Josef Stalin ordered his leading military strategist, Gen. Iona Yakir, shot at dawn on June 12, 1937, after a one-day trial for anti-Soviet activity and espionage. Yakir’s appeal of his sentence went unread; Stalin had labeled him a “rascal and prostitute.”
But killing him wasn’t enough. Yakir’s younger brother Moris also was shot. If Gen. Yakir was not to be trusted, then apparently neither was his brother. Such was Stalin’s fearful logic.
Donald Trump fired his most recent Russia and Ukraine expert, Alexander Vindman, last week as retribution for truthful testimony to Congress. Then he fired Vindman’s twin brother Yevgeny without any reported cause. In Trump’s logic, if Alexander was no longer trusted in the White House, then neither was his brother.
Like the Vindmans, the Yakirs were Jewish, but that may or may not matter. This is paranoia, the logic of tyranny. The objective of it is not justice or religious uniformity; it’s fear, intimidation. Others must be made to fear that not only will they be punished if they criticize the stable genius, their families will be punished too.
Stalin was famous for using fear that way. Gen. Yakir’s younger sister, his wife, and their 14-year-old son were sent to labor camps for nearly 20 years. More importantly, Gen. Yakir was one of eight Soviet generals executed on that day, part of a purge of the country’s top military leadership, which ultimately reached every corner of Soviet life and by some estimates killed a million people over four years.
Dictators across history have distinguished themselves by purging their perceived enemies. Hitler’s shining example was the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, three days in which at least 85 political and military leaders were murdered and more than a thousand people were arrested.
Donald Trump’s love of firing and publicly humiliating people (and their relatives) who offend him—a nascent form of purge—is a scare tactic pure and simple. How else to explain the rigid lock-step acceptance and support of Trump’s “perfect call” among Republican politicians?
Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece described the fear that drives his Republican colleagues to this extreme of party loyalty demanded by Trump. It works because the retribution will be swift and painful.
That regular citizens as well as party members of both the Nazi and Communist regimes lived in fear of the dreaded midnight knock on the door—meaning arrest, interrogation, and probable imprisonment—is well documented. It was the force that supported the weight of those brutal dictatorships.
Now Trump’s purge is widening in Washington, based on little but Trump’s personal distrust of the people around him and his wish to impose his will on them. He insists on using the Justice Department as a personal political weapon, tweeting that he has the right to interfere in federal criminal cases to get the result he wants.
Trump forced out an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for insufficient personal loyalty and replaced him with William Barr, who is turning the Justice Department into Donald Trump’s personal defender and prosecutor. After Trump’s now-removed tweet complaining about the sentence prosecutors recommended for his ally Roger Stone, Barr reduced the recommendation causing the four prosecutors in the case to resign in protest.
But that is only the latest in a series of demands over the last three years that police, intelligence agencies and the courts act more directly in defense of Trump’s personal wishes than in the defense of public order and safety, to include throwing political opponents in jail (“Lock her up!”) .
Both Stalin’s NKVD, which became the KGB, and Hitler’s Gestapo struck terror into their respective populations for their methods of political investigation and enforcement, and both organizations were responsible for torture and killings on a massive scale.
The weapon of fear is only one of the characteristics common to real and would-be despots and which now are appearing in the United States of Trump. Here are some more.
- Disinformation. Soviet customs agents aggressively confiscated most printed material and recordings from abroad, banned most foreign films, and jammed foreign radio broadcasts by means of powerful transmitters near population centers to broadcast noise on the frequencies of Western stations. The information vacuum thus created was filled by Soviet materials conveying perfectly cleansed news and entertainment reflecting only the official line. And most Soviet people seemed to accept it, to believe that all but the leaders in Western countries lived lives of misery, illness, poverty and ignorance while Soviet life was the envy of the world.Soviet human rights abuses were projected onto the United States as if America rulers routinely followed Soviet methods.
Those disinformation campaigns now seem hopelessly dated and primitive. McKay Coppins in The Atlantic magazine has reported that Trump is planning to spend more than $1 billion on a social media campaign of distortion, disinformation and interference with the flow of factual information using “coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fear mongering, and anonymous mass texting.” It is an exponential increase in the effort that made Trump the surprise winner in the 2016 presidential election and, Coppins wrote, is likely to become “the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history.”
- Sealing national borders. This is done in the name of safeguarding against imagined threats to racial purity (Hitler), political heresy (Stalin), or domestic security (Trump). Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and East Germany did it to pen in their citizens and shut out perceived troublemakers. They even shot would-be escapees. The Trump administration today shuts out or detains Latinos, Muslims, and Iranian students with valid visas, even American citizens of Iranian descent trying to re-enter their country, and hints darkly about Jewish enemies like George Soros.
- Uniform architecture. Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler were enamored of grandiose and bombastic architecture designed to convey greatness, virility and power. While the Fascists preferred stark buildings shorn of decoration, Stalin favored a Russian Baroque-Gothic style of skyscraper featuring central spires that were foisted upon Moscow and the capitals of several Soviet satellite states.
