A Follow-up to Anne Applebaum's "History Will Judge the Complicity:  Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?"
Rick Garlikov

In the July/August 2020 issue of The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum addresses the title question: "History Will Judge the Complicity:  Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?"  Another way she asks the question is how it is that two people with relatively similar backgrounds and beliefs can diverge in a way that causes one to support policies they should abhor while the other person fights against those policies. 
I believe the more general question is "How can any decent person with common sense, education, and integrity support or even condone the evil pronouncements, policies, or practices of a clearly terrible authority figure or institution?"  For, to me, many Trump supporters, particularly in the Senate and House of Representatives are not abandoning their principles and are at various forms of selfish, xenophobic, sometimes also misogynist, white supremacists who, under Trump, feel safe to be more explicit about their views under the guise of cultural protectionism.  They are not hypocrites so much as they are provincial bigots mistakenly believing that economics and culture are zero-sum phenomena in which any person's or group's gain can only come at the loss to someone else, rather than seeing that everyone potentially offers two hands to help more than they represent one mouth to feed, and that more can be accomplished by more people working in cooperation than by excluding people unnecessarily.  Her question is more about hypocrisy, and I consider hypocrisy just a special case of the problem of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil -- or just a special case of evil by people who should know better, period. 

I will discuss her answers in a moment, but I want to point out that this issue in its broadest light is not just about political matters or  what might be called violations of civil/human rights or what might rise to the level of "crimes against humanity", but ethical and psychological ones in general.  Why is it, for example, that some children raised by bad, say, abusive, parents see those parents as bad role models whose behavior is never to be emulated, whereas others then go on to raise their children in the same abusive ways?  Moreover, why is it we believe some people are at fault for following bad orders (e.g., the Nazis who ran the concentration camps, the people who willingly collaborated with them, and children growing up in a violent gang infested culture) ought to know better than to commit terrible acts, but other people doing terrible things normal for their culture should be excused, forgiven, or shown mercy because they had no way to know it was wrong, since it was so common and 'everyone was doing it.'  What is it that makes us think some people should know better about some egregious behaviors, but others shouldn't be expected to know better?

I need to emphasize one more point of Ms. Applebaum before I further comment on the article in general: She says "The point is not to compare Trump to Hitler or Stalin; the point is to compare the experiences of high-ranking members of the American Republican Party, especially those who work most closely with the White House, to the experiences of Frenchmen in 1940, or of East Germans in 1945, or of Czesław Miłosz in 1947 [all of which she explains in the article]. These are experiences of people who are forced to accept an alien ideology or a set of values that are in sharp conflict with their own."  The "forced to accept an alien ideology or set of values" phrase is problematic, I believe, because what she is actually researching is people who in reality adopt the ideology or values willingly even if they adopt or promote them as a bargain with the devil at the expense of their integrity for other gain.  We aren't talking about Senators whose children are being held hostage at gunpoint or who themselves are being held at gunpoint to vote for Trump's policies or to praise his character.  No one is forcing them to collaborate in order to preserve their own lives or the life of a loved one or other innocent person.  They are collaborating in order to get something they want that is morally of less value, even if materially more important to them.

While she seems to be asking about how one can become a hypocrite or why some people do and others don't, my own more general question is not necessarily about hypocrisy, whether coerced or not, but about how some people consider reprehensible behaviors to be emulated while others see them to be avoided doing themselves and not allowed, insofar as one has the ability to prevent them.  How can the same circumstances generate contradicting moral behaviors?  Another example: I have many students with years of faithful military service after being raised in very conservative, morally strict, usually religious, homes that demanded unquestioning obedience to authority.  What is interesting is that roughly half of them are themselves very conservative, obedient to authority, and expectant of the same obedience to them by those in their command or under their care, while the other half rebelled and are more liberal, less blindly obedient, and less expectant or desirous of blind obedience to themselves.  How can growing up in similar environments yield contradictory ethical values and principles?  And in particular, how can one reasonably attribute bad ideas and bad behaviors to the times in which one grew up and the behaviors that were common in the culture, since why, for example, would it require growing up after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and slaves were freed in the U.S. for any American citizen to know or have the suspicion that slavery is a terribly unjust activity?!  How can any civilized, reasonable, decent person with any grain of empathy or compassion for others not know that?!  Similarly, how can anyone with a shred of decency and humanity support or even condone the egregious, ignorant, mean-spirited, and ignorant policies of Donald Trump?

