Journalist Explains Why Republican Leaders Back Trump's 'Proto-Authoritarian Cult'

Jun 4, 2020
Originally published on June 8, 2020 10:48 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. When police used smoke, flash grenades and chemical spray to clear protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House Monday night for a photo op of President Trump holding a Bible in front of a historic church, the action drew heated criticism. But not much of it came from congressional Republicans, who were mostly silent or supportive.

Our guest, journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, has a new piece in The Atlantic examining the motives and behavior of Republican leaders, who she says have abandoned their principles to support a president who's built a proto-authoritarian cult in the White House. In the article and a forthcoming book, Applebaum draws on her years of experience writing about Eastern Europe for many publications. She's also the author of several books, including "Gulag: A History," which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2004. Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic. Her forthcoming book is "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism." Her piece in The Atlantic is titled "History Will Judge The Complicit."

I spoke to her from my home in Philadelphia. She was at her home in Chobielin, Poland. We spoke yesterday morning. Later that day, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued an extraordinary blistering critique of the Trump presidency, writing Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people, does not even pretend to try; instead, he tries to divide us.

Well, Anne Applebaum, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to begin a bit by talking about the events of last week. You have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about authoritarian regimes and the drift to authoritarianism. Give me your take on the president's handling of the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: So I think all of us could see that this is a president whose instincts are profoundly authoritarian, that his first reaction to the combination of events that happened - there were legitimate protests; there were riots; there was some infiltration of protests by other groups - his first reaction was shut it all down. You know, he got on the phone with America's governors. He told them they needed to dominate the situation. They need to have everyone be quiet, everyone stop talking.

And his instinct, his personal instinct, as we saw, was to tear gas protesters in Lafayette Square, walk through the - you know, walk through the cleared space, stand in front of a boarded up church, where he'd been neither invited nor had he warned that he was coming, hold up a Bible as a kind of totem, as a sort of symbol of his identity, as a message to his followers, and walk away.

What's important is that his instincts were not those of what - that previous presidents would have had, which was - would have been to find words that unite the nation, to find words that heal people, to find the language that brings the extremes together and reminds people of what our core values are and our belief in democracy and freedom and the right to speak and the right to gather and the right to - and freedom of the press and so on. No, his instincts were not that. His instincts were to message his followers and his groups and to shut down the conversation. And that is a profoundly antidemocratic and profoundly authoritarian instinct.

DAVIES: Right. Now, he has said that the death of George Floyd was a terrible tragedy and that peaceful protest is to be respected and that it's the violence, it's the vandalism and the looting that is the problem - that that's why you need a more forceful response.

APPLEBAUM: He's made those pro forma statements. You know, he has people around him who are pushing him to say things like that. But he has not made an appeal to our sense of oneness as a nation. He has not made an appeal to America's multiethnic identity. He has not sought to bring people together. And he has not used the language of democracy - the language which, by the way, was used in the last couple of days by President George W. Bush, which has been used by Barack Obama, which has been used by, you know, a plethora of other leaders from other major institutions.

He has not sought that language because he sees that kind of language as a threat to him. In other words, he wants to position himself on one side of the political spectrum. You know, I'm with the people who want all of this shut down. And he wants the rest of the political spectrum to be seen as his enemies and traitors and people who aren't really American. So his - he has not been able to heal the nation because he instinctively can't do it. He can't bring himself to use that traditional language of the Constitution and of democracy.

DAVIES: There's also the issue of the use of the military in civilian conflict. Now, we haven't seen tanks in the streets a la Tiananmen Square. There were reports that military helicopters were hovering over protesters in Washington so that they would be blown away by the winds of the rotor wash of those helicopters. And he's certainly, of course, talked about getting the military directly into this. What does all that tell you?

