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Krushchev denounced Stalin. McConnell denounced Trump. Will we see a period of de-Trumpization?

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One of the most famous moments in the modern history of the former Soviet Union occurred in 1956, when then-Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev bitterly denounced Joseph Stalin’s excesses, especially his mass purges, and for fostering a “cult of personality.” This “cult,”explains the Stanford University political scientist Jan Plamper, consisted of “the systematic elevation of one person”—Stalin—such that “He, and only he, embodied the endpoint of the utopian timeline.”

During Krushchev’s secret speech to the Politburo, the other delegates “heard him in almost complete silence, broken only by astonished murmurs. The delegates did not dare even to look at each other as the party secretary piled one horrifying accusation on another for four solid hours. At the end there was no applause and the audience left in a state of shock.” History records that Stalin’s distant successor, Vladimir Putin, is in the process of “rehabilitating” Stalin, as Russia slides further into autocracy.

We can see the recent exit of Donald Trump from the American political stage as uncannily similar to Stalin’s exit from it when he died, in 1953. Just as the Soviet Union, and then Russia, had to cope with the fallout from Stalin’s murderous thirty-year rule and from Krushchev’s denunciation, so too are U.S. Republicans struggling to understand Trump’s continuing impact. As we see that party divided between (let’s say) the more moderate, anti-Trump Romney/McConnell faction and the radical pro-Trump Taylor Green/Lindsay Graham faction, we can learn by looking at how the Soviet Union coped in the years following de-Stalinization. In general, that period can be said to consist of two eras: (1), almost total ignorance of Stalin’s crimes by the Russian people themselves, and (2) a gradual realization of the destruction he caused, causing a reassessment of what most people had formerly believed. As Andrei Gromyko, the former Foreign Minister and President of the Soviet Union, remarks in his book, Memoirs, such a reassessment “must be objective, impartial and, given the crimes involved, merciless.”

It’s not easy for people who belonged to “cults” to objectively and impartially scrutinize the cult leaders, since this requires self-scrutiny, which is hard for all of us. In Stalin’s case, as the example of Putin shows, the re-interpretation of Stalin and Stalinism is a never-ending evolution, now utterly rebuking the dictator, now conceding that, maybe, he did more good than harm. Here in America, historians and the general public constantly refocus the lens through which they see former Presidents. Harry Truman, reviled when he left office in 1953, has since been “rehabilitated” as a near-great leader. So what of Trump?

Following the catastrophe of Jan. 6, Trump has been deservedly viewed as a dangerous menace, unfit to hold future office, and possibly (probably?) deserving of jail time. McConnell’s tirade against him, which he delivered on the Senate Floor on Feb. 12, 2021, is analogous to Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, 65 years previously. Analogous, too, was the reaction of the Republicans who heard him: they listened ”in almost complete silence,” and at the end of McConnell’s broadside,  “there was no applause and the audience [Republicans] left in a state of shock.”

Both Krushchev and McConnell were leaders in their countries (Krushchev No. 1, McConnell the leader of Republicans in the Senate). Both men were praised for a certain courage in speaking truth to power. Both men were “merciless” in their analyses. “Former President Trump’s actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said, in words that pleased the tens of millions of Americans who had already reached that conclusion.

But will the U.S. now see a period of “de-Trumpization,” as the Soviet Union witnessed de-Stalinization”? It seems far less likely. In Russia, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when de-Stalinization was at its height as more or less official Politburo policy, it was easy to compel the mass of the populace to think in a certain way. Russia, after all, was a dictatorship, a one-party authoritarian state with state-run media. The U.S. is far different. We are not yet an authoritarian state (although Trump did his best to turn us into one). We do not have state-run media (although during Trump’s four-year reign, Fox News came close). And Americans, as a people, are far more used to independent thinking that were Russians, who for a millennium had lived in a closed society, only barely removed from feudalism. It is much harder to convince a majority of Americans about anything, especially those who subscribe to cult-like thinking.

Again, look at Plamper’s characterization of “cults of personality:” “the systematic elevation of one person” such that “He, and only he, embodied the endpoint of the utopian timeline.” In the cult wing of the Republican Party, we still see people elevating Trump as the one individual who will achieve their utopian timeline. Granted that that is nowhere near an absolute majority of the American people: Perhaps 40% of Americans are Republican, and perhaps 60% of those can be described as Trump cultists—delusionaries who believe the election was rigged. Still, that’s a lot of people. Like the deadenders who refused to go along with Krushchev in denouncing Stalin, they will never be persuaded their former leader was and is a crook, a menace, a sociopathic danger. The difference is that, in Russia, for decades the pro-Stalinists had to keep in the shadows; speaking out would have exposed them to risk and ridicule. This is not the case with the pro-Trumpers. Far from feeling inhibited, they’ve been emboldened—by Jan. 6, by the Impeachment acquittal, by the behavior of top Republicans like McCarthy, Hawley and Graham to kiss the ring of the disgraced ex-president in exile at Mar-a-Lago. What do we do with those people?

In my view, nothing. Let them stew. Let them howl. Let them hurl their lies on social media (and continue to be banned). Let them wear their little MAGA hats and join their militias (which are being systematically infiltrated and dismantled by a reinvigorated FBI). Let them live in their caves, like the Japanese soldiers on their Pacific atolls after World War II—fantasts who refused to believe they had lost the struggle, who believed their Emperor would lead them once again to victory. Those old Japanese soldiers lost their minds, went quietly crazy in their jungles, and eventually died. The same will happen to the pro-Trump Republicans. We needn’t bother with them. We needn’t reach out to them—they’re beyond reasoning with anyway. The truth is, they simply don’t matter.

  1. jack saunders says:

    There is a theory of difference between Stalin and Trump — that while Stalin used the people, here the people used (even created) Trump. Trump may have seemed to sorta get the populist rabble rouser role, I don’t believe he ever fully understood how “illiberal democracy” would work. A smoother, more serious thinker, like Tom Cotton, might pull it off.

  2. Thanks Jack for your comment. I know almost nothing about Cotton. But I can see where these republicans are trying to push America. And IMHO it has to be resisted.

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