The answers Ms. Applebaum gives to the questions she asks do not satisfy my curiosity about these matters because what she has done is to ferret out the rationales that those who are complicit give or that others attribute to them.  That does not go deep enough for me, and moreover, not all the answers she has discovered involve hypocrisy, immorality, or even complicity, because some of the people working within a bad system are actually trying to thwart or temper its harm more than they could any other way, and insofar as they succeed, they are actually doing the right thing by preventing the most evil they can.  It does not go "deep" enough for me to know that, using her examples, Lindsey Graham supports Donald Trump's bad actions but Mitt Romney does not because Lindsey Graham has a different personality or different reasons from Mitt Romney.  I want to know why they would differ in any way if they have the same basic backgrounds.  For example, if Graham supports Trump to keep his Senate seat by the will of voters who are Trump supporters, but Mitt Romney doesn't mind losing his Senate because of Trump voters, why is THAT?  How do the men differ morally, if they do differ morally in the way they seem to?  Assuming similar causes acting on similar conditions cannot have opposite results, what differs to begin with to cause the different results?  I understand Graham may want to keep his seat at the expense of his integrity and that Romney might not, but why do they differ in that way?  And in Romney's case, it struck me as odd that he agonized so much about voting to convict Trump on impeachment charges, when he clearly thought it was right to vote that way.  Why should anyone agonize over doing what they know is right?  I understand that doing what is right can have painful consequences for one, but moral integrity is about the priority of doing what is right even in such cases.  Generally when one does what is morally right, one takes pride (and if necessary solace) in having done one's duty, even if one regrets having to be in that position to require sacrifice.  One doesn't regret having done what one should.  Romney seemed to have regretted having to vote for impeachment conviction even though he knew it was deserved.  So I don't understand that about him.  Or maybe, he didn't correctly say, or I am just misreading, what his agony over the decision was about.

Here are the rationales given in the article for why people, as the author puts it, "accept an alien ideology or a set of values that are in sharp conflict with their own" or that are in sharp conflict with what they previously believed and espoused:

  1. We can use this moment to achieve great things.  [Presumably these are great things other than the bad ones at issue, with the idea being the good accomplished outweighs the harms perpetrated.]
  2. We can protect the country from the president.
  3. I, personally, will benefit.
  4. I must remain close to power.  ... "For those who have never experienced it, the mystical pull of that connection to power, that feeling of being an insider, is difficult to explain. Nevertheless, it is real, and strong enough to affect even the highest-ranking, best-known, most influential people in America."
  5. Nothing matters. "Cynicism, nihilism, relativism, amorality, irony, sarcasm, boredom, amusement—these are all reasons to collaborate, and always have been."
  6. My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse. ... "the liberalism, socialism, moral decadence, demographic change, and cultural degradation that would have been the inevitable result of [left wing Democratic rule]."
  7.  I am afraid to speak out.

She has left out two I have heard politicians use:

  1. The people elected this person based on his/her platform and as their representative I should support their wishes.
  2. I have changed my mind since I held the opposite belief because I found out why I was mistaken before [based on actual flaws in my previous reasoning that I had not realized at the time].

And there is also one perfectly legitimate reason for going against what one previously said:

  1. What I said before was more general than what I meant, or was misstated in a way I didn't consider.

Something like number 10 occurs in a case like telling your kids you will take them to the beach Saturday if it doesn't rain.  But instead of rain there is some other, totally unexpected, inclement weather event like a tornado, or hailstorm, or some non-weather event like a plague of locusts or bad oil spill washing ashore, or something unrelated to the beach at all -- like one of the kids has an appendicitis attack, etc. You say you're not going to the beach, and they say "but it's not raining; and you said you would take us if it doesn't rain."  You, or course, hadn't meant that you would take them in spite of everything but rain; you meant you would take them unless there was some unexpected event.  But "unexpected event" is too general in the other direction because that could include things that have nothing to do with your going to the beach, such as a tsunami in a far away part of the globe, or Tom Cruise going to a doctor, or Kim Jung Un and Donald Trump getting decent haircuts/styles.  Even if you narrow it down to "unexpected bad event", that is still too general because of the far away tsunami, or because of a paper cut to your finger, or because someone you don't know died across town or in another city.