APPLEBAUM: He wants the military involved because he wants the military to be seen as a kind of partisan tool that's on his side. You know, he wants - again, he wants this show of force and violence. And, again, this isn't to say that there couldn't be legitimate use of police, that, you know, it isn't important to protect the White House or that it isn't important to stop looting in - not just in Washington but all over the country.

But using the military against civilians is a way of telling people these civilians aren't real Americans; they're enemies. And remember that he's using the military not against people who are rioting and looting; he's using the military against people who are protesting peacefully. And by sending that message that these protesters are not legitimate, that we're using, you know, the nation's force against them, he's deepening national polarization, and he's, again, sending a message to his followers that he's speaking for them. You know, he is not trying to speak for the nation or for the country; he's speaking for his tribe.

DAVIES: Does this moment remind you of developments you've seen in other countries that have drifted towards authoritarianism?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, look - absolutely. The use of the military, the use of language to incite violence - you know, all these are - you know, these aren't just random things that Trump is doing; these are known tactics. You know, this is how Chavez took over in Venezuela. You know, this is the kind of language that Erdogan uses in Turkey. This is the kind - these are the tactics that Putin uses in Russia. I mean, these are - you know, it's not coming out of the blue. These are methods that have been used in the past in other places.

I mean, Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional. And actually, I believe in many ways, we are. You know, we're a uniquely lucky. We're uniquely gifted. We've been a very fortunate nation. We've had - you know, we've achieved many wonderful things. But we are not exempt from the lure of authoritarianism. We are not exempt from people trying to create authoritarianism. There is nothing about our democracy that is magic. You know, a person who is determined to destroy it can destroy it, unless people can fight back.

DAVIES: There were a couple of Republicans in Congress who did offer some criticism of President Trump's action on Monday. Does this represent a departure?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, look - I welcome criticism. I noticed that Senator Ben Sasse seemed particularly disturbed by Trump's use of the Bible, you know, as a kind of political prop. You know, a number of others were also disturbed by the use of the military in Washington, D.C. And it's nice to hear some of them say so. And we've heard statements like this in the past. But at the moment when they could have actually stopped him, you know, at the moment when they could've said, no, this is enough, this presidency is violating too many rules, this is - he's destroying our Constitution, that was the moment of impeachment. At that moment, the only Republican senator who voted for impeachment - there was only one, and that was Mitt Romney, who agreed - who voted to impeach the president. And that was the moment when they actually could've achieved change, as opposed to making statements for the press.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic. She has a new article examining the actions of Washington Republicans who support President Trump. It's called "History Will Judge The Complicit." We will be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "ENVISIONINGS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Anne Applebaum. She's a staff writer for The Atlantic. She has a new article examining the motives and behavior of Washington Republicans supporting President Trump. It's called "History Will Judge The Complicit."

You also write about collaborators with the Nazi regime in France during World War II, the Vichy regime, where a lot of people accommodated the occupying German army and the Nazis there. And you write here in the piece that comparing Republicans to those who collaborated with Nazis or fascists may seem over the top, but that your point is not to compare Trump to Hitler or Stalin. But these references certainly imply some commonality. What exactly are you saying about Donald Trump and his relationship to democratic institutions and the threat of dictatorship?

APPLEBAUM: It's actually more to do with the relationship of the Republican Party to Donald Trump. In other words, it might have been possible in the initial days of the administration to convince yourself that, OK, Donald Trump was a little eccentric. He was a little unusual. But he was going to be a normal president like other presidents. He was going to strive to - you know, to expand American influence in the world and to make life better for most Americans.

As his presidency moved on, it became clear that he was bringing a very different ideology to the White House, a completely different set of values, which bore no relation to anything that we've known in American history for the last hundred years. He was seeking to use the presidency for his own personal and political gain, for his own psychological gain. He was seeking to game the system. He was seeking to go around bureaucracies, to have secret policies, to deploy people throughout the system, you know, in order to undermine it.

