The Republican Party Is Now in Its End StagesRoundup
tags: Communism, Republican Party, Soviet Union
TOM NICHOLS is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of the forthcoming book Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy.
We are living in a time of bad metaphors. Everything is fascism, or socialism; Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Republicans, especially, want their followers to believe that America is on the verge of a dramatic time, a moment of great conflict such as 1968—or perhaps, even worse, 1860. (The drama is the point, of course. No one ever says, “We’re living through 1955.”)
Ironically, the GOP is indeed replicating another political party in another time, but not as the heroes they imagine themselves to be. The Republican Party has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.
I can already hear the howls about invidious comparisons. I do not mean that modern American Republicans are communists. Rather, I mean that the Republicans have entered their own kind of end-stage Bolshevism, as members of a party that is now exhausted by its failures, cynical about its own ideology, authoritarian by reflex, controlled as a personality cult by a failing old man, and looking for new adventures to rejuvenate its fortunes.
No one thinks much about the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, and no one really should. This was a time referred to by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, as the vremya zastoi—“the era of stagnation.” By that point, the Soviet Communist Party was a spent force, and ideological conviction was mostly for chumps and fanatics. A handful of party ideologues and the senior officers of the Soviet military might still have believed in “Marxism-Leninism”—the melding of aspirational communism to one-party dictatorship—but by and large, Soviet citizens knew that the party’s formulations about the rights of all people were just window dressing for rule by a small circle of old men in the Kremlin.
“The party” itself was not a party in any Western sense, but a vehicle for a cabal of elites, with a cult of personality at its center. The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was an utterly mediocre man, but by the late 1970s he had cemented his grip on the Communist Party by elevating opportunists and cronies around him who insisted, publicly and privately, that Brezhnev was a heroic genius. Factories and streets and even a city were named for him, and he promoted himself to the top military rank of “Marshal of the Soviet Union.” He awarded himself so many honors and medals that, in a common Soviet joke of the time, a small earthquake in Moscow was said to have been caused by Brezhnev’s medal-festooned military overcoat falling off its hanger.
The elite leaders of this supposedly classless society were corrupt plutocrats, a mafia dressed in Marxism. The party was infested by careerists, and its grip on power was defended by propagandists who used rote phrases such as “real socialism” and “Western imperialism” so often that almost anyone could write an editorial in Pravda or Red Star merely by playing a kind of Soviet version of Mad Libs. News was tightly controlled. Soviet radio, television, and newspaper figures plowed on through stories that were utterly detached from reality, regularly extolling the successes of Soviet agriculture even as the country was forced to buy food from the capitalists (including the hated Americans).
Members of the Communist Party who questioned anything, or expressed any sign of unorthodoxy, could be denounced by name, or more likely, simply fired. They would not be executed—this was not Stalinism, after all—but some were left to rot in obscurity in some make-work exile job, eventually retiring as a forgotten “Comrade Pensioner.” The deal was clear: Pump the party’s nonsense and enjoy the good life, or squawk and be sent to manage a library in Kazakhstan.
This should all sound familiar.
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