If it Looks Like a Duck: Appeasement in America

Franny and I are sipping our morning coffee, reading the Sunday NY Times, pleased as always with our little ritual.  About a half hour into it, however, I come upon Lynne Olson’s review of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. Olson notes the “uncomfortable parallels” between this moment in U.S. history and the tumultuous 1930’s in Europe, calling the book “valuable as an exploration of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom…” As has become all too frequent these days, the news disrupts the morning’s calm.

With Prime Minister Chamberlain in the lead, Britain tried to avoid war at all costs.  He resisted activities that would tax her “Depression-afflicted economy” or expand her military, so necessary in protecting her increasingly vulnerable empire.  So Chamberlain, a former businessman, convinced himself that if he dealt with Hitler in a “practical and businesslike” way, “he could convince the Fuhrer of the efficacy of peace and bring him to heel.”  We know how that worked out.

Though the analogy is surely a stretch and the danger not so great, I believe that we may find ourselves in a similar predicament if we fail to bring Donald Trump to heel–and soon.  Key American leaders in the Republican Party enable his anti-democratic campaign.  Many in the Democratic Party promote patience and decorum, acting as though there’s plenty of time to halt the progress of autocracy.  I think we need to act with a greater sense of urgency.  In that sense, those who “slow-walk” the opposition to our president, may, in the light of history, turn out to have been appeasers.

Let’s begin with the signs, and the increasing pace, of Trump’s assault on American democracy.   We have:

  • The assault on the free press
  • The weakening of Congress (or the House of Representatives), by bypassing the Senate’s ability to screen Cabinet Secretaries—they are now almost all “Acting Secretaries,” subject only to Trump’s direction; running roughshod over the House’s oversight capability by blocking and ignoring subpoenas; utilizing “executive privilege” and “executive orders” whenever Congress disagrees.
  • Hijacking of the Department of Justice, bending it to meet the personal needs of the President, thus building a protective shield for the president: through massive numbers of judicial appointments; by destroying, with Barr’s help, the independence of the Department of Justice; through the use of suits to delay and destroy efforts to convict the President.
  • Neutralizing the FBI and the CIA, by bypassing them and impugning their motives and patriotism, just as Hitler did, by criticizing and bypassing his intelligence agencies, and, more sinisterly, by “investigating” them when they threaten Trump’s rule.
  • The threat to extend his term past the date that it is officially completed;
  • Casting his lot, internationally, with other autocrats;
  • Bullying members of his own party with threats, mockery, and accusations;
  • Fueling racial divisions and animosity among white Americans, and assaults on refugees and immigrants, eerily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

This centralization of executive power does not seem to bother enough American citizens. Increasingly, the pollsters and the pundits tell us that Trump’s chances of election—with the help of the anti-democratic process represented by the Electoral College—continue to rise.

The enablement of Trump’s growing power is clearly visible.  Mitch McConnell has been the leader, not allowing discussion of legislation or criticism of the President to even reach the Senate floor.  William Barr, the new Attorney General, has joined McConnell with a passion, distorting the Mueller Report, and serving as Trump’s defense lawyer to thwart efforts to curtail executive power.

Of course, McConnell and Barr have had plenty of support, extending far beyond the Freedom Caucus and the Evangelical right, who will support Trump even when he violates their most sacred tenets.  Think of the 2016 presidential candidates, like Rubio, Cruz, and, above all, Lindsey Graham, who Trump demeaned mercilessly.  At first they saw the evil he could do and condemned him.  Now they are like lap dogs, supporting any agenda he has, even when it waffles back and forth.  Think of all the Republicans who were supposedly shocked and dismayed by Trump’s behavior towards women yet now keep their mild criticism “anonymous,” publicly supporting him down the line.

The case for appeasement is a little harder to make but I believe it is coming into focus.  Let’s start with Robert Mueller, who is neither a politician nor a Democrat, but, a man  with great stores of public and political capital.  I’m writing this essay the day before he is to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.  So much has ridden on his reputation for prosecutorial acumen, courage, and integrity.  Every legal pundit who appears on TV bows low to him.  A man of unchallengeable integrity.  A marine.  A man who will speak truth to power.  The operational words here are “unquestioned” and “unchallengeable.”  Those attitudes have insulated him from the criticism I think he deserves.

Given what we know of his somewhat puritanical attitudes, it’s hard to imagine that Mueller doesn’t deplore Trump’s crass and lawless behavior.  The pundits have that right.  But Mueller’s inability to move beyond the narrowest interpretation of rules is, in my mind, both cowardly and selfish.  He is operating “by-the-book” at the expense of his country’s welfare.  He holds himself to standards that the more powerful Trump does not, and that discrepancy does not seem to influence Mueller’s decisions.  He fails to see or, at least, to act on moral principles that transcend narrow legal interpretation or the letter of the law.  In that sense he is no patriot.  His limited view has turned him into a coward.  And, almost as importantly, the CNN and MSNBC legal commentators who have failed to call him out, seem to me cowardly (or at least blind) as well.  Together, they are the appeasers.

I regret to say that I have begun to see Nancy Pelosi as an appeaser. Unlike Neville Chamberlain, who shared some of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Pelosi shares none of Trump’s deplorable values.  And I have long admired her political acumen – her ability to martial Democratic votes for progressive causes.  But I have begun to wonder if, as the top Democrat in the nation—not just in the House—if she is up to today’s challenge.

Her basic strategy of holding the fort until we can vote Trump out in 2020 has a logic to it, and the majority of Americans may agree with her.  Along with a majority of Democratic lawmakers, she believes that she doesn’t have the votes for impeachment—and that a defeat of the Impeachment process would unleash a backlash against the Democratic Partly. Maybe that’s true.  But as we know from the way that Republicans turned on Nixon once the impeachment process began, judging the future by the present may prove a fear-based and overly conservative way to think.  Maybe Pelosi needs to take a risk.