He was not interested in running the American government, you know, in any recognizable way. That meant that senior figures in his administration had to make a decision at some point how they were going to cope with this new ideology. It was radically different from what they believed in. It was different from anything they've grown up with or ever known. So how would they accommodate themselves to it.

And in that sense, they were acting very much like people behave in an occupied country like occupied East Germany, like occupied France. They began to make excuses. They began to explain themselves. They began to accommodate themselves to Trump in a way that, when you look at history - and I use a lot of examples to show why this is the case - sounds very much like people who we've heard describing their behavior in occupied countries in the past.

DAVIES: You know, you say - write in here that the experiences of the early Trump days are worth examining and, in particular, one of the first controversies of the administration, and that was the president's claim that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than President Obama's - I believe, the biggest ever. And you say, this is a petty lie, even ridiculous. But that was partly why it was so dangerous.

APPLEBAUM: So sometimes, the point of a lie is not to get people to believe it, you know? The point of a lie is, rather, to make people afraid of the person who's so powerful that they can lie. I mean, remember the nature of this lie. It wasn't just that he said, my crowds are big. He got the National Park Service to alter photographs.

He got his press spokesman to say - to show the photographs and also to say that it was the biggest crowd ever even though the press spokesman knew and all the journalists in the room knew that this was a lie. In other words, he was forcing people to conform to an alternate version of truth that everyone knew was wrong. And this was, again, not about belief. It was about power. It was about showing, I can force people to conform to my will.

DAVIES: You know, I think a lot of people would say that's, maybe, attributing a little more planning and motive to Trump than he often shows. I mean, he's an impulsive guy. And, you know, was this not just a case where, as is so often the case, he has to be right, he has to be the biggest, the best, the one who's always right?

APPLEBAUM: Oh, I mean, that's not incompatible with what I'm saying, you know? That's his motive for being president, you know? His motive for being president is, I have to be the biggest and the best. And the tactics that I'm going to use in order to make myself feel that way are the ones that authoritarians use, have used many times in the past. I mean, again, I use the example of, you know, in Eastern Europe after the war, there was an infestation of something called the Colorado beetle. And the regime blamed this beetle on the United States.

They said American pilots have been dropping this beetle on our fields. And they put up these posters with red-white-and-blue evil beetles invading the fields. Everybody knew this wasn't true, including, as it's turned out - thanks to archives - the people who were commanding the posters to be painted. But again, the point was partly - you know, when you are Donald Trump or when you're the leader of an authoritarian country, part of, you know, your effort is to force people to echo your words even if the words are false.

You're not interested in truth or falsehood. You're interested in making people agree with you. And that's - you can call it a narcissistic instinct. You can call it an authoritarian instinct. But, you know, this is what Donald Trump, you know, has done since he first got to Washington.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about some of the reasons that you list, some of the common justifications for collaborating with the regime that people find that violates their principles. One is, we can use this moment to achieve great things. What does this mean? Who uses that justification?

APPLEBAUM: So in the article, I use an example of somebody who I met randomly, who's a kind of friend of a friend, who works in the Trump administration and who is somebody who, I think, is probably very aware of the problems with Trump - and who understands, for example, how damaging his foreign policy has been, how damaging it is to U.S. alliances and to U.S. interests around the world, but who wants to stay in his job and wants to - you know, wants to justify to himself, you know, as - not just to me, but to himself - as to why he should be there.

And the excuse that he used was, look at what we've done for the Uighurs. And I was very flummoxed by this. What do you mean the Uighurs? The Uighurs are, of course, the Muslims in Xinjiang, China, who've been very badly oppressed by the regime who live in - many hundreds of thousands are in concentration camps. You know, I was unaware of anything the Trump administration had done for the Uighurs. But this person, who I have called Mark, said, well, look; the president made a statement. And we've said important things at the U.N.

