My uncle Anthony Defeo survived the D-Day invasion mostly by luck. His Higgins boat landed on a Normandy beach near a decoy minefield and members of his battalion who made it to the shore were able to climb up the beach into German-occupied territory.
Despite having an Italian immigrant mother — my Nana — who was frequently told by nativist Americans to “go back to where you came from”, Uncle Anthony became a decorated war hero. His contributions helped bring an end to the war and the beginning of western Europe’s alliance with North America in building a framework for long-term global peace.
The lessons embedded in this family history are among the reasons why I recently withdrew my support from US president Donald Trump, whom I briefly served as White House director of communications.
Mr Trump has long derided Nato as “obsolete”. This petulant narcissist also believes that he alone can fix the treaty. Now, depending on his mood swings, it almost seems as if he’s trying to destroy transatlantic understanding. Mr Trump’s bizarre attack on Denmark’s prime minister this week is another inexplicable example of this mission to alienate allies. His remaining supporters in the US government are left trying to paper over and normalise something that is quite far from normal. While the attachment to power can make us all do regrettable things, we cannot allow this man to cause a crisis that could upend the liberal world order — an order that my uncle fought to establish, which has driven global peace and prosperity since the second world war.
I broke with Mr Trump not just because of the corrosive effects of his behaviour on American society, but also because of the dangerous implications of his undermining of global alliances. His nationalist America First agenda is quickly becoming America Alone. The good news is that these machinations are cutting his support among much of the American electorate. We have a chance to undo the damage he’s caused.
The president’s demagoguery requires not loyalty but blind obligation. He turns out to be a real life example of philosopher John Stuart Mill’s definition of despotism: “whatever crushes individuality”.
Mr Trump has created an environment in his administration, and in the Republican party, whereby anyone who works for him must demonstrate complete obeisance. Those audacious enough to tell him a hard truth or offer mild criticism are cast aside, disparaged and made an example of.
Former press secretary Sean Spicer was forced to declare — falsely — that crowds attending Mr Trump’s inauguration were the largest in history. Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel dropped the public use of her maiden name, which she shares with her uncle and Mr Trump’s political rival, the Utah senator Mitt Romney, at the urging of the self-proclaimed “chosen one”.
I fell into a similar trap of sycophancy during my brief time at the White House, scrubbing my Twitter feed of views I expressed that ran counter to Mr Trump’s nationalist agenda. Human impulse leads us to try to please people in charge, especially if that person is the president. Mr Trump has taken advantage of this fact his whole life.
But as he continues to display authoritarian behaviour, more courageous men and women will continue to speak out. The president is a paper tiger who tries to mask his deep insecurities with excessive bluster. He proclaimed the Trump Taj Mahal to be the “eighth wonder of the world”, even though the Atlantic City casino ended up in bankruptcy. I believe that if he faces more honest condemnation, the edifice of sand beneath him will crumble.
While I am contrite over my past support of Mr Trump, I am more concerned about removing him from office. That is why I have set up a political action committee to help defeat him. I draw inspiration from the ancient statesman Pericles, who said: “Those who are politically apathetic can only survive if they are supported by people who are capable of taking action.” The time for ambivalence has passed. We must not betray those ancestors who fought bravely on the beaches of Normandy by allowing this small man to destroy the peace they bled and died for.
We Americans must recognise our duty to lead by example in rooting out the autocratic cancer that is metastasising around the world. To end this scourge, we will need the help of all willing participants. We will need more assured leaders like Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen who are willing to speak truth to power.
While the months ahead will be precarious, I am confident we will succeed in this mission to repair the foundation of lasting peace.
The writer, a former White House communications director, is a managing partner at SkyBridge Capital
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