Now the Trump administration is drafting an executive order (titled “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”) sharply criticizing modern architecture and requiring that all federal buildings be built in the classic federal style borrowed from ancient Greece and Rome.
- The role of the party. Although Soviet Russia described itself as a classless society, Communist Party members inhabited a special caste. The party ruled Soviet life through its general secretary. Party members gave special loyalty and received special favors. They got better living quarters, better jobs, shopped in stores reserved for them, bought automobiles without long waits for delivery. The price of these benefits was following the party line in all things political—and everything was political. A single word of criticism was grounds for expulsion from the party and loss of special perks, perhaps even arrest.
Washington Republicans already display rigid discipline in following the Trumpist line. The president’s son Donald Junior tweeted that Mitt Romney should be expelled from the party for his impeachment vote. Trump has excluded Democrats from ceremonial bill signings, and when he ordered the assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, he notified only Republicans, ignoring Democrats.
- Xenophobia. This one is simple. Hitler hated Jews, blamed them for most of Germany’s ills and tried to exterminate them. Trump has stoked fear of Latino gangs. He has sought to exclude Latinos, Muslims and Iranians from the country while demeaning Puerto Ricans while hampering their recovery from hurricane damage.
- Policing the use of language. Trump’s administration has banned the use of “climate change,” “global warming,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” in government documents, as if banishing these words would banish the facts.
In Stalin’s time real sciences widely pursued abroad—like genetics, cybernetics, and comparative linguistics—were condemned and forbidden as “bourgeois pseudoscience.”
Of course, distorting language for political purposes is not exclusive to tyrannies. But public speech in the Soviet Union was so proscribed that newcomers could master newspapers with a vocabulary of 400 words. Addressing a Soviet person with the Russian equivalent of “mister” or “missus” instead of “comrade” would be seen as an insult, just as a non-Communist foreigner would always be addressed with “mister” or “missus”—or perhaps “young person” regardless of age—but never “comrade.”
- Repetition of alternative narratives. Donald Trump’s roughly 15,000 lies over the last three years include many narratives repeated so often that even critics stop correcting them. The wall on the southern border is being paid for by Mexico. The “whole Russian thing” is a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats angry that they lost the 2016 election. The Russians did not interfere in the 2016 election to help Trump; the Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election to help Hillary Clinton.
In Soviet Russia, it was taught that the western world was engaged in a vast anti-Soviet cabal whose purpose was to destroy the Soviet Union. West Germany (before the unification of the two Germanys) was run by “revanchists” whose sole purpose was to reverse the result of “The Great Patriotic War” (World War II).
- Uniform patterns of policy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that for Trump “all roads lead to Putin.” Indeed it is hard to find a foreign or domestic policy decision that does not in some way serve the long-term goals of Vladimir Putin, which are little changed from Soviet goals meant to isolate the United States from its allies and reduce its authority in the world. That meant breaking up the network of western alliances and sowing distrust of the United States abroad. Trump’s consistently pro-Russian policy choices are reminiscent of the consistently pro-Soviet decisions made by the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries who, if they ever challenged Soviet will, would find themselves shorn of power. An example: Alexander Dubcek, Czechoslovakia, August, 1968, and Russian tanks in the streets of Prague.
- Controlling the news. Trump has not gained the total control of a Hitler or Stalin, but his instincts and actions are similar, to his exclusive promotion of a Trumpist cable television channel in Fox, his efforts to close access to reporters or news organizations that anger him, his constant criticism of the public press as “dishonest,” “unfair,” and the “enemy of the people,” and his attempt to scuttle publication of John Bolton’s book, “In The Room Where It Happened,” before publication by claiming that it contained classified information. Similarly, but more efficiently, Hitler and Stalin effectively censored the press in their countries and blocked every external source of news to their citizens.
- Encouragement of political thuggery. Hitler’s brownshirts, officially the Sturmabteilung or SA, beat up opponents on the streets of Munich in the late 1920s. The height of their political violence was the so-called Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) on November 9-10, 1938, when the SA attacked Jews, their homes, hospitals and schools, destroying 267 synagogues and more than 7,000 Jewish businesses.
Trump has repeatedly suggested violence to followers at his political rallies, complaining that police handled protestors too gently. Most notably he offered cover to the violence at the Charlottesville white-power demonstration in which a man drove his car deliberately into a crowd of protestors killing a woman, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Perhaps the most common characteristic of dictators is concentrating their government’s resources on controlling public behavior and the preservation and expansion of their personal authority. Hitler organized his political police first, then fed his people’s pride by promising a larger German nation with more “living space” (lebensraum) and attacking neighboring countries to achieve it. Stalin concentrated the country’s economic resources into domestic and foreign intelligence gathering, policing the populace, and expanding military force. Trump likewise shifts public resources away from education, the arts and sciences in order to expand military and policing power. His recent tax reform was sold as a middle class tax cut at the expense of the wealthy. Economists say in fact it is just the opposite.
In the end totalitarian rule is the method of tyrants who claim to rule in the name of The People and for their benefit while governing as if terrified of them without total control. Thus the dictator shows himself by the nature of his rule to be both a blustering bully and a fearful coward.