The appeasers of the 1930s — from Neville Chamberlain to Charles Lindbergh — have acquired a bad reputation. But only in retrospect.
Until Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, or, in the case of the United States, until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, received opinion in the West was that it was better to make deals with dictators rather than to stand up to them. After his agreement with Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain told the British people: “I think the Government deserve the approval of this House for their conduct of affairs in this recent crisis which has saved Czechoslovakia from destruction and Europe from Armageddon.” Most Britons applauded. Critics like Winston Churchill, who argued that war was preferable to surrender, were written off as cranks.
It was only in hindsight, after the consequences of appeasement became clear, that its advocates were consigned to the dustbin of history. Will something similar happen with those Republicans who today appease Donald Trump? Will history judge the mainstream of the GOP as harshly as it now judges the mainstream politicians in the 1930s, with a few brave truth-tellers such as Sens. Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and John McCain afforded the honors now heaped on Winston Churchill and his friends? I believe it will.
It goes without saying that Trump is no Hitler. At most he is a budding Mussolini, Peron or Chavez without the power those dictators enjoyed. But that makes the unwillingness of so much of the GOP to stand up to him all the more infuriating. They are not risking a trip to a concentration camp or the outbreak of a world war. Elected Republicans risk defeat at the polls; conservative broadcasters risk losing their audience; conservatives who work at research or advocacy organizations risk losing funders; and conservatives of all occupations risk losing friends.
Those are not insignificant costs, and I’ve been saddened to see friends and supporters drift away over my opposition to Trump. But in the greater scheme of things it seems a price worth paying to oppose a president whose unfathomable ignorance, insecurity and impetuosity daily degrades our political life, exacerbates social tensions, undermines our standing in the world and risks leading us into a nuclear war.
That is, essentially, the message articulated so forcefully by Arizona’s Flake in his stunning speech Tuesday announcing that he would not seek re-election. “Mr. President, I rise today to say: enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal,” Flake said, sounding very much like a latter-day Churchill. He went on to denounce “the notion that one should stay silent — and as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters — the notion that we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”
McCain, Flake’s colleague from Arizona, warned in his own eloquent speech last week about the dangers of Trumpism. He denounced the “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems,” while arguing against abandoning “the ideals we have advanced around the globe” and refusing “the obligations of international leadership.”
Former president George W. Bush joined in with a speech inveighing against the “casual cruelty” that has degraded “our discourse,” against the distortion of nationalism “into nativism,” and against “the return of isolationist sentiments.” McCain and Bush didn’t mention Trump by name but they didn’t have to; everyone knew who they were talking about.
Tennessee’s Corker has been even more direct, calling Trump “utterly untruthful,” warning that his staff has “to figure out ways of controlling him,” and noting that “he lowers himself to such a low, low standard and debases our country.”
These are far, far from the dominant voices in today’s Republican Party. Their marginality is signaled by the fact that Bush is already retired and the others do not face the prospect of reelection. Most ordinary Republicans seem to adore Trump while most of their leaders seethe against him quietly, behind closed doors, not daring to agree in public with his critics.
Republicans in Washington cover their cowardice by claiming they need to genuflect to Trump to pass their policy agenda, as if it were worth risking “World War III” — Corker’s words — to cut taxes. In a sense the arch-populist Stephen Bannon is right to exult that “the establishment Republicans are in full collapse.” Even some like Corker and Bush who now speak out were too cowed to do so last year when it could have mattered more.
Trumpism is triumphant — at the moment. Just as appeasement was once triumphant. But Flake is correct that “this spell will eventually break.” And the judgment of history will not be kind to those who indulged a man so unfit for the highest office in the land.