And the argument was, because we are - I have been able to do these useful things and we have been able to do these useful things, it's worth it. In other words, OK. We have to collaborate. We have to go along with some things that we don't like. But we're, nevertheless, able to use this moment to achieve something. And this is a story that people tell themselves. In other words, most people want to think of themselves as good people. They want to think of themselves as patriots. You know, I'm working in the White House. Or I'm working in the Department of the Treasury in order to achieve good things for the country. And therefore, you know, they reach for straws. They reach for examples of things that they've done that are useful as a kind of excuse.

DAVIES: A similar kind of justification you write about is someone thinking that they can protect the country from the president.

APPLEBAUM: This, of course, was the argument used by Anonymous. If you remember, that was the author of an unsigned New York Times op-ed that was published in September 2018. And, you know, if you remember, that article described the president's erratic behavior, his inability to concentrate, his ignorance and, above all, his lack of affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives - this is a quote - "free minds, free markets and free people."

And so the root of the problem, Anonymous said, was the president's amorality. Nevertheless, Anonymous said he was remaining in his job to protect the country from the president. You know, he would stay in place to make sure that, you know - to literally remove papers from the president's desk if need be, to make sure that the institutions of the state were somehow protected from the president of the United States.

DAVIES: You know, as I read about this, it struck me that the decision of Republican senators, who are independently elected officials, to work with the Trump administration is a different kind of decision than someone in the government - say, a deputy attorney general or a ranking official in the Department of Human Services.

And I could imagine a reasonable argument that one of those people might say - look; I can quit. I don't share the values of this White House. But if I stay, I can limit damage. I can slow down the implementation of bad ideas. I can make things better than they might be. And if I leave, they're going to get somebody who will salute and do exactly what they want - such a bad idea?

APPLEBAUM: My point was that it's not necessarily a bad idea. It's a legitimate idea. But it is - we need to acknowledge that it is the kind of language and the kind of conversation that we hear in occupied countries. You know, this is the - these are the Vichy arguments, you know? These are the East German Communist Party arguments, you know, that you are not working as a normal bureaucrat or as a normal functionary. You are in a job to protect, somehow, your institution from the people who are running it. And, you know, it may be that, for a lot of people, this is a legitimate thing to do for some period of time, at least up until the point when you are no longer effective.

James Mattis decided he could no longer be effective. And he quit. And Gary Cohn decided he could no longer be effective. And he quit. They reached the limit of what they felt able to do. And, look; I know anecdotally and I know personally a lot of other people who have or are working inside the administration who are using that same kind of logic. And this is the logic of collaboration, of life in an occupied country. This is not how bureaucrats and politicians and political appointees have behaved in American governments in the past.

DAVIES: Anne Applebaum is a historian and staff writer for The Atlantic. Her new article is "History Will Judge The Complicit." She'll be back to talk some more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROB DIXON TRIO'S "SAN LEANDRO")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with journalist, historian and Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum. In a new article, she writes about the behavior and motives of Republicans in Washington, who she believes have abandoned their principles to support President Trump, whose administration she describes as corrupt and hostile to the rule of law. Her article is titled "History Will Judge The Complicit." She also has a forthcoming book, "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism."

We spoke yesterday morning. Later that day, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued an extraordinary, blistering critique of the Trump presidency, writing Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people, does not even pretend to try; instead, he tries to divide us.

So, Anne Applebaum, let's talk about another reason that people give for collaborating with a regime that violates their principles. Another justification, you say, is my side might be flawed - that is to say the people I'm working for - but the political opposition, in this case the Democrats, are so much worse. I think this is pretty common, isn't it?

APPLEBAUM: This is very common. And this, of course, is famously - this is the Vichy argument. So when, you know, Marshal Petain - the leader of collaborationist France - took over the Vichy government, he did so in the name of the restoration of a France that had been lost. He was arguing that he was collaborating with the Germans, you know, for good reasons because, you know, that was going to enable him to fight the real enemy, which was the French parliamentarians and socialists and anarchists and Jews and other leftists who he thought were undermining the nation. You know, there was this phrase - you know, rather Hitler than Blum, you know, Bum having been France's socialist and actually Jewish prime minister in the late 1930s.