Notice, however, that with the exception of numbers 9 and 10, and the possible exception of numbers 3 and/or 5, none of those involve "acceptance" of the view one is supporting or voting for only for extraneous hidden reasons, although arguing that what one is supporting has real  intrinsic merit as a justified law or policy would be hypocritical in 1 - 8.  It would not be hypocritical in number 9 or 10, even if one's current belief is the incorrect one.  So what 1 - 8 explain in part is why politicians support a policy they either don't really believe or don't actually even accept, not why they believe or pretend to believe what they previously denied or condemned.  (Notice also that conflicting beliefs or policies can both be wrong, so even if one is correct that one supported the wrong policy before, that doesn't mean the policy one currently supports is correct or any better.  And even if one misstated a point previously, that doesn't mean the way one is stating it now is correct either.)

Moreover, number 1 (doing significant other or overall good), particularly when coupled with number 6 (preventing significant other or overall harm), is a legitimate moral argument if the claims are true -- which they sometimes are.  They are true when the other side is dug in to a policy that has some merit but also many serious flaws, but is diametrically opposed to any reasonable resolution of your differences, and the only way you have to prevent the harm their policy would do is to vote against it or to vote for your less harmful policy though it is not one you really approve of.  And they are true if there is no way one has to uncouple the policy one doesn't really support from the ones one does support -- which is often true with someone as petty, unforgiving, and vindictive as Trump when people defy him on something important to him and he is able to minimize or eliminate their power to do good in other areas.  His treatment of Jeff Sessions is a prime example, as it was probably intended to be to intimidate others.   If Jeff Sessions is unable to regain the Senate seat he gave up when he supported Trump and accepted the appointment to be Attorney General, but was then ousted and strenuously denounced by Trump for conscientiously recusing himself from the Russian investigation, his will be the case in point of not being able to do anything one believes to be important if one doesn't also do everything Trump wants even if that includes doing what one knows or believes to be wrong.  (Sessions cannot be credited with moral courage, however, if he didn't know he would lose his job over recusing himself, particularly given that his doing so was clearly necessary under the circumstances, and it was before the time period where Trump appointees knew they were supposed to openly defy or break laws or time-honored practices and would generally get away with it either due to a feckless Senate or because of time-consuming challenges to the laws or because the time-honored practices were never made legally binding because no one ever thought they would be blatantly discarded or violated.)

Number 2 is also a legitimate moral argument if and when it is true; it is just difficult for it to be true with Trump, who seems immune from logic, though possibly highly susceptible to psychological manipulation if one can manage it.

Number 5 is false, and not a good moral argument.

Numbers 3 and 4 are not legitimate moral arguments where what benefits you is unreasonably and unfairly bad for others or violates their legitimate rights. 

Number 7 in a democracy such as ours (at least at present, where the consequences of speaking out are not that harmful to you or anyone important to you, even if the worst of your fears comes true) is not a legitimate moral argument, but shows moral cowardice.

So 3, 4, 5, and 7 do not answer the question why morally reasonable people with integrity disavow their own beliefs, because those who hold them are deficient in moral reasoning or integrity.  Greed, cowardice, selfishness, insensitivity explain why they act as they do.  And we know that ignorant, apathetic, insensitive, bigoted, racist, selfish people willingly do wrong things.  The interesting question is not why bad people do wrong things, or why people who have clearly been readily or consistently morally ignorant, insensitive, even racist, selfish, or cowardly in the past are now, but why people who were, or certainly seemed to be, good, decent, honorable people have made the 180 degree turn, not just in what they vote for, but what they wholeheartedly support, since Trump has become President.  By the way, these questions are not just about Republican support of Trump's most egregious behaviors and comments, since Democrats embrace hypocrisy just as heartily as Republicans.  Leaders and members of both parties readily support of denounce principles they previously argued the opposite way, depending on whether they are in or out of power.  Since there is now always clear video evidence of their past arguments, it is not clear whether they are hypocritical because they don't think they will be caught and called out, or whether they don't care that they will be; it is not clear whether they simply have no sense or no shame.

The claim of number 8, that representatives have a duty to vote the people's will is not necessarily true, not if what the majority of voters want is clearly immoral or unconstitutional.  But even if a legislator in a representative democracy is required to vote in the way a majority of his/her constituents want, that does not mean s/he should not argue against their wishes and present the case for why their wishes are mistaken.  Representation does not mean passive acceptance of a wrongful, possibly ill-informed or uninformed majority opinion.  It can and should involve trying to get constituents to see what actually will "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity".

