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OP-ED: It’s inevitable: Donald Trump’s enablers will get rolled by history

Virginia Heffernan
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
President Donald Trump participates in a meeting of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 26, 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

The exit of pundit Chris Matthews from MSNBC, on March 2, was one of the zillion discordant notes drowned out in the deafening cacophony this past spring. But it’s worth another look.

Matthews’ abrupt over-and-out could be a model for how men might quit the he-man wolfpack that defines Trump times.

A few days before he resigned, “The Daily Show” produced a montage of Matthews’ grody history of leering at female journalists. He once joked, with pre-interview cameras rolling, about giving Hillary Clinton a “Bill Cosby pill” — a knockout drug that makes rape easier. And during the primaries, he was shocked that Elizabeth Warren believed a woman’s sexual harassment claims; candidate Michael Bloomberg had, after all, denied them.

All in all, many expected a defensive, crocodile-tears apology from Matthews. Maybe defiance. But that’s not what happened. He said he was sorry but then came his last words: “The younger generations out there are ready to take the reins.”

With that, he was gone.

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Matthews’ sudden white flag came to mind last week in the context of “collaborationism,” a tricky phenomenon recently elucidated by historian Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic. During evil regimes some members of the ruling class collaborate with the madness while others break ranks, become dissidents. Both types have a range of reasons for their actions.

Collaborators may believe they’re accomplishing great things by sucking up to a tyrant. Or they tell themselves they can contain the tyrant by keeping him close.

As for dissidents, Applebaum, citing the resistance in East Germany during the Cold War, said some have an epiphany that ends their tolerance for the big lies. Others fall away in increments, until they find themselves “irrevocably” on the other side of authoritarianism.

And there are also Matthews types. They collaborate and collaborate and collaborate until one day they just give up.

Matthews, long known as a pit bull for male Democrats, was obviously not a collaborator with the Trump regime, but he was in deep with a complementary system: sexism in journalism. He operated as a front man for condescension and misogyny at the least, and harassment at the worst, until the contrast between his behavior with men and women became too stark for the zeitgeist.

Matthews got rolled by history. It hardly seems like heroic dissidence, but sometimes it’s laudable just to pack up your stuff and go.

Applebaum tells the story of an East German border guard, Harald Jaeger. Jaeger ran the passport control unit in East Berlin, which chiefly meant he stopped anyone who tried to breach the Berlin Wall. He was blindly loyal to the East German regime, until Nov. 9, 1989, as the regime’s authority was crumbling of its own dead weight.

Jaeger that night was under his usual orders to “capture and destroy trespassers.” But he did nothing of the kind. Not because he was brave, but rather the opposite: He saw the futility of his position in the faces of throngs of people trying leave East Germany and, in a flash, he got out of the way.

“I didn’t open the wall. The people who stood here, they did it,” said Jaeger in 2014. “Their will was so great, there was no other choice but to open the border.”

Sometimes — maybe even most of the time — a paradigm shift comes not because of bold dissent but because the pressure on the old ways simply becomes too great. Under such conditions, even the most stout-hearted gatekeepers are forced to step aside.

Emulating Matthews’ and Jaeger’s decisions to step aside for history has already shown its worth as a response to George Floyd’s killing and the floodgates it opened. In Bristol, England, for example.

Since the 1990s, objections have been leveled — to little avail — against a public statue memorializing Edward Colston, a slave trader. On June 7, Black Lives Matter protesters hurled the statue into Bristol Bay. Their will was so great, the police wisely stepped aside.

The American people too may be ready to act. On Wednesday, in a Politco/Morning Consult poll, 75% of voters said the country was headed in the wrong direction.

With Trump in the lead.

The president’s enablers, sooner or later, will have to let the inevitable happen. Even the fiercest of the White House collaborators — Sen. Mitch McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr — will one day reach the limits of their loyalty and just go silent on the whole Trump era.

The president is indefensible. He’s facing defeat. The will of the people is too great.