Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain upon his return from the Munich Conference. Photo from londonremembers.com

 

… I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat

A total and unmitigated defeat. Note to Donald Trump: that means not winning.

These words were not spoken by talking heads in the aftermath of the debacle in Helsinki on July 16. But they should have. In fact, they were uttered 80 years ago in the House of Commons by Winston Churchill.

The appalling spectacle of Donald Trump and his lapdog performance in the Finnish capital as he gave deference to a KGB Colonel who orders the murders of journalists, evoked memories of another time that now, more than ever, should not be forgotten.

In October 1938, Winston Churchill rose in the Commons to denounce what he saw as the appeasement of a dictator intent on extending his reach in Europe. The appeasement Churchill warned about was performed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who flew to Munich to meet with Adolf Hitler and wound up giving away a portion of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain had no problem trusting a dictator, choosing neutrality “because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

The appalling Helsinki spectacle was made even more appalling because just before his meeting with Putin, Trump chose to disparage the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom while also continuing to question the usefulness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a bulwark against renewed Russian expansion in Europe.

Unlike Churchill, who knew that western democracies have no moral equivalence to a totalitarian state, Trump does not. In an editorial, The New York Times made a telling observation about a president who, instead of affirming his oath to preserve, protect, and defend our nation, stoops to bring this country to an equivalence status with the successor of the former Soviet Union:

A reporter referred to last week’s indictments of 12 Russian military officials for a coordinated cyberattack on the 2016 election and asked Mr. Trump if he held Russia responsible. “I hold both countries responsible,” Mr. Trump said.

Even in a presidency replete with self-defeating moments for the United States, Mr. Trump’s comments on Monday, which were broadcast live around the world, stand out.

The meeting between Putin and Trump at Helsinki. Photo from BBC.

Trump’s attacks on leaders of allied nations, particularly those who are NATO members, serve the purpose of wrecking an alliance designed to keep the Russian bear contained. They also reduce the threat of seeing the old Soviet Union resurrected through reincorporation of the former Soviet Baltic republics, along with Georgia and Ukraine, two countries invaded by Russia during Putin’s reign. As a result, seven decades of unquestioned American political and military leadership is now very much in question.

Which gets us back to that time fourscore years ago.

Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was proven wrong when Hitler later took all of Czechoslovakia six months after the Munich Agreement. At the time, Churchill observed that his country had a choice between shame and war, but choosing shame would bring war.

There is a sense of shame in this country in the wake of Trump’s seeming appeasement of Putin on not calling for additional economic sanctions to bolster those put in place in 2014 as a response to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. But it is worse than that, as Americans see Trump’s actions as much more than shameful. In fact, the impeachment word among Americans is now being used at levels not seen since 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee convened to consider articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon.

All of this lack of winning through attacking our friends and appeasing Putin is having a corrosive effect. Indeed, the punditocracy has advised that we are in a “national security crisis,” as Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia termed it, and a “national emergency,” as presidential historian Michael Beschloss described the White House turmoil.

As we head toward mid-term elections in a few months, a sense of unease is spreading across the land.

There is no doubt that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat on the world stage, with the whole world, and particularly our allies, watching American exceptionalism morph into an unstable state of American awfulism.

Regardless of what happens in the short term, there is no Churchill-type waiting in the wings or anywhere else in the current presidential line of succession that might reassure the nation. Moreover, as far as the stature of Vice President Mike Pence is concerned, we are reminded of the remarks made in 1988 by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, in his debate with the future Vice President, Indiana Senator Dan Quayle.

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

It is not encouraging to realize that Mike Pence and Dan Quayle, the most one-dimensional and blandest of recent vice presidents, are both from Indiana. However, it is gratifying to know that another Hoosier, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who succeeded Quayle in the Senate, issued a rebuke to Trump after his Helsinki statements and affirmed the intelligence community’s findings of Russian interference.

As the nation tends to the wounds inflicted by its own president through his abysmal performance and appeasement of Putin, we are still vexed by the ghost of Neville Chamberlain and his failure to engage the aggressive Hitler, now coupled with the spectre of Trump and his support for Putin’s aggressive denials about the attacks on our democratic system. In the space of just one week, Trump’s colluders in the House slimed a career FBI counterintelligence officer, while in Helsinki Trump continued the assault on the career professionals of our own intelligence agencies, instead of giving deference to Putin’s GRU and KGB.

Eyes are now shifting to discern the capacity of Mike Pence in the event that Trump is somehow removed from office. But even tailors will have difficulty measuring the capacity and fit of the empty suit from Indiana.

Perhaps it will be a matter of time when a wag, pondering the inadequacies of Trump’s No. 2,  will say something like … I know Dan Quayle, I served with Dan Quayle, and Mr. Vice President, you’re no Dan Quayle.

How dreadful a thought, and how dreadful the Hobson’s choice we will soon face.

As we continue to dwell on our total and unmitigated defeat, we must also be reminded about the close of the speech Churchill delivered to the Commons in 1938 about the disastrous Munich Conference.

And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning.

How dreadful a thought. Yes, it’s 2018. But to some of us, it feels like 1938.

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