So this is very much how many Republicans, particularly in the Senate but also elsewhere, now talk. You know, OK, Trump is in many ways an existential, you know, danger. He's a threat to democracy. He's undermining our Constitution. He's wrecking America's position in the world. Nevertheless, these terrible - you know, the - whatever corrupt deals he's doing, all of this shrinks in comparison - you know, by comparison to the horrific alternative, which is, you know, the liberalism and socialism and decadence and demographic change that would have been the inevitable result of Hillary Clinton's presidency or another left-wing leader. So in other words, they can justify anything that Trump does on the grounds that the opposition is worse.

DAVIES: Another reason that is cited for people working with the Trump administration is, I'm afraid to speak out. And you write that in the case of people in truly dictatorial regimes, such as that of Stalin or the Nazis, there were - the cost of speaking out was very high. You're puzzled as to why they would be so afraid of speaking out in this circumstance.

APPLEBAUM: Yes, it is extraordinary. And we do live in a country where there is no political oppression. There is no mass arrests. There is no concentration camps of the kind they had in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany. And yet people clearly are scared.

There are people who are scared of being attacked by Trump, of being made a fool of in his tweets. There are people who are afraid of losing their Senate seats, you know, being challenged by pro-Trump alternatives. There - and if you think about it, there's a social aspect to it. There are people who are scared of losing their donors or losing their friends or being, you know, invited to the same parties they'd been invited to before. So there is a kind of peer pressure and a fear of speaking out. And, again, we've seen it in some of our most prominent and, you would think, most confident political leaders.

DAVIES: You know, I would say, in terms of members of Congress and the Senate - I've covered politicians for a lot of my life - and elected officials, it seems to me, their first priority is self-preservation. And while Trump may not be a popular president from his approval ratings, he's very popular among Republican primary voters. And someone who challenges him, you know, in a red state can buy a whole lot of trouble and maybe lose their office, right?

APPLEBAUM: Sure. I mean, and this is obviously another thing they're afraid of. They're afraid of losing. And then, you know, they would have the terrible fate of having to teach at the Harvard Kennedy school or work as a lobbyist on K Street, you know, some really awful, you know, professional fate like that. You know, but you still have to ask yourself - again, we're talking about people who can see that everything they've ever said that they stood for, every set of values - whether it's the belief in the Constitution, whether it's, you know, America's role in the world, whether it's, you know, an American government that's good for all Americans - you know, whatever it is they said they believe in the past, Trump is violating that.

So at what point does the fear of losing office or the fear of losing power, you know, succumb to the evidence in front of their eyes that their - that he's destroying the thing they say that they're serving? I mean, what's the point of being in the Senate, why be a member of Congress if you're simply going to collude, you're going to collaborate with someone who's destroying the institutions that you say you love? And, again, some of the article - you know, the point is not necessarily - I'm not making judgments. I'm saying that these are the kind of arguments, this is the language that people use in occupied countries. These are the arguments and the dilemmas that people have, and we now have those dilemmas in the United States.

DAVIES: You know, when you say that these Republicans, it is clear as crystal to them that he is violating all the norms of democracy and all the principles that they hold dear, I wonder if that's true. You know, I sometimes will - in the evening, will spend 45 minutes watching MSNBC and then turn it over and watch Fox for 45 minutes. And what's fascinating is that the horrific things that MSNBC talks about aren't refuted on Fox; they're just ignored, and they have their own set of horrific stories to tell about the Democrats.

And just to briefly belabor this point, you know, during the Senate impeachment trial, when Republicans had to sit through the arguments of the House prosecutors, we had some senators saying they had not heard some of these things before about actions that president - the president had taken in Ukraine. I'm wondering if we live in such completely different information ecosystems in such a way that a lot of these Republicans truly believe that he's better.

