When then-House Budget Committee chairman (and current House speaker) Paul Ryan received the 2011 Churchill Award for Statesmanship from the conservative Claremont Institute, he intoned, “If there is such a thing as an unforgivable sin in politics, for Churchill that sin was the refusal to tell the people the facts they need in order to act against an impending threat.” Two years later, when President Obama shook the hand of Cuban leader Raúl Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, Sen. John McCain scoffed, “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.” Last year, conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager headlined a column about the Iranian nuclear deal, “1938 and 2015: Only the Names Are Different,” casting Obama as the cowardly equivalent to the British prime minister whose promise that the Munich Agreement amounted to “peace in our time” is rightly remembered as one of history’s most fatally inaccurate statements.
The appeal is obvious. Notwithstanding how the lessons of Churchill’s prescience are misapplied, there is something to be said for stubbornly standing on moral principle, particularly when the political costs are high.
Which makes the abject failure of so many Republican leaders to challenge their party’s presumptive presidential nominee so scandalously ironic. With the rise of Donald Trump, the party obsessed with the lessons of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement is now replicating his same exact mistakes.
To be sure, Trump is not Adolf Hitler. But he is the most unabashedly authoritarian presidential nominee in American history, and the most openly racist major-party candidate since Alabama Democratic Gov. George Wallace ran on a segregationist platform in 1964. Indeed, one has to reach back nearly two centuries to the presidency of Andrew Jackson to find a historical analogue to Trump. Jackson was a populist, a conspiracy theorist and an ethnic cleanser the way that Trump — who pledges to deport 11 million Mexicans and vows to ban Muslims from entering the United States — aspires to be.
Trump’s unique unfitness for the presidency was apparent early in the primary process and has nothing to do with mundane policy matters (though his lack of knowledge about even the most basic government functions should itself be grounds for disqualification). His cruel mockery of a physically disabled New York Times reporter at a campaign rally last fall was absolutely chilling. Trump’s refusal to disavow the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan should have immediately invalidated him in the minds of decent people, regardless of their politics. No other candidate has earned such open and unabashed support from the rancid throng of American neo-Nazis.
Don’t take it from me that Trump represents an unparalleled threat not just to American democracy but world peace. Listen to erstwhile Trump opponent and now supporter Marco Rubio. During the heated primary campaign, Rubio famously said that we could not turn over “the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual.” Rubio, who has since endorsed Trump, is no less correct in his assessment today than he was when he originally made it four months ago, meaning that his partisanship is greater than his patriotism. For what disagreement with Hillary Clinton could Rubio possibly have that would rise above the existential? Is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s plan for universal pre-kindergarten education so offensive to limited-government sensibilities that it’s worth risking nuclear war to see it stopped?
Trump’s hesitant defenders insist that America’s system of checks and balances will restrain his authoritarian impulses. “I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations,” McCain said in his tepid endorsement of Trump. “We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.” Never mind the pathetic spectacle of McCain — who refused to exploit the Jeremiah Wright controversy in his campaign against Obama in 2008 — succumbing to Trump, a man who mocked his five years in Vietnamese communist captivity while referring to his own draft-dodging sexual escapades of the time as his “personal Vietnam.” When your argument in favor of a candidate is that Congress and the Supreme Court will prevent him from behaving as a tin-pot dictator, then perhaps you should reassess your position. For can anyone sincerely deny that, were it not for those checks and balances, Trump would rule in the mold of a Hugo Chávez?
When I covered the former Soviet Union for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I never imagined that the political lexicon of places like Belarus and Kyrgyzstan would be applicable to my own country. Yet now I find terms like “strongman,” “ethnic violence” and “political instability” slipping into my copy.
Today’s Vichy Republicans also fail to comprehend, or choose to ignore, how Trump’s victory will legitimize bigotry in the American political process. Five decades after passage of the Civil Rights Act, Trump’s presence in the race has already normalized, in the form of his proposed Muslim ban, an explicitly unconstitutional religious test for entry into the country and, in his racist attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, ethnic tests for federal appointments. With its impending nomination of Trump, the GOP will transform from the party of racial equality, women’s suffrage and global American leadership into a rump, ethno-nationalist faction promoting religious and ethnic loyalty tests, misogyny and the unraveling of the American-led liberal world order.
Since conservatives are usually so quick to make Hitler analogies, they should be more forbearing when the parallel does not put them in a positive light. And besides, the stakes today with Trump are far lower than they were in 1938, meaning that individual Republicans have a far easier choice than the one Churchill and his brave band of Tory rebels had to make in standing up to Chamberlain. In their debased supplication before Trump, the Republican leadership has collectively acted like Franz von Papen, the German politician who eased Hitler into the chancellorship naively believing that the mad Austrian paper hanger could be “controlled.” If there are any Churchills in this story, it is the handful of Republican officials, like Sens. Mark Kirk and Ben Sasse, who have risked their careers by standing up to Trump.
Here’s one more World War II analogy for our history-conscious conservatives: To save the republic, Trump not only must lose but he must lose on a massive scale. The repudiation of Trumpism must be so thorough that Republicans never contemplate nominating such a candidate again, in the same way that the atom bomb convinced generations of Japanese that they must forever abandon belligerent nationalism and become peaceful members of the international community.
In his memoir of Nazi Germany, “Not I,” the historian Joachim Fest paints an admirable portrait of his father, a Catholic schoolteacher who refused to go along with the majority of his countrymen in supporting the fascist regime. “Ever since the republic came into existence I wished it would have enemies as short-sighted and timid as we are,” Fest quotes his father as saying about the fragile, interwar Weimar democracy. “Then it would have survived. Now everyone knows that this state does not have the will to assert itself against its declared enemies.” The same could be said of today’s Republican Party, whose leaders are too spineless and shortsighted to recognize the exceptional threat Trump presents not only to their party but to the country and the world.
“You were given the choice between war and dishonor,” Churchill famously said to Chamberlain after the latter secured his much-ballyhooed Munich Agreement. “You chose dishonor and you will have war.” In its cowardly refusal to fight against Trumpism, the GOP chose dishonor. Yet it will not stop the inevitable — and necessary — fight for the party’s soul.