Moreover, when legislation and policy involves systemic problems such as injustice for poor people about whom the legislator doesn't care or such as possible widespread racism which the legislator shares, then number 8 is just an excuse to shirk responsibility to change the system, since one doesn't want to change it.  When that is the case, the legislator is not being hypocritical, but also not being morally right.  S/he is merely being malevolent and no longer part of the query about how a good person could support or accept bad policies.  S/he is not a good person. 

Now s/he may not be so bad as to be racist or some other member of "the basket of deplorables", for she may simply believe in some form of social Darwinism, which is the survival, success, and flourishing of the fit as defined simply by those who will or have attained power and/or wealth.  That may even be Trump's view -- that all and only rich, generally, but not necessarily, white and male people know what is best for the country and the economy and can "make America great again" in terms of material success and harmony, even at the expense of justice, fairness, compassion, mercy, and realistic opportunity for those who are currently disadvantaged or at the lowest rungs on the ladder.  S/he may believe that people in power have a right to maintain it no matter what, and that the law of the jungle is the primary or only natural moral law that is important.  Or they may have a similar belief based on a view that God rewards the most deserving, and therefore what people who have money and power want is what God wants to, despite the preaching of Jesus to the contrary in the Gospels.  The Trump era, if nothing else, has brought to the surface in a clearly visible way, the number of people who are morally insensitive or even cruel, people who at best merely disdain those who are poor or of other nationalities, races, or skin color, or who are simply scared that 1) freedom and economics are zero-sum activities where other people's gains or success requires your loss or failure, and/or 2) if minorities achieve any kind of majority rule, they will treat you as you have treated them, which is not desirable or palatable to you even if you think it right for them to do it, and so they must not be allowed to achieve that kind of success. 

But there is a bigger problem with those reasons from the article which simply describe a newly developed, or only newly surfaced and displayed, deficiency in moral reasoning or moral character. 

They don't sufficiently explain why one who has never been intellectually deficient or politically or morally cowardly before suddenly has become morally unreasonable, fainthearted, insensitive or blind.  They only give a secondary or 'provisional' explanation.  Let me explain what I mean by that with examples not related to morality.  Suppose there is a dinner party where everyone mingles closely in conversation and dancing with each other during the evening and where everyone is served the same food and drink out of the same serving dishes/containers, and five out of the thirty people in attendance die from poisoning, and eight others die two weeks later from a virus two people were later found to have come to the party with.  It would be perfectly legitimate to ask why some people died and others didn't.  The secondary or what I am calling 'provisional' explanations would be that five of the people died from poison and eight died from a deadly virus.  The other people were neither poisoned nor infected with the virus.  That answer would be perfectly true, but it would not be a satisfactory explanation because it doesn't explain why five people and only five were poisoned, if all ate the same food and drank the same beverages from the same sources; and it would not explain why eight and only eight of the people got the virus when all were breathing the same air in equal proximity to the contagious guests.  It explains why they died provided that they were poisoned or infected, but not why they, and only they, were poisoned or infected in the first place.  We need some more specific immediate cause of the difference between being poisoned or infected or not.

Similarly suppose two people equally intelligent, equally capable, and equally studious and industrious are given new material to learn on which they will be tested.  And suppose that they are then tested on the material with 100 questions each worth one point.  Suppose one person gets a 98 on the test and the other gets a 79.  We might very well ask, how that could be, and again, it would be true, but not helpful, to be told that one of them answered 2 questions wrong and the other answered 21 questions wrong.  We already could have surmised that.   It doesn't explain how one of them could miss so many and the other miss so few, given they both were equally intelligent and equally prepared prior to the exam.  We need some deeper or more specific originating cause of the difference in their test performance -- of why one got far more answers wrong than the other.

In the political cases above, the reasons listed explain the provisional causes of moral error and hypocrisy, but they do not explain why some people who should know better and who should do better capitulate to moral cowardice and manifest hypocrisy while others command moral courage and display moral integrity and sincerity in the face of the same moral temptations.

