At a time when precise language has gone missing from the White House, how best to describe those loyal Republicans still dancing with the guy who brung them? You know, Jewish-Americans like economics guru Gary Cohn, who was reportedly “disgusted” with Trump’s smarmy apology for neo-Nazism and other anti-Semitism, but stood by like window dressing while the venom was spewed. Political-Americans like Paul Ryan, who expressed his outrage vehemently but failed to mention the name of the Outrager-in-Chief. Female-Americans like his adviser/daughter Ivanka, who … well, you get the point. Among the descriptors of these equally soulless souls: Pragmatists. Jellyfish. Enablers. Family.
I’ve got a better one. Collaborators.
The word — literally, “work together” — was corrupted more than half a century ago by French citizens who helped facilitate real Nazi atrocities thanks to a deal cut with Adolf Hitler. By insisting his countrymen tread “the path of collaboration” with the German invaders, the French leader, Marshal Pétain, turned the term into a death sentence. Thousands were executed after the war, many more publicly humiliated and stripped of their rights. Be careful who you work with.
Today, capital punishment may be unrealistic but the corruption remains. Our collaborators serve in Congress and the cabinet.
The connection struck me repeatedly this summer as I binge-watched six seasons of an addictive TV series called Un Village Français, a deep dive into the human condition during World War II. Starting with the German occupation of France in 1940, through Liberation in 1944 and its aftermath a year later, it peels back the layers of the complex lives of fictional French villagers as they variously try to repel, understand, cope with and all-too-frequently collaborate with the indignities forced upon them. How come? Because some thought they had to. Because they wanted to live. To love. And because some liked the perks and power that followed. It’s a midcentury soap opera about ordinary people dealing with dire consequences, a searing lens on our complex reactions to war and its extended fallout in a social community.
Specifically, why we sometimes go along to get along.
To be clear: I do not equate Trump with Hitler, despite his disturbing embrace of the Charlottesville thugs and his “many sides” blather about bigotry. Nor do I think Washington is Vichy, France, where Pétain, the onetime war hero, presided over the deal that imposed the devil on a weary and defeated nation. His stated goal was peace, with an eye to improving the French future — to make France, you might say, great again. Some 75,000 Jews, along with other innocents, would be sacrificed for that bounty.
No, that’s not us, at least not now.
Our devilish bargain arose from a democratically conducted election, and the delusional notion, held by a minority, that a blowhard narcissist ignorant of both history and truth might be the great white hope for fame, fortune and a big fat tax cut. With heartbreaking exceptions, like the murder of Heather Heyer, our war confronts civil life, not life and death. Within that context, the parallels are enlightening.
In the TV series, an apolitical businessman whose only goal is to outlast the occupation (and increase his holdings) agrees to supply the Wehrmacht with lumber. The pressure to collaborate is assuaged by profits, along with special privileges, like passes to cross barricaded lines.
Compare members of the president’s two business advisory councils, who voluntarily gilded the White House with their C-Suite prestige despite the acknowledged sexism, racism and lies of its current occupant. Notwithstanding one or two early escapees, most of the CEOs only gave up their privileged Oval access when the pressure inflated by the latest outburst seemed to challenge the bottom line.
Do not confuse corporate captains with Captains Courageous.
In the TV Village, called Villeneuve, compromises creep up incrementally and keep the community going: a vial of morphine to secure a housekeeper’s papers. A roll in the hay for extra rations. Actually, those sexual encounters fuel much of the narrative and the tension. As I said, it’s melodrama, accurately reflecting history. And it’s France. More importantly, it’s about human beings, some of whom don’t confuse body parts with national politics. Spoiler alert: The mayor’s wife leaves him for the German torturer-in-chief. The lead French detective, who vigorously follows orders to round up Jews for deportation and extermination in Nazi death camps, falls in love with a Jewish woman. Each sells part of his or her soul for the passion.
One wonders about the romance of selling out for Trump.
And then there’s The List, the incident that brings home the true anguish of misguided alliance.
Villeneuve’s mayor (a dedicated physician named Larcher) and the subprefect (an administrative functionary named, appropriately, Servier) learn that 20 townspeople will be shot dead — payback for the murder of a German officer. After convincing the German commander to reduce the number by half, Servier volunteers to choose the names themselves. Larcher is aghast, and tells Servier, correctly, “We’ll never be forgiven for what we’re doing.” Servier, ever the pragmatist, replies, “We’re saving the lives of 10 people.”
Collaboration or salvation? That’s the dilemma, a moral choice of such unimaginable magnitude it cannot be dissected in normal terms.
“I’m a civil servant,” Servier explains bureaucratically during the inevitable trial several years later. “I obeyed and I did what I could.”
Larcher, the former mayor, is more circumspect.
“I wanted to limit the evil, but in reality I helped it,” he confesses. “But I’m neither a traitor nor a monster nor a manipulator. Just a man. A man who may have been a little mistaken about himself.”
One wonders if today’s collaborators — the men and women who daily support and report to a pathological liar, and who cherry-pick their issues in a colossal arrogance of self-interest – could ever show the same self-awareness.
As the TV series makes clear, life’s complications can seem unbearable; war is worse than hell; daily decisions loom gray, not black and white. In the tiny French village, good people do bad things and some collaborators join the Resistance. Anti-fascist Communists bungle their assignments. Resistance fighters squabble like children. Jews elbow each other for survival. Moral conflicts bow to the need for food and freedom.
Before they go to trial, Larcher asks Servier about The List: “Do you really think we were doing our duty that day?” Servier’s answer defines the problem: “In crisis situations,” he says, “the hard thing isn’t doing your duty, it’s identifying it.”
We are far beyond identifying the toxicity of the Trump presidency. We are mired too deep to excuse the silence of complicity. Or, as the witty Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri puts it, we probably don’t recognize their collaboration for what it is: “Silence sells hats, I guess.”
I said earlier that today’s enablers aren’t necessarily life-threatening, the way the blessedly short-lived Nazi victory in World War II was. They do, however, imperil our planet, our future, our sanity. Un Village Français is a riveting reminder of their imminent danger, to our world if not ourselves.
I asked the scriptwriter, Frédéric Krivine, why the court sent Servier to his death but finally pardoned Larcher, by then a broken man. “That’s life,” he told me by telephone, as only a Frenchman could. “These things happen.” But, he added, both of their fates “showed that collaboration was a dead end. It’s a path on which you cannot win.”
If only someone running our government read history. Or even read.