APPLEBAUM: So I think that is a legitimate argument that you can make about many Trump voters and many other Republicans, that they don't know or that they're living in, again, as you say, the Fox information bubble. It is not really an argument that you can make about senior White House officials or about members of the Senate. Senior White House officials and members of the Senate know. You know, they work alongside Trump. They see him. They understand the effects of his actions.

Many, many of them are willing to say things off the record about him that they do not say in public, you know, up to and including Lindsey Graham, who I talk about in the article, and many other of Trump defenders. And they will tell their Democratic colleagues in the Senate of their disgust. They will express themselves in many different ways. So they're - the articles about that group of people - so we're not talking about people who don't pay much attention to politics or people who are legitimately distracted by other things and who don't bother to follow events in Washington; I'm talking about insiders and people who know, and they don't have the excuse of being unaware of what's going on.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Anne Applebaum. She is a staff writer for The Atlantic. Her new article assessing the behavior and motives of Republicans who cooperate with the Trump administration is called "History Will Judge The Complicit." We'll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Anne Applebaum. She's a staff writer for The Atlantic. She has a new article examining the actions of Washington Republicans who support President Trump. It's called "History Will Judge The Complicit." I'll just add, I am speaking to Anne Applebaum from my home in Philadelphia, where a church nearby is ringing a bell. But that's part of what happens when broadcasting in the current pandemic crisis.

You know, when you write about the fear that keeps some people from speaking out, fear of risking their political office or their social relationships or their donors, you write, (reading) they don't know that similar waves of fear have helped transform other democracies into dictatorships. They don't seem to realize that the American Senate really could become the Russian Duma or the Hungarian Parliament, a group of exalted men and women who sit in an elegant building with no influence and no power. Indeed, we are already closer to that than many could ever have imagined.

I think a lot of people would find that surprising. How are we getting closer to that kind of an emasculated Legislature?

APPLEBAUM: So we already have a Senate that is no longer willing to hold the president to the law, to hold him to account. We have a Senate that allowed him to get away with - you know, during the impeachment trial, allowed him to get away with, you know, the manipulation of U.S. institutions, the use of taxpayers' money as a kind of inducement bribe in order to persuade a foreign government to - you know, to launch an unjust investigation of his opponent. So we've already had the Senate take steps to allow the president to do things that are unconstitutional and, in any previous era, would have been considered unthinkable.

How far are we, then, to - you know, to further - so what else will they allow the president to do? What are the other ways in which he'll be allowed to overstep the boundaries? You know, as we discussed at the beginning of the program, you know, he's already used the U.S. military in a highly inappropriate way on the streets of Washington, D.C., using helicopters to buzz American protesters, you know, the way that, you know, helicopters are used in Afghanistan or Iraq. You know, this kind of behavior is, you know - you know, this is the kind of behavior that would have been censured and condemned, you know, in any previous era in any previous administration.

So why is the Senate, why are the upper levels of the Republican Party allowing this to happen now? And that's because they are slowly abdicating their constitutional role. They've refused to hold the president to account. They've allowed him to bend the rules and to do things that would normally not be allowed. And this is the first step towards the end of democracy.

DAVIES: This may be too subtle a distinction, but it strikes me that it's one thing to say that American senators have abdicated their role of holding the administration accountable; another thing to say that they, like the Russian Duma or the Hungarian Parliament, are really no longer in a position to even exercise such authority. I mean, it seems to me that Republican senators are still independent elected officials and that any of those who sit on relevant committees could vote tomorrow or next week to support subpoenas and investigations and steps towards accountability.

APPLEBAUM: I mean, the Hungarian Parliament could do that, too, but it doesn't. The - you know, the pressure of conformism, the way money is structured, the various loyalties they owe one another prevents them from doing it. That's the point. And theoretically, the Hungarian Parliament is a real parliament; in practice, its majority does what the Hungarian prime minister tells it to do. We are beginning to see signs of that - I'm not saying that we're there yet; I'm just saying this is a possibility - in the U.S. Senate.

