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Anne Applebaum Misfires

President Donald Trump speaks at the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 18, 2020. (Al Drago/Reuters)

Critics of President Trump, including ones I consider generally sensible, have been lauding this long essay on his enablers by Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. It has some terrific stories and some insights into the psychology of rationalization. But it is, I think, ultimately a failure.

This paragraph is the main reason:

To the American reader, references to Vichy France, East Germany, fascists, and Communists may seem over-the-top, even ludicrous. But dig a little deeper, and the analogy makes sense. 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. 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.

She’s having it both ways. She doesn’t want to take responsibility for an analogy that will, as she says, seem, because it is, nuts. But all of the emotional force of her essay derives entirely from that analogy.

This paragraph is also grotesque:

The three most important members of Trump’s Cabinet—Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General William Barr—are all profoundly shaped by Vichyite apocalyptic thinking. All three are clever enough to understand what Trumpism really means, that it has nothing to do with God or faith, that it is self-serving, greedy, and unpatriotic. Nevertheless, a former member of the administration (one of the few who did decide to resign) told me that both Pence and Pompeo “have convinced themselves that they are in a biblical moment.” All of the things they care about—outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, and (though this is never said out loud) maintaining a white majority in America—are under threat. Time is growing short. They believe that “we are approaching the Rapture, and this is a moment of deep religious significance.” Barr, in a speech at Notre Dame, has also described his belief that “militant secularists” are destroying America, that “irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith.” Whatever evil Trump does, whatever he damages or destroys, at least he enables Barr, Pence, and Pompeo to save America from a far worse fate. If you are convinced we are living in the End Times, then anything the president does can be forgiven.

She returns to this theme later in the essay, lamenting that her trio believe “that God had chosen them to play special roles in this ‘biblical moment.’” The evidence that two of the three believe we are in or near the End Times is the say-so of her source, whose knowledge could be based on a misconstrued remark, speculation, or religious prejudice. Even that thin evidence doesn’t apply to Barr (who is, by the way, Catholic). No evidence is produced, either, that any of the three has an undeclared but driving desire for a white majority.

I guess if you are convinced the issues at stake are important enough, then any slander can be forgiven.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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