Opinion | What Would Sartre Think About Trump-Era Republicans?
Rather like old films about wartime France — “Casablanca,” “Army of Shadows” — we tend to cast the words “collaboration” and “resistance” in black and white. The French obeyed a simple moral algorithm, we assume, one that assigned convictions, conduct and consequences to one of these two categories. This is especially true for the notion of collaboration. Ever since the short and squalid life of the Vichy regime, collaboration — and, for that matter, the reputation of the picturesque spa town where the pro-Nazi puppet regime squatted between 1940 and 1944 — has never recovered its original luster. Rather than working with others in pursuit of a common goal, collaboration now means the active betrayal of one’s country on behalf of a foreign power.
It was, no doubt, this idea of collaboration that the filmmaker Ken Burns had in mind when, in 2016, he coined the term “Vichy Republican.” With the phrase, Mr. Burns pointed an accusing finger at those politicians who, during their party’s presidential primaries, decided to work with rather than condemn then-candidate Donald Trump.
Three years later, Mr. Burns’s phrase seems prescient. With few exceptions, Republican lawmakers have accepted, if not always applauded, the gamut of morally disastrous and legally dubious acts pursued by their president. Even following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, Republicans have mostly refused to denounce or distance themselves from the president’s racist utterances and tweets.
Never, it seems, has the aroma of vichyssoise in our country been so thick. But historians of Vichy France suggest that collaboration is a problematic term. It tends to obscure — or, worse yet, judge — the actions and events it is meant to describe. The word is too broad in scope and too burdened by history to reflect the complex experience of everyday life in an occupied country. Leading Vichy specialists like Philippe Burrin instead write about “accommodation.” Unlike the either/or character of collaboration, accommodation conveys the many shades of a relationship between the occupier and the occupied. Brought to the present, it provides a more nuanced — though not exculpatory — explanation for the behavior of so many Republicans in the Trump era.
“Accommodation” underscores the simple fact that whereas one chooses to collaborate, one does not at first choose to accommodate. In 1940, a mere handful of French either went abroad or went underground with the arrival of the Germans. As for the remaining 40 million or so, they had no choice — at least if they wished to survive — but to accommodate themselves to the reality of German rule. Unable or unwilling to tear themselves away from everything they knew, they unhappily subjected themselves to a world of unfamiliar constraints. “How could they,” Mr. Burrin wonders, “have avoided doing so?”
Does “accommodation” provide a better way to understand our own Vichy Republicans? Their situation is uncannily similar to that of the Vichy French. As any decently connected Washington reporter will tell you, many Republicans do not like having Mr. Trump in charge of their party, and will say so in private. But their political identity as Republicans runs at a level almost as deep as their national identity as Americans. Most Republican politicians could no more tear themselves away from the world that had formed and informed them than could the wartime French from their world. As Peter Wehner, a Times opinion writer and one-time Republican stalwart, observed: “The G.O.P. had been my political home since college, a party I was once proud to be part of, and a source of cherished relationships. Part of my identity was undoubtedly shaped by my party affiliation.” Those who have stayed in the party have had to accommodate themselves to the reality of Trump rule.
Accommodation means different things to different people in different contexts. And, far from being a static relationship, accommodation is a dynamic that is punctuated with choice, and thus demands constant attention. Jean-Paul Sartre, who himself made certain accommodations with the Vichy, captured this truth with the paradoxical claim that the French were never freer than they were under the Occupation. Making the wrong choice, or making no choice, could draw you closer to collaboration. For this reason, Mr. Burrin observes, the French had to calculate their concessions as precisely as possible, abstain from anticipating the occupier’s demands and adopt policies that committed their country’s future.
Inevitably, while some struggled not to slide down this slippery slope, others threw themselves down headfirst. Some made as few concessions as possible while others made as many concessions as the desire for either personal convictions, personal advancement or personal revenge required. Some held their noses while others held out their hands in welcome.
This observation applies with equal force to Vichy Republicans. Those who, like Mr. Wehner, chose not to quit the party with Trump’s arrival, condemned themselves to a different calculus of choice. A few have loudly condemned him. Others might laud the president in public while undermining him in private, while still others might see the president and his agenda as a vehicle they can steer toward a better purpose. And of course, many have embraced him in full.
Some of these choices are easy to condemn outright, but the moral wisdom or failure of others will only become apparent only in the rear view mirror of history. Some know they are making a deal with the devil — but others, feeling hemmed in, surely believe they are making the best of a bad situation.
That’s not to let them off the hook, of course. Especially in the wake of events in El Paso and Dayton, these lawmakers have never been as free as they are now. As they consider their choices, they might keep in mind Mr. Burrin’s words, written a half-century after the war, about the costs of certain choices made under Vichy France: “The occupation inflicted wounds not so much physical as moral and political — wounds that have still not fully healed.”
Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and is author, most recently, of “Catherine and Diderot: An Empress, A Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment.”
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