We see senators not playing their constitutional role, not doing what they're supposed to be doing because of the long list of things we've been discussing - because they are afraid of losing their donors, because they are afraid of censure, because they think that by staying close to power they can do something useful. They're all - you know, my article goes through the many different kinds of reasons that that people have to do this. So, you know, the point is that it's a slippery slope. You know, there are - we aren't there yet, but we aren't as far away from the Senate becoming a kind of placid and rather useless body, that, you know, we're not as far away as we think we are.

DAVIES: You know the title of your article is "History Will Judge The Complicit." And I'm wondering, do you think history will truly harshly judge people who served in the Trump administration or supported him in Congress? You know, we judge Nazi collaborators harshly because the Nazis committed horrific acts, genocidal atrocities. You know, you see senators, former cabinet members - like, say, Rex Tillerson, who was Donald Trump's secretary of state - have moved on, don't seem to suffer from the association. Are you sure history will judge these people harshly?

APPLEBAUM: We're not writing history quite yet. But yes, I do think Rex Tillerson will not have a place in history as one of the most famous and best-loved secretaries of state. No, I think he will be judged quite harshly, you know. And also, you know, a lot depends on what happens and what happens over the next six months. But, you know, as people get some distance from his administration - I mean, if Trump loses in November or four years after that - as people get distance from his administration, as they look back on the damage that was done on the, you know, the catastrophic decisions around the coronavirus, on the - you know, the creation of a vast budget deficit, you know, in a time of prosperity unnecessarily, you know, the destruction of America's relationships abroad, the undermining of American power abroad - you know, all those things will seem, in the light of day - people will ask, well, how was it possible that, you know, a nation committed suicide like that?

How was it possible that we allowed the president to take us so far in that direction? And then people will look at who enabled it. Why did it happen? Why didn't anyone object? And then, yes, I do think that history will judge Rex Tillerson 20 years from now or 30 years from now differently. I mean, you know, I'm not comparing the United States to Nazi Germany. I'm not saying that collaborators with the Trump administration are the same as collaborators with the Nazi. I'm saying that their mode of thinking, their ways of justifying themselves, the kinds of language that they use are similar.

And that's because they know that what Trump is doing is wrong. And they know that he's not a patriot in the sense that all previous presidents were. He is not in the office in order to help Americans, in order to just create American power. He's there for his own personal and business and financial interests. And because they know that, they have to find ways of accommodating themselves and their old value systems to his.

DAVIES: You know, I feel compelled to say that there are certainly people who will say, if you look at Trump's record, there may be stumbles. But, you know, he's put a lot of money into the military. And that's, perhaps, helped restore America's prestige in some way. He had a roaring economy before the - including low unemployment - before the COVID-19 epidemic. I wonder if it will be seen as such a disaster.

APPLEBAUM: I mean, look at where we are right now. We are polarized, you know, to a degree, you know - probably not since the Civil War has there been such hatred among Americans. We are in the worst economic crisis in decades. We have, you know, a rampant pandemic that was not stopped early on in part because of the president's behavior. I mean, you know, I think looking at the Trump administration as a whole, you know, looking at, you know, what's been done over the last 3 1/2 years, you know, I don't think there's going to be a lot of doubt that this was a catastrophe.

DAVIES: Anne Applebaum, thank you so much for spending some time with us.

APPLEBAUM: Thanks so much.

DAVIES: Anne Applebaum is an historian and staff writer for The Atlantic. Her new article is "History Will Judge The Complicit." And she has a forthcoming book, "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC MILLER'S "BADEN")

DAVIES: Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Shirley," starring Elisabeth Moss as writer Shirley Jackson. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUY MINTUS TRIO'S "OUR JOURNEY TOGETHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.