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?