I have not been one to argue that the United States under President Trump is on the verge of turning into a tyranny. But it is clear that, left to his own devices, Trump would act with little regard to law, precedent or the Constitution. As president, he has shown a willingness to shut down investigations into his conduct, offer pardons to those whose lawbreaking he approves of, and punish media organizations and social media platforms that are, in his mind, biased against him.
Even many of his supporters will privately say we need not worry about Trump because his excesses are always checked. But the American system does not work through magic. It needs its other leaders — judges, bureaucrats, generals and, above all, politicians — to speak out when they see blatant abuses of power. Some have done so — most recently senior military leaders — but one gaping hole remains. That is the one inside the president’s own party.
On Monday evening, in Lafayette Square, in the shadow of the White House, police in riot gear descended upon a peaceful protest — which is explicitly protected in the Constitution — and disbanded the demonstration using force and weaponry, including pepper balls, smoke canisters and rubber bullets. The protesters were not violating a curfew or committing acts of violence. The police used brute force on law-abiding citizens so that the president could stage a photo op holding a Bible in front of a church.
When asked to comment on this dangerous abuse of governmental authority, which flashed across every news channel and website in the world, the president’s allies had this to say. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) wouldn’t comment because he “wasn’t there.” One wonders whether he will from now on comment only on world events at which he is physically present. Several senators — Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) — demurred because they “didn’t watch it closely enough,” in Romney’s words. Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said they were late for lunch. A few Republican senators did break with the president, but others went out of their way to defend him. Ted Cruz (Tex.) — who used to describe Trump as “utterly amoral” and a “pathological liar” — said the only abuse of power was “by the protesters” themselves.
In a brilliant essay in the Atlantic, the historian Anne Applebaum reminds us that collaboration is actually quite common, while it is principled dissent that is rare. She invokes the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s nonfiction masterpiece, “The Captive Mind,” which describes how collaboration provides a relief. It means no more struggle with your ideals, no more internal turmoil. Once the collaborator has come to terms with his decision, Milosz 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.”
Milosz could well have been describing Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, who in 2015 called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” but in 2018 announced on “The View,” with a hearty chuckle, that he no longer believed any of that. Applebaum notes that “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.”
Explaining how Trump creates complicity, Applebaum cites a small example right from the start of his presidency. In the days after the inauguration, he decided to insist that the crowds at his ceremony were larger than any before, though the evidence clearly contradicted him. He pushed his press secretary to lie publicly and got the Park Service to alter photographs. Applebaum compares this action to the kinds of propaganda posters that the Soviet Union routinely put out, often about trivial matters, which they knew their citizens would not believe. “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.”
We can see how this process has worked in the Trump presidency. It starts with the small matter of the inauguration but keeps on going. He claimed that he actually won the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally, that China pays for his tariffs, that Alabama was at risk from Hurricane Dorian, that windmills cause cancer and that he did not pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden. As president, Trump has lied or misled almost 20,000 times — and Republicans have repeated those lies, at first hesitantly, but increasingly with a “lightness of heart,” “marveling at the ease” with which they can justify their deception.
If the United States does descend further down a dark path, much blame will lie with these Republican leaders, Donald Trump’s cheerful collaborators.