The ink will not dry
In a long piece titled History Will Judge the Complicit in the latest issue of The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum opens up several trapdoors of history and memory, inviting us to come down and take a look at the files in the cellars. The strapline of the piece is bald: Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president? But before she gets to the United States of America and Washington D.C., however, Applebaum gives us examples from other countries, of people who were confronted with a choice between staying true to their principles and supporting heinously criminal regimes from positions within their power structures. She begins with the story of two young men who were rising in the Communist hierarchy of the newly formed East Germany just after the Second World War — Wolfgang Leonhard, 28, and Markus Wolf, who was then only 24. The two men were from similar backgrounds, knew each other, and were more or less exposed to the same realities. Leonhard saw the signs of moral corruption early, the movement away from any genuine ideals towards a Soviet-imposed fascism having begun already. After thinking things through, he defected to West Germany, abandoning a promising career that could have taken him to the very top of the Party in the GDR. Markus Wolf, on the other hand, stayed enthusiastically committed to the regime and did rise all the way to the top — when the Wall fell in 1989, he was Number Two in East Germany’s dreaded Secret Service, better known as the Stasi; as fans of John le Carré will know, Wolf was the model for the character of Karla, the most devious and ruthless of spymasters.
In her article, Applebaum examines the diametrically opposite trajectories taken by the two men; she looks at the defection of the poet, Czeslaw Milosz, from the Polish diplomatic service; she also refers to the work of the Harvard scholar, Stanley Hoffman, who, speaking of French collaboration under Nazi occupation, referred to several different kinds of collaborationisms, rather than using the singular. From this, Applebaum comes to well-known figures in the Republican Party and examines their varied responses to Donald Trump and his presidency. Specifically, she goes into the early biographies of Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham and points out that you would have expected a man of Romney’s background to compromise with Trump and one with Graham’s record to provide principled resistance; yet, what transpires is surprising — it is Romney who alone stands up to the herd of Republican senators who throw all principles into the garbage bin while resisting Trump’s impeachment, and Graham who runs the staunchest of defences for the most morally indefensible man ever to occupy the White House (my opinion, not necessarily Applebaum’s).
Well-connected in D.C., Applebaum also cites a few unnamed sources close to the top while delving into why Trump has received support from many unexpected quarters and what the vastly different justifications are for that support. What Applebaum starts digging into is the “experiences of people who are forced to accept an alien ideology or a set of values that are in sharp conflict with their own”.
While doing this, Applebaum then lays out the set of overt and unspoken justifications and reasons used by people who have cosied up to Trump and his inner circle. Without attempting any simple transposition to the current situation in India vis-à-vis Narendra Modi and the BJP-RSS, the list provides substantial food for comparison. It roughly goes thus — “We can use this moment to achieve great things”, pull off previously impossible aims, either with the help of the people in charge or under the regime’s radar. This being the precise justification of every major business and corporate player who has been funding the Bharatiya Janata Party, whether they support the Hindutva agenda or are in the favoured crony group; “We can protect the country from the president”. Someone has to: everyone can’t abandon ship and leave it to this crazy captain. You often heard a version of this from senior bureaucrats in Delhi in the early years of Modi 1.0, you hear it a lot less now; “I, personally, will benefit”, not something people say out loud, but nevertheless a very present motive around all parties in power. You can connect it to the first point above, but also to those avaricious of political pelf; “I must remain close to power”, or what one might call the ‘Nitish school of thought’, applicable to all sorts of defectors, from major politicians to marginal MLAs to all sorts of hangers-on who are the new occupants of Lutyens Delhi; “My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse”. In the US, this might mean someone who thinks the CNN is the ‘far left’, but here this thinking is deployed under what one can call The Pappu Gambit or Only the Congress does Dynasty Politics; “I am afraid to speak out”. As Applebaum points out, speaking out in Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany could get you killed or sent to a Gulag, speaking out in post-war Poland or the GDR had less harsh repercussions but only slightly, and still far more draconian than in the US. In today’s India, while we have serious community spread of the Fear Virus, the infections are unevenly distributed, with BJP-ruled states being the worst affected. For all the vast horror we are seeing in a US under the Trump presidency, the police forces or the Federal Bureau of Investigation are yet to slap a case on someone or arrest someone under anti-terrorism laws for calling for non-violent protest.
Anne Applebaum ends her piece after quoting a German woman from the former GDR who speaks about the many different ‘dissidences’ that counter all the collaborationisms. Her point is, just as people compromise with a repulsive government for different reasons, people also resist and cease co-operation with oppressive regimes via different routes. Over the last six years in India, we have seen the collaborators grow in number, the compromisers in positions of authority multiply, but hopefully that curve will peak soon before it flattens. In the meantime, what we have definitely begun to see is the healthy proliferation of so many different kinds of resistance. There is no way of knowing for sure but it seems highly possible that these dissidences, non-co-operations and pushbacks against an immoral and dangerous government will soon reach critical mass.