In 1933, shortly after Hitler assumed power in Germany, a Norwegian army officer, Vidkun Quisling, founded Norway’s very own fascist party, the National Union. More than six years later, in the closing days of 1939, with the Second World War now underway and Nazi armies rampaging in Europe, Quisling met with the German Führer and urged him to occupy Norway. Hitler, riding high at the time and wanting to secure a presence in Norway before the British did, promptly obliged, and installed Quisling to head a puppet government.
As a result, throughout Europe, and then the broader world, the name “Quisling” became a noun, linguistic shorthand for something unspeakably grubby, opportunistic, and cruel.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a Quisling as a “traitor” or a “collaborator.” But, perhaps, it is the synonyms the dictionary lists underneath that are more telling: “apostate, backstabber, betrayer, double-crosser, double-dealer, Judas, recreant, serpent, snake, traitor, turncoat.”
This week, the president of the United States – a man who publicly asked Russia to hack Clinton’s emails in 2016, and benefitted mightily from a range of other Russian interventions in his first election campaign — essentially invited foreign governments, spy agencies, and freelance provocateurs to feed him dirt on his domestic political opponents in his second campaign.
He wouldn’t, Trump told ABC News, necessarily contact the FBI or other law enforcement agencies if he and his team were approached by overseas governments and their agents with material that would secure him partisan political advantage.
This from the man who now routinely accuses those who investigated his 2016 campaign’s Russia connections of being “traitors.” Who called for Clinton to be locked up for endangering national security by using a personal email account to conduct government business. Who is pushing the Justice Department to set in motion show trials against political opponents, law enforcement investigators, even ex-intelligence community leaders-now-TV pundits such as James Clapper. Who wraps himself in the flag and parrots ugly nationalist platitudes as shamelessly as any mid-century, mittel-European demagogue. Who has, at various times, used fire-and-brimstone apocalyptic rhetoric to promise to entirely destroy both Iran and North Korea if their leaders dare to threaten or insult the United States. Who appointed the fanatic Kris Kobach to investigate a supposed epidemic of voter fraud committed by “illegals.” Who has aggressively pushed a “citizenship question,” squarely aimed at intimidating immigrants away from participating, onto the 2020 census, supposedly, absurdly, as a way to uphold the Voting Rights Act. Who has put children into cages, and declared a national emergency, as a way to “secure” the country’s southern borders.
This homunculus, who claims to be the great defender both of the integrity of the nation and of its democratic institutions, is an utter fraud. The ABC interview simply pulls back the curtain even more on what should, by now, be plain viewing: It’s always been all-about-Trump, all about grifting and conning, cheating and lying his way to personal wealth and power. And if overseas governments want to get in on the act, so much the better for him.
In normal times, Senators and members of Congress from both great political parties would have lined up to condemn such remarks. It’s hard to imagine any other presidency surviving such a malicious action, such an invitation, by the Commander-in-Chief, to undermine the democratic institutions and tenets of the country. It’s hard to fathom any other president saying this without his senior cabinet members resigning in disgust.
Surely a runaway, rogue, president, a toxic, criminally-disposed leader, a man who cannot distinguish between his personal interests and the interests of the state, are what the impeachment process, or the 25thAmendment, were carefully crafted to prevent.
Yet Trump says this stuff, he blathers on in his crude, egomaniacal Made-Man way, seemingly without consequence. Perhaps his most durable political accomplishment has been to unleash an era of shamelessness. An era where anything goes, and where, on a daily basis, the bar for acceptable presidential behavior is deliberately lowered. Where the most appalling rending of the democratic and cultural fabric is simply viewed as acceptable collateral damage in a take-no-prisoners moment; or, perhaps worse, as just an entertainment spectacle.
In Trump’s reality-TV mindset, one can say and do the most unethical things because it’s all just a game, just a part of the endless chase for ratings. He has turned the governance of the world’s most powerful country into a 24/7 Jerry Springer show. The long-term consequences can’t be seen by the camera, and thus, in such a calculus, they don’t count, arguably don’t even exist.
Trump’s cabinet continues to back him. The GOP congressional leaders, as they do after each outrage spewed forth from Number 45’s vulgar mouth, utter milquetoast condemnations and then immediately return to the serious business of confirming conservative judges, deregulating the economy, the environment, the workspace, and passing punitive anti-abortion laws in the hopes of prodding the Supreme Court into overturning Roe vs Wade. And about four in ten voters continue to regard Trump as something akin to the Second Coming of Christ, a Messianic figure who can, in their eyes, do no wrong.
The result is such a vast corrosion of the political culture that, day by day, the memory of a more elevated tone in governance simply melts away. Was there really a moment when the president retweeting doctored images of the House Speaker, intended to make her look drunk, would have raised eyebrows? Was there really a period when the president tweeting about the Prince of Whales would have drawn howls of outrage across the political spectrum at the sheer inanity of a man who can mistake a big maritime mammal for a country? Was there really a time in American politics when the Quisling comments of a debased and odious leader would have resulted in good men and women of all political stripes coming together to say “No More”?
The answer, of course, is there was. And, I believe, that in due course there will be again. Men of Trump’s ilk can only ride the waves of power for so long. They do their damage, but eventually they get thrown, and, when they do, they fall peculiarly hard. They find then, in the senescence of their rule, that their friends, both domestic and foreign, are only fair-weather, their “achievements” as insignificant as sand-castles at high tide.
Seventy-nine years after Quisling sought out foreign intervention to smooth his rise to power, his name is still hurled as an epithet. Perhaps, far down the road from now, as the children of the twenty-second century go to school, they will be taught that Trumps are entirely dishonorable creatures; that to be called “A Trump” is the most demeaning of insults. Maybe, too, Merriam-Webster will publish a list of synonyms: “A bore, a narcissist, an ego-maniac, a fool, a cheat, a felon, a purveyor of falsehoods, an opportunist, a sadist, a man who somehow lost his soul.”
— Sasha Abramsky