One of the explanations given for why Senator Lindsey Graham supports many of President Trump's most egregious ideas is his desire to be remain close to power (number 4 above): "A friend who regularly runs into Lindsey Graham in Washington told me that each time they meet, “he brags about having just met with Trump” while exhibiting “high school” levels of excitement, as if “a popular quarterback has just bestowed some attention on a nerdy debate-club leader—the powerful big kid likes me! ” That kind of intense pleasure is hard to relinquish and even harder to live without.But that doesn't explain why Lindsey Graham differs from Mitt Romney in that way or why for Lindsey Graham the allurement of acceptance and adulation defeats the demands and inducement for integrity.  If the friend is correct, then clearly acceptance in Trump's circle and aura is important to Graham at the expense of his prior stated principles and common sense and decency.  Senator Graham does seem to adapt his views to his circumstances and seems to sell out in some way or other, though I don't understand why he does that.  However, it seems to be a psychological flaw of some sort that causes, in some cases, a moral flaw or moral blindness.  Apart from being under the spell of Trump or possibly Senate Republican pressure, Graham seems to be capable of moral sensitivity and reasoning. It is difficult to understand why he lets that take a back seat to political pressures or some sort of adulation of power.

But for many people who support Trump, I propose other answers; simple selfish malevolence for some and/or lack of reasoning ability for others.  Garrison Keillor once said or quoted that a lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.  (That is not true for those who buy a ticket they can easily afford, knowing they will not likely win, but being able to fantasize about winning and thus finding the price of the ticket worth far more in entertainment value alone -- besides the voluntary contribution to government services -- than the dollar or two it costs.  But it is true for people who buy lottery tickets truly hoping to win.)  Math, however, is reasoning about matters involving numbers, and, unfortunately, many people have a more generalized reasoning deficiency, sometimes also coupled with lack of historical knowledge, and therefore democracy is a tax on the rest of us by those in power who are bad at history, science, morality and reasoning in general.  My current view is that many people, even people with degrees, cannot reason well, and don't understand what good reasoning is.  Too many people seem to think that good reasoning simply means giving a reason for one's belief, whether that reason is logically relevant to the belief or not, whether that reason is true or not, or whether one even believes it is true or not.  In some cases, like Trump's, the reason doesn't have to even be true, as long as "it is what many people say".  I consider Senator Lindsey Graham's case very different from Senator Cotton's, and both to be different from the likes of Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio 4th District) or Attorney General William Barr. 

But Senator Cotton seems to firmly and conscientiously or ideologically believe things for which he tries to give serious evidence, though generally comprised of invalid reasons, and is living proof that there was at least some time in history in which one could get degrees from Harvard University and from Harvard Law School without having any degree of logical or moral reasoning ability, and that one could be, like Trump (though even with the addition of a law degree), an elected high official with no real understanding of the Constitution or the parts of American history that shaped it.  For example, Cotton is reported to have tweeted after the June 2020 DACA ruling by the Supreme Court "Yet John Roberts again postures as a Solomon who will save our institutions from political controversy and accountability. If the Chief Justice believes his political judgment is so exquisite, I invite him to resign, travel to Iowa, and get elected. I suspect voters will find his strange views no more compelling than do the principled justices [which are apparently just the conservative ones in Senator Cotton's view] on the Court", seemingly totally unaware that the role of judges is not simply to mirror or vote for public opinion, but to apply the law as best and reasonably as they can, even if they think that law might be misguided.  As an Alabama Supreme Court judge once said in, or about, a ruling, they have to apply the law, even when the law is stupid and gives a stupid result, and that the defendant's action in the case under discussion being stupid did not make it thereby unconstitutional or illegal.  They felt compelled to rule for the defendant, even though they thought the defendant's action egregious.  For a fuller, more detailed analysis of Senator Cotton's lack of reasoning ability despite his attempts to display this skill he does not have, see "A Close Reading and Response to Senator Tom Cotton's Speech/Article About Immigration."

Representative Jordan, however, seems to me to be more of a self-interested would-be populist or possibly just power-hungry demagogue, with few or no scruples, and if that is a correct assessment, then reason #3 in Ms. Applebaum's list seems most fitting, but least interesting, since although we might wonder how adults can be self-centered, we don't tend to wonder why people who are bad or self-centered do wrong things.  It just seems to follow from their nature, though we don't know how they can have that nature, which most people seem to be able to avoid having by the time they reach adulthood.

So, for me, the question still remains "How can any morally reasonable person with any sense of common decency support, condone, or acquiesce without criticism to, the many egregious, often ignorant and sometimes cruel, dishonorable, un-American, illegal, or unconstitutional plans, policies, practices, and pronouncements of President Trump even when it provides them with some or substantial benefits?"