From their suppression of dissenting voices, use of propaganda, and capitulation to Russia, the GOP is behaving like US Communists in the 1930s and 1940s.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the Harvard University historian, Jill Lepore, challenges the mood of pessimism that has overcome many thoughtful individuals about the direction of democratic institutions in the West, the United States especially. She asks us to recall a similar though even darker mood that an earlier generation of thoughtful pessimists had about the prospects of democracy. Not only did much of Europe fall under the control of Fascism but also, despite many western admirers, the Soviet Union was brutalized by Stalinist rule.
Democracy, to paraphrase the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, seemed to be where the world had been, not where it was going. And yet, as Lepore writes and as many others have written, the post-war world saw a revival of democratic values and the restoration of democracy itself in much of the West. Thanks to the New Deal and its military successes against the Axis powers, the United States became something of a model to be emulated elsewhere. Lepore’s core message is, do not despair democracy may be in recession at the moment, but it is sufficiently resilient to survive Trump and his “base”.
By taking our thinking about politics back to Depression-era America, we might pay some attention to the country’s Communist Party (CP). For the only time in American history, the Party counted for something. Its role was limited but it attracted the support of many artists and intellectuals (see R.H. S. Crossman ed., The God that Failed) and something approaching a mass base of support (see, Nathan Glazer, The Social Base of American Communism, and Harvey Kiehr, The Heyday of American Communism). Its leaders, Earl Browder, Jay Lovestone and their lieutenants, played significant roles in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), an organization that became one of the country’s two leading labor union federations. The CP also became a champion of civil rights for African-American long before the issue became center stage in the politics of the 1960s.
Aside from a small group of Trotskyites, the CP was a largely unquestioning follower of Stalin and the Soviet Union’s zigzag policies during the ‘30s. These rapid changes, of course, involved switching from condemnation of socialist parties in the US and elsewhere as ‘social fascists’ during the early years of the decade to support for broad-based ‘popular front’ alliances during the mid-30s (including a benign view of the Roosevelt administration). In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the USSR signed the non-aggression agreement, and Communist parties around the western world were instructed to remain neutral in the deadly struggle underway between the western democracies and Nazi Germany. All this changed, once again, when the Hitlerite regime attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Stalin called once again for a broad alliance of all ‘progressive’ forces in the fight against Nazism.
Then, there were the Moscow purge trials. Between 1936 and 1938, prosecutors – acting at Stalin’s orders – charged prominent leaders of the Soviet Party with Treason (Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon captures the atmosphere). Key figures in the Party/State apparatus were tried and executed for allegedly acting on behalf of the bourgeois democracies all along.
How were members of the American CP able to stomach all these changes of direction? How were they able to absorb the transformation of previously admired heroes of the USSR and the international communist movement (e.g. Bukharin, Radek) into betrayers of the cause, almost overnight?
The answers involve the flow of information to CP USA members. The Party published newspapers and magazines (e.g. The New Masses, The Communist, Pioneer, the Daily Worker, PM), which provided “correct” interpretations of developments in the USSR. At cell meetings, Party members were told not to believe accounts of the show trials and other anti-Soviet accounts published in the capitalist (or CAP) press. The latter’s aim, according to CP leaders, was to weaken the Party by sowing dissension within the international working-class movement.
It is hard to imagine a wider distinction in political outlook than the one between American Communists in the 1930s and the contemporary Republican Party. Certainly, in terms of ideology they are virtual polar opposites. Yet, in terms of the way they treat dissident voices, there are striking similarities.
Trump and his administration have been racked by scandal, with one Trump confidant and appointee after another going to prison while still others await trial. The President has been caught up in sex scandals involving multiple young women who, using an intermediary, he has paid to remain silent. He has been impeached by the House of Representatives for seeking to bribe (with military assistance), Ukrainian officials to persuade them to announce an investigation of a likely rival in the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s financial dealings are under investigation by state and local authorities. Newspapers, such as The Washington Post, report Trump has lied to the public over 16,000 times since taking office on January 20, 2017.
Despite this record, opinion polls have shown the President’s popularity has remained virtually unchanged since taking office; it seems to oscillate between 40 and 45 percent of those questioned. By contrast, between his landslide re-election in 1972 and his resignation from office in the summer of 1974, President Nixon’s popularity fell to a bit over 23 percent. The Watergate scandal and its attendant publicity had a dramatic impact – thanks largely to enormous newspaper and national television coverage. If Nixon, why not Trump?
The answer is that in the intervening decades there has grown up a conservative ‘echo chamber’ consisting of Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, and a long list of conservative talk radio commentators. They serve to insulate their right-wing audiences from information and opinions that conflict with conservative ones they are already disposed to believe, much like the CP publications of the 1930s.
When it comes to zigzagging, GOP supporters of Trump again bear some resemblance to CP members during the Depression years. For decades during the Cold War, Republicans’ foremost foreign policy perspective was anti-communism and opposition to Soviet expansionism in Europe and elsewhere. Soviet leaders were often depicted in demonological terms. Today, all that has changed. After several meetings with Putin, solicitation and acceptance of Russia’s election help, effort to undermine the Russia probe, and indifference to Russian annexation of the Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine, GOP supporters of Trump now have a more favorable view of Russia and the Putin than the general American population. Despite warnings on the “Lamestream” media about Russia’s malevolence, Trump’s supporters seem to ignore this fact and instead, thanks to Fox News etc., follow Trump’s lead.
Today’s equivalent of the CAP press is ‘fake news’. Trump and his subordinates repeatedly warn Republicans belonging to the President’s “base” not to believe what they read, see and hear from the mainstream media, what the former GOP 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sara Palin labeled the “lamestream media”. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and news programs on the major television networks – so the narrative goes – deliberately falsify descriptions of Trump and his administration by broadcasting tales invented to discredit the “conservative” movement.
If we recall the CP’s effort to induce its members to ignore stories in the CAP press in the 1930s, all this will seem familiar. We might even follow Lepore’s optimism by noting the CP’s own failure. No matter how much it tried, it could not prevent major defections after Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Food for thought as the Trump foreign policy train trundles on.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Nevada. See his profile here.
© Leonard Weinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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