot closer now than it did a few weeks ago. If this is not yet the beginning of the end, it may, one day, come to be seen as the end of the beginning.
And yet, I have felt neither excitement nor schadenfreude over the past days. Instead, in one of these strange mood swings of which this year of Trump has been so full, I’ve found myself filled with an even more profound sadness than before.
Sadness that craven liars and chancers like Flynn were—and let’s not kid ourselves, are—in charge of our government.
Sadness that all the evidence of treasonous behavior close to the heart of power seems to have so little bearing on how my fellow citizens feel about the president.
Sadness that run-of-the-mill Republicans who have spent decades worrying about the deficit care so much about giving handouts to billionaires that they are willing to vote for a tax reform that would hugely raise the deficit.
Sadness that Sebastian Gorka was contracted to give speeches at the Heritage Foundation, marking yet another step in the Republican establishment’s surrender to the Trumpkins.
Sadness that about half of all voters in Alabama remain likely to vote for somebody who was banned from a local mall for preying on teens.
Sadness that even the prospect of nuclear war with North Korea—unlikely, perhaps, but far more likely than any nuclear confrontation since the end of the Cold War—does not appear to have focused the minds of all those congressmen and senators on Capitol Hill who, in private, rave and rant about how irrational Donald Trump is.
And sadness, too, that the gravity of this political moment still hasn’t sunk in.
Chaotic and cacophonous though the past two years have been, one lesson from them is painfully clear: Again and again, we all believed that there was some backstop that would avert the next degradation of our political system. Each and every time, we turned out to be wrong. And yet we cling to the belief that backstops remain in place to stop even crazier things from happening: If Trump fired Robert Mueller, refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 election, or launched a nuclear missile at North Korea, somebody would stop him.
It’s possible. If the night appears darkest just before dawn, we are just about due for the sun to rise. And yet, we must at this point ponder the possibility that the self-correcting mechanisms on which we pin our hopes for the future will turn out to be just as illusory as those that have proved elusive in the past. Given the rich range of horrors that could ensue in the coming years, that is a mind-boggling thought.
But it is another, less tangible thought that has been boggling my mind for the past weeks. It is a thought that will, I know, seem peculiar or even melodramatic to most Americans. But as a Jew who grew up in Germany, it is one to which I had been accustomed since childhood before gradually growing out of it the longer I spent in America and the further the horrors of the Third Reich receded into the past.
The question is this: What would you—and you, and you, and I—do if a murderous government took over? Would we hide its victims? Would we look away? Or would we collaborate? And the answer I have been turning over in my head over the past weeks is: In light of the sheer cravenness we are witnessing all around us, we should not be particularly confident of how our politicians and our neighbors, our friends and perhaps even we ourselves would act.
This comparison seems ridiculous on its face. Trump is no fascist, and nothing he has done in any way resembles the horrors inflicted by the Nazis. Tempting though it may be to liken the most horrible of American presidents to the most horrible of all political leaders, doing so only serves to cloud our understanding of the Nazis and cheapen the memory of their victims.
But in another way, that vast differences between then and now are precisely why the comparison seems even more revelatory. For while Nazi collaborators were complicit in crimes that are incomparably worse, they also had to reckon with dangers that were incomparably more scary. Leading conservatives who resisted Hitler in 1933 faced the prospect of the concentration camps. Leading conservatives who resist Trump in 2017 face the prospect of losing an election or being banished from Fox News. The fact that they are willing to be complicit in much lesser evils for much lesser reasons makes our current political moment all the more grubby; it does not, however, make the moral judgment it implies all that much less depressing.
As a person of the left, it is of course tempting to believe that this cravenness is only found on the right. If people like Lindsey Graham or Paul Ryan are so willing to sell out, isn’t it because their principles have, all along, been rather conformable with those of the president—or, perhaps worse, because they had no principles worth the name to begin with?
There is a large grain of truth to this. But to believe that the right is tempted by authoritarianism because its ideals are self-interested or hierarchical, while the left is immune to such depredations because it cares about freedom and equality, is sadly too simple. After all, perfectly decent people who seemed to hold perfectly admirable principles have, again and again, become deeply complicit with authoritarianism. In the 1950s, parts of the Western left glorified Joseph Stalin; in the 1960s, the Viet Cong and Mao Zedong; in the 1970s, Tito and the Khmer Rouge; in the 1980s, the Baathist regime in Iraq and the Islamist regime in Iran; in the 1990s, the slaughterers in Serbia and the Zapatistas in Mexico; in the 2000s, the dictators of Latin America and the terrorists of Hezbollah; in the 2010s, Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Even the left’s opposition to self-avowed fascism has, as Nick Cohen shows in What’s Left, not been as consistent as we like to think. There is a reason why George Orwell spent World War II wondering which of his comrades would collaborate with the Nazis if they invaded Britain. During the 1930s, George Lansbury, the leader of the Labour Party, had been so opposed to rearmament that he wound up becoming an apologist for Adolf Hitler. (“Hitler,” he raved after meeting him, “appeared free of personal ambition … I wished that I could have gone to Berchtesgaden and stayed with him for a little while. I felt that Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance with him.”) If history teaches us anything, then, it is that all humans—liberal as well as conservative, British and American as well as German, brown or black as well as white, and Jewish or Muslim as well as Christian—are capable of cowardice and treachery, of hypocrisy and cravenness.
In Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” two women imagine whether their respective husbands would be willing to hide them in case of a second Holocaust. First, Deborah musters her husband. “Of course he would,” she says, and they give each other a tight hug. Then it’s Mark and Shoshana’s turn.
“So would I hide you?” [Mark] says. And for the first time that day he reaches out, as my Deb would, and puts his hand to his wife’s hand. “Would I, Shoshi?”
And you can tell that Shoshana is thinking of her kids, though that’s not part of the scenario. You can tell that she’s changed part of the imagining. And she says, after a pause, yes, but she’s not laughing. She says yes, but to him it sounds as it does to us, so that he is now asking and asking. But wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t I hide you? Even if it was life and death—if it would spare you, and they’d kill me alone for doing it? Wouldn’t I?
Shoshana pulls back her hand.
She does not say it. And he does not say it. And of the four of us no one will say what cannot be said—that this wife believes her husband would not hide her. What to do? What will come of it? And so we stand like that, the four of us trapped in that pantry. Afraid to open the door and let out what we’ve locked inside.
Any student of history should be able to recite innumerable cases in which people who seemed perfectly decent in times of political calm turned into grotesque monsters when the storm hit. But because this transformation seems so incomprehensible—because it is so difficult to imagine that the decent people we ourselves know should be capable of similar cravenness—it’s always tempting to reject the idea that these lessons might fully apply to us. Surely what happened there and then couldn’t really happen here and now?
In light of the past weeks and months and years, I fear that the answer is clear. We are very far away from dictatorship. It would take a lot more for the United States to degenerate into civil war, or to turn into a killing field. But if that’s the case, it is because of our affluence and our institutions, not because our political leaders—or our neighbors, or our spouses, or ourselves—are more moral and courageous. And that, at least to me, is one small and elusive part of what we talk about when we talk about Donald Trump.