Here’s what I most fear:  That Nancy Pelosi and, to a lesser extent, Chuck Schumer, may be underestimating the momentum and therefore, underestimating the danger of Trump’s grab for power.  As Chamberlain hoped that he could wait Hitler out, I fear that Pelosi believes that she can wait Trump out.  In other words, Pelosi may be yielding to fear and failing to take the bolder course.  I see this position as appeasement – certainly not in intent, but, perhaps, in effect.

I don’t include the House Committee Chairs—Adam Schiff, Gerald Nadler, Elijah Cummings, and Richard Neal—in my analysis.  You can feel their pain about being held in check.  It’s clear they would move to impeachment if given the freedom to do so.

Finally, I’d ask: Where is our Churchill? Where is the person who is willing to risk it all to overthrow a tyrant before it is too late?

 

 

An Old Man With Too Much Time on His Hands

Scientists tell us that exercise is so good for us that it can reverse the.  U course of aging.  In my heart I don’t believe them, but I persist in the exercise anyway.  I’m a little like the kid who wouldn’t say anything bad about God, just in case God really exists, and is listening.  So regarding exercise, periodically  I feel like I’ve fallen behind in my efforts and decide on some Herculean effort to make up for past sins.  Not the wisest course, I’m told.

Last Sunday morning was one of those times.  Franny was away.  I had no plans.  I had some thinking to do.  The whole day yawned in front of me like an empty vessel, and a long walk, maybe a very long walk, seemed the perfect antidote to my lapsed practice.

’m going to walk the Boston Sports Club, about 5 miles away, work out on the weight machines, then walk back.  I’ve long had a romance with the idea of covering distances on my own steam.  Being on the trail, especially in the high mountains of California and Colorado.  By the time I’ve walked a mile or two, I’m absorbed in the scenery.  I stop thinking and I lose myself.  A delicious time for me.

The walk along Lexington and Winter Street is not quite as pristine as the High Sierras but 10 to 12 miles and a workout at the midpoint offers its own, funky excitement. And I am using the word “excitement” literally.  I don’t know why.

The walk begins well.  My muscles feel good.  The arthritis in my knees and ankle feel manageable.  There’s a jauntiness to my stride.  At least that’s the inner experience.

I love the cool air, even when a light rain begins.  I promise myself to be mature.  If the rain intensifies, I’ll duck into a store and call an Uber — the St. Bernard of the Lexington wilds.  At the moment, though, I am calm.  A man of No Mind, as the Buddhists say.

After a few miles, though, thoughts intrude:

“What kind of nutty thing are you doing, Barry?  You’re 77.  Are you trying to reassure yourself?  Why?  Aren’t you more mature than that?  Is this one of those crazy, old man dares that leads to trouble?”

Then another part of me responds:

“Don’t be silly.  I’m not climbing Everest, for God’s sake.  I love the freedom of walking.  And OK, I do want to check myself out, see how well this old machine is working. Will it hold up?  Do I still have my stamina?”

The walk is becoming a doctor’s appointment, and I’m the doctor.

I’d like to say that the argument ended there but it went on for a mile or more.  In fact, I do reassure myself:

“You’ll be fine.  You might not be able to play basketball anymore, but you can walk.  You’re strong enough.  You’ll probably walk this way into your 80’s…

“Yeah but You’re going to be sore and, by the sixth mile or so, you’ll be pushing, pushing.  It’ll stop being fun.  You’ll start worrying about injuring yourself.  This whole gambit will end up a disappointment.”

By now, I’ve heard enough of this grumbling.  I remind the damned pessimist in me that science is on my side.  I had just read a research article about how exercise slows cognitive and physical decline and relieves stress.

“Sure, sure, but if you push hard enough, you’ll cripple yourself.  You’ll live longer but it won’t be such a pleasure.”

I’d like to dismiss the whole argument but, as I walk, it fades in and out of consciousness.  For the most part, I walk on, feeling good even during the steep climb to the gym.  There, after some weight training, I decide not to call an Uber. The rain has stopped.  The training has given my legs time to rest.  Why not to walk home?  There’s only about 5 miles to go.  By the end, it will have been a grind but a virtuous grind, the kind that makes you feel great when you’re done.

After about a mile, the refreshed feeling is gone.  The steps are slower, more effortful.  There’s very little rhythm.  I begin to wonder if my old friend, will power, is there for me.

I could still call an Uber but I don’t.

During the last several years, I’ve not wanted to push myself too hard.

“What for?” I say.  “I’ll never be in great shape again.  I’m never going to write my novel.  I’m not going to build another organization.”

“Relax, man! Enjoy the easy life,” I say out loud.

“Bullshit,” I reply.

But I have always gotten something from pushing myself.  A sense of satisfaction.  A sense of moving beyond my ordinary self.  I keep walking.

I’m content with the grind for another 15 minutes — until I begin to wonder if I might have a heart attack or a stroke out here on the street.  All alone on the street. People my age do, after all.   Franny would be mad at me if she knew what I was doing.  She’d say I’m being irresponsible.  “Why do old men keep challenging themselves in this way? Besides, don’t you understand…other people care for you.  You are being  selfish.”

Of course, I’ve got an answer to that critique:

“I’m not in the desert or above tree line in the mountains.  I’m walking in the suburbs.  Don’t be a sissy!”

And so it went until I was home, cooling for a bit and listening to Duke Ellington play Mood Indigo.  Then a shower to end all showers and an easy chair with a book. There’s no interior dialogue that I can hear now.  I am exhausted.  And I am pleased with my day.