Sometimes things get clearer with distance; step away from a pointillist painting, and what appeared as chaos begins to take shape.
Since moving to this country – a country I’ve known and written about for years, a country from which my journalist father barely escaped with his life after the Communist putsch of 1948 – I feel I see the political situation in the US with a new clarity.
It’s not a pretty picture. In fact, seen through the lens of what happened here 70 years ago, it’s so disturbing that I’ve spent months arguing with it. Historical analogies are notoriously tricky, I’ve told myself, and the United States in 2019 is light years removed from Czechoslovakia in 1948. It hasn’t worked: though the differences are real, the parallels between the Moscow-orchestrated takeover of Czechoslovakia’s democratic government in the late 40’s and the Trump administration’s actions today are impossible to ignore.
If there’s one thing history has taught us, it’s that democracies don’t die accidentally – there’s a process. In 1946 and ’47, the build-up to the Communist coup followed a process, a protocol. In the United States today, a revolutionary party supported by a minority of the populace is rapidly undermining democratic institutions and norms by following what we might call the protocol of subversion.
That protocol takes as its foundational principle a strategy perhaps best expressed by Lenin: “We have to use any ruse, dodge, trick, cunning, unlawful method, concealment and veiling of the truth,” to achieve our purpose. Used ruthlessly enough, this willingness to do anything constitutes a kind of tool – a tool perfectly designed, it turns out, to unlock democracy’s safeguards.
In 1948, as we know, the Czech Communists employed that tool brilliantly. Running on the fiction that they represented “the will of the people,” they went to work: Facts were distorted or brazenly contradicted, critics demonized as elitists, subversives, “traitors to the nation.” The lie ruled the day. And it worked. In 1946, 38% of the population (curiously the exact equivalent of Donald Trump’s approval rating today) supported the Communists; hundreds of thousands crowded Wenceslas square, cheering wildly, believing the Communist’s promise to “clean up political life.”
They cleaned it up, all right. Following the protocol, they blustered and lied and reversed themselves as necessary, all the while quietly stacking government positions with like-minded loyalists. When the constitution got in the way, they simply went around it, except when it suited their purposes. This tactic of turning the law into a partisan weapon by holding the other party to rules you yourself ignored assured that the battle would be fought on unequal ground. And so it was. The democrats, nobly observing the Marquess of Queensberry rules in a cage match, went down in defeat, bearing out Engels’ observation that “the parties of order . . . die by the legal state which they created.”
The end was swift. Having dismantled a vibrant, successful democracy brick by brick, the Communists took control. It wasn’t difficult. With thousands of loyalists in government offices and the free press under control, there were no defenses left. The constitution, without elected representatives willing to uphold it, was just words on paper. The Communist Minister of Justice, Alexei Cepicka, made the situation clear: “Yes, I admit it. I will violate the law as often as political interests demand it.”
Of one thing I’m certain: What’s happening in the United States today is not the result of some random gathering of opportunists and liars, though our president may well be both. Nor do I completely believe the image of blundering incompetence; crudity itself can be a tactic. There’s a chess game going on; behind the smokescreen of tweets, moves are being made. Those moves look familiar. Orchestrated by the president and his enablers, furthered by collaborationists in Congress (how, precisely, is Mitch McConnell different from Alexej Cepicka?), we’re watching something very much like a mid-20th century, Soviet-style putsch unfolding in slow motion. To what extent it will succeed is anyone’s guess.
To start connecting the dots, recall Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who identified himself to Mother Jones as a Leninist, then denied he’d said it. Lenin, Bannon was quoted as saying, “wanted to destroy the State, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
If there’s something frankly unbelievable about the elite ex-banker playing Lenin in the administration’s reality show, that’s good for him and bad for us. Because we need to believe him. Because he and his fellow subversives are hiding their intentions in plain sight. Because two years in, despite a conga line of outrages that would have buried any previous president, Trump is not just holding on, he’s running the table.
Don’t believe it? Consider the administration’s methodical attack on our democratic institutions, its strategy of confusion and division, its redefinition of the truth as a partisan fiction. Consider its promotion of the culture of grievance – the useful fiction that it and its followers, the real Americans, are under attack.
Now add the runaway cronyism, the equating of dissent with treason, the policy of stacking government posts with latter-day apparatchiks, the bulk of them incompetents notable solely for their willingness to dismantle the departments they’ve been appointed to lead. Consider the administration’s policy of blaming the opposition for whatever crime it’s guilty of, much as the Communists, after their failed attempt to assassinate Minister Masaryk in September,1947, blamed the democrats for orchestrating the attack “for propaganda purposes.” Consider, finally, the spirit of this rogue administration as a whole, and what becomes clear is that it’s all forward momentum, aggression, attack.
Which leaves us amazingly vulnerable: high on outrage and weak on enforcement. The American system of government, to a degree we’re quickly beginning to appreciate, has long run on precedent and protocol. Which was just fine until we ran into a regime willing to ignore both, at which point we woke up to the fact that precedent and protocol are all gums and no teeth.
Faced with a president and a party willing to do whatever it takes – to re-frame Congressional subpoenas as partisan attacks, for example – the party of order is reduced to sputtering, “But you can’t do that!” Which doesn’t get you terribly far.
What was that Lenin line about using any tactic available? What could be more classically Leninist than to claim, as Trump recently did, that the legal investigation of his criminality constituted an “attempted coup,” thus simultaneously tarring the opposition with his own crime and justifying whatever extreme measures he might need to adopt in the future, including, I suspect, framing a lost election as a stolen one.
We know where this leads. In Czechoslovakia, it led to thirty years of totalitarian darkness. In the United States today, though its size and heterogeneity, the robustness of its press and the autonomy of the states are factors highly in its favor, the place it could take us to is very nearly unimaginable.
Which leaves the rest of us to see the shape in the chaos, and hold the line as best we can.
published: 15. 5. 2019