This month, the Atlantic published a lengthy article written by Anne Applebaum. It addressed what is perhaps the most difficult-to-understand aspect of our contemporary political reality, what she dubs “collaboration.” Why do some people go along with–or even genuinely support–what they must know to be wrong, or even evil, while others do not?
What’s the difference between Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney?
Applebaum began the article with a story from Germany, a description of two similar East German officials. One defected; one collaborated. What made the difference?
Separately, each man’s story makes sense. But when examined together, they require some deeper explanation. Until March 1949, Leonhard’s and Wolf’s biographies were strikingly similar. Both grew up inside the Soviet system. Both were educated in Communist ideology, and both had the same values. Both knew that the party was undermining those values. Both knew that the system, allegedly built to promote equality, was deeply unequal, profoundly unfair, and very cruel. Like their counterparts in so many other times and places, both men could plainly see the gap between propaganda and reality. Yet one remained an enthusiastic collaborator, while the other could not bear the betrayal of his ideals. Why?
Applebaum cites a historian, Stanley Hoffmann, for his classification of Nazism’s French collaborators into “voluntary” and “involuntary.” Many people in the latter group had no choice, but Hoffmann sorted“voluntary” collaborators into two categories–those who rationalized collaboration (we have to protect the economy, or preserve French culture)– and the “active ideological collaborators.” These were people who believed that “prewar republican France had been weak or corrupt and hoped that the Nazis would strengthen it, people who admired fascism, and people who admired Hitler.”
Hoffman’s description of the voluntary collaborators is more than a little relevant to today’s United States.
Hoffmann observed that many of those who became ideological collaborators were landowners and aristocrats, “the cream of the top of the civil service, of the armed forces, of the business community,” people who perceived themselves as part of a natural ruling class that had been unfairly deprived of power under the left-wing governments of France in the 1930s. Equally motivated to collaborate were their polar opposites, the “social misfits and political deviants” who would, in the normal course of events, never have made successful careers of any kind. What brought these groups together was a common conclusion that, whatever they had thought about Germany before June 1940, their political and personal futures would now be improved by aligning themselves with the occupiers.
There is much more in the article that deserves consideration and illuminates political and social realities, and I urge readers to click through and read it in its entirety. But the quoted paragraph could easily be a description of the Americans who continue to support Donald Trump.
It is impossible for any sentient person to observe Trump and conclude that he is fit for office (or even sane). So why does he still maintain the support of roughly 40% of Americans? Hoffman’s two categories are explanatory: that “natural ruling class” that is being “unfairly deprived of power” describes the educated cohort of white “Christian” males who are mortally offended by the prospect of sharing social dominance with uppity women and people of color. And our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are full of pictures and videos of the “social deviants”–waving Confederate flags, carrying assault weapons to government buildings to assert their “right” to infect their neighbors, attacking black joggers, and flourishing misspelled placards insulting the “libtards.”
Whatever either group had thought about Trump before November, 2016, they decided that their political and personal futures would now be improved by aligning themselves with him.
Describing the members of both categories is one thing. Figuring out why people become who they are is another–and much harder.
Why do some people grow up to model the virtues society preaches– compassion, empathy and self-reflection (or at the very least, human decency), while others enthusiastically reject and demean those values?
Why do some people work to make a better world, often at considerable risk to their own well-being, while others cheerfully collaborate with evil?