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Trumpism after Trump

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In the cold Moscow winter of 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his now-famous “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—the nation’s highest legislative gathering, similar to a Joint Session of the American Congress.

In a multi-hour tirade, Khrushchev angrily denounced the policies and practices of his predecessor, Josef Stalin (who had died three years previously). Stalin had been, of course, the leader of the Soviet Union for thirty years, the “Stalin the Great” (in Churchill’s words) who led his nation to victory in World War II, and whose policies of “Stalinization” had transformed the Soviet Union into a totalitarian dictatorship.

Khrushchev “denounced Stalin’s ‘personality cult,’ the party purges of the 1930s” and other practices, and he “accused Stalin of negligence, incompetence, and deceit…Stalin and his regime were criminal.” This was the launching of the “De-Stalinization” movement in the Soviet Union.” It led, in the immediate aftermath, to the arrest (and execution) of many of Stalin’s enablers, the dismantling of Stalin’s arbitrary and incoherent policies and, in the long run, to the demise of the Soviet Union itself, in 1991.

Ironically, Khrushchev’s De-Stalinization speech caught pro-Stalinists by surprise, especially in Eastern Europe, the “Iron Curtain” countries that had been overrun by Soviet armies following the defeat of Nazi Germany. The then-leaders of Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and the Baltic countries were “more Stalin than Stalin,” and were caught completely off-guard by Moscow’s abrupt volte-face. Eventually, of course, most of these leaders lost their jobs, if not their lives; and most of their countries are now members of the European Union and NATO.

The concept of De-Stalinization suggests that even the most authoritarian and successful national leader can have the tables turned, as historical perceptions in the political court of public opinion shift. From this example, we can envision a scenario in which a De-Trumpization movement in the U.S. emerges from the wreckage of his administration. Such a movement would have to arise from within the Republican Party itself, just as De-Stalinization had to come from within the Communist Party.

The exact causes of De-Stalinization have long been debated, as have been Stalin’s excesses themselves. Was Stalin the inevitable product of a Communist Party ideology that was hopelessly warped and wrong-headed from the start? Or was he a megalomaniac who twisted the premises of a credible Marxist-Leninist political philosophy and turned it into a dysfunctional horror show? Whatever, few doubted that the machine known as Stalinism had become an evil that had to go. With its ahistorical aversion to fact, intolerance of dissent, and with Stalin’s own thin skin, paranoia and vengeful personality, Stalinism had become an anchor on the Soviet Union and its client states, not the progressive engine its backers claimed and hoped it to be. Smart Communists understood that they could salvage Communism itself only by overthrowing the chief Communist. It wasn’t that they wanted to embrace British- or American-style capitalism. Far from it. They wished to preserve the classic Marxist-Leninist tenets of Russia’s 1917 Revolution. But it needed to be done without the perversion of Stalin.

The modern Republican Party is in much the same position as was the Soviet Communist Party in the years immediately prior to Khrushchev’s secret speech. In the halls of the Republican caucuses in the Congress, as in the halls of the Kremlin in the early and mid-1950s, party members recognize the short-comings of their leader. They understand that he presents a danger to the country, and that the longer he remains in office—and the longer they keep their mouths shut and fail to restrain him—the greater that danger grows.

The problem for both groups of politicians—Russian Communists then and Republicans now—was how to put the brakes on their leader without him, in turn, putting the brakes on them; and when, and how, to explain what they had done to the rank-and-file—the “base”—which might not understand. After all, the base had been conditioned, through continuous propaganda, to view Stalin then (as Trump now) as the indispensable man, from whom all good things emerged, and who protected them from all bad things, both within and without.

As it turned out, Khrushchev skillfully manipulated his politics, and remained as Soviet Premier for eight more years. Following his overthrow, in 1964, it’s true that the Soviet Union went through a period of retrenchment, with a renewed, milder form of Stalinism re-emerging, especially during the Brezhnev era (1965-1982). But the die had been cast: Gorbachev famously completed the process of De-Stalinization, with his policies of perestroika and glasnost that brought greater openness and political freedom, less repression and more market capitalism to the Soviet Union. (There is today some debate among historians concerning whether Vladimir Putin represents a return to a repressive, “Stalinist” form of authoritarianism in Russia, but this is a question that can’t be answered at this stage of history.)

That Trump has Stalinesque tendencies is undeniable. I believe that he is causing intense damage to our nation. Some of his policies might be successful, just as some of any President’s policies may work; but Presidents cannot and should not be judged merely by whether or not some of their objective policies succeed. As important, if not more so, is the moral tone a President imparts to America and, as leader of the Free World, to the planet. In this sense, Khrushchev and the other anti-Stalinists understood the irreparable harm Stalin had caused their country—the Gulags, the disappearance of freedom of the press, the vindictive repression of minorities (especially political minorities), the aggressiveness of his foreign policy, the breakdown of effective democratic opposition, and the way Stalin had caused large parts of the world to hate and fear the Soviet Union. Stalin also, in their eyes, inflicted enormous damage upon Communism itself: the heart and soul of their ideology had been stained by the paranoia and megalomania of a single man.

Republican conservatives, I think, are coming around to a similar understanding concerning Trump. They may like the tax cuts and the elimination of environmental protections. They may like his muscular foreign policy. They will certainly praise him to the skies after North Korea de-nuclearizes (assuming it does). At the same time, in their own “secret sessions,” they decry the pathological lying, the sexual gluttony, the bullying and insults, the vulgarization of the American Presidency, the discarding of facts, the attacks on his own State Department and Justice Department, and on his intelligence community, and the way Trump seems to want to acquire all power in his own hands to institutionalize one-man rule. Around their water coolers, in the privacy of their cloakrooms, Republicans in Congress—like the Communist officials 65 years ago—look for a way to bring about De-Trumpization, without necessarily harming Trump-style conservatism. Whether they determine that this can, or cannot, be done, will form the basis of what they do when, and if, the issue of the continuation of Trump’s presidency arises, as it most surely will.

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