by Garry Kasparov
“What do you expect? They’re all loyal Party men. They don’t worry about ‘facts’; they just do what they’re told.” — “Stalin’s Witnesses” by Julius Wachtel
It’s no coincidence that the word for a blindly loyal political minion originated in the Soviet Union. An “apparatchik” was a cog in the Communist Party apparatus, a drone carrying out orders without qualm or conscience. It’s meant as an insult, but that hasn’t prevented the word, and the type, from proliferating in the free world long after the Soviet machine broke down and rusted away.
The totalitarian communism I grew up under in the Soviet Union had a unique ability to crush the human spirit by making unquestioning loyalty the only relevant quality. As a Soviet joke went about a successful apparatchik’s rise, “He was very consistent and principled, and he demonstrated this by agreeing with whatever the official party line was at the moment.”
Since the state controlled everything, the apparatchik mindset permeated everything. Economic, cultural and intellectual stagnation were inevitable in such an environment, despite the formidable human and natural resources of the USSR and their ruthless exploitation by the Communists.
Occasionally a conflict or crisis had to be addressed publicly, and these were explained away with pretzel logic and tortured vocabulary. On paper, the Soviet Union believed in the rule of law. But often we were told that there was a higher law than mere printed words: the laws of necessity, of justice, of the good of the country. Who decided those? The right people, naturally, those blessed with the proper revolutionary conscience.
As Lenin wrote, “Marxist teaching is all-powerful because it is right!” Hard to argue with that logic, and woe unto you if you tried.
Forgive my reminiscing, but for the past few weeks, I’ve felt like I’ve been in a time machine. Echoes of Soviet-style statements about “higher laws” and “the interests of the state” were emanating from Washington throughout the impeachment trial. President Trump’s acquittal in the Senate was a predictable disgrace, but the rationales for it presented by the Republicans were just as damaging to the country as Trump himself.
Most of the GOP apparatchiks were content with their lockstep dance, repeating the official mantra that Trump did nothing wrong in extorting Ukraine to help his reelection. They parroted Trump’s “perfect call” mantra with the devotion of the functionaries surrounding North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, all terrified at the prospect of disappointing their master.
This group, the majority, simply ignored all the evidence, including Trump’s own recorded words. They didn’t care and they wanted everyone to know it, especially the Dear Leader. Their loyalty will be rewarded, they hope, or at least there won’t be any disloyalty to be punished.
A small clique of Republican senators — Lamar Alexander, Marco Rubio — chose a more subtle variation by admitting that what Trump had done was wrong, perhaps even impeachable, but that it wasn’t bad enough to remove him. Lisa Murkowski said, “Congress has failed” and joined Rubio in decrying the “partisan nature” of the impeachment, when of course it could have been bipartisan had they demonstrated an inch of spine.
Despite these performances of conflicted conscience, these paragons declined to do anything as paltry as voting for witnesses in a trial. Maine’s Susan Collins, perhaps most pathetically of all, voted for witnesses only after it was clear that her vote wouldn’t matter. One hopes that Collins and the rest of Trump’s GOP enablers will have plenty of time to ruminate on their positions after being voted out of office.
It wasn’t enough to have a predetermined result; there wouldn’t even be any new evidence presented at the trial. This did Stalin’s show trials one better. It was all going according to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to paint the impeachment as a purely partisan affair initiated by rogue House leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff. This would also provide cover for the rest of the GOP.
But standing in the way of this scheme like a Tiananmen Square protester in front of a tank was Mitt Romney, who voted to convict the president for abuse of power. Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president lest we forget, struggled emotionally through his eloquent statement explaining his vote, calling it “the most difficult decision I have ever faced.”
In one brief listing of indisputable facts, Romney demolished Trump’s defense: “The president asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival. The president withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so. The president delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders. The president’s purpose was personal and political. Accordingly, the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust.”
Romney then explained why he felt obliged to vote to convict and by so doing, exposed the cowardice and hypocrisy of his Republican colleagues’ rationales for defending Trump: “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”
With nothing to gain, much to lose and Trump’s acquittal a foregone conclusion, Romney’s courage cast a harsh light. The partisan shield was breached. Romney didn’t have to paint a picture of Trump’s guilt or of Republican spinelessness, he had only to hold up a mirror.
(By the way, isn’t this an ideal time for Barack Obama to apologize to Romney at long last for deriding him for calling Russia the U.S.’s “number one geopolitical foe” in their 2012 presidential debate? Obama mocked Romney and ignored his warning and as a result of this negligence, Russian interference helped deliver Trump into the presidency.)
Just the night before the acquittal, Trump had used his State of the Union address to boast and threaten in the sort of spectacle usually reserved for circuses and dictatorships. Speaker Pelosi demonstrated her grasp of Trump-era political stagecraft by tearing up her copy of the speech on camera, becoming the talk of the night. It was a stunt, but I approve. You can’t entirely stop Trump from turning American politics into a circus, but you can fight him for the spotlight and point out that he’s a clown, not a ringmaster.
It took only two days for Trump to make his State of the Union speech look sane with a bizarre and rambling post-acquittal press conference on Thursday. Collins’ remark that Trump “had learned his lesson” after being impeached was tossed into the trash in record time. You can’t expect Trump to find the high road when he doesn’t even know Kansas City is in Missouri.
It’s telling that Trump is so unhinged after what could be considered an excellent week for the president. He was acquitted by the Senate, empowering him to commit further abuses unchecked. The Democrats turned the Iowa caucuses into a circus of their own — although I think the chaos should help the candidates most dangerous to Trump, the moderates who can point out the party needs a good manager just like the country does.
Trump got a small approval rating bump, if still shy of the 50% line he has never crossed. A good jobs report indicated that the American economy continues to grow.
Of course, all presidents claim credit for good economic news and blame other factors for any bad news. The economic recovery started under Obama, but it cannot be denied that it is continuing under Trump. The Democrats should talk more about how Trump is wasting taxpayer money — walls, tariffs, a ballooning debt — instead of competing with outlandish plans to spend even more.
No matter how deranged Trump sounds or how terrible something his administration does may be, something even worse comes along just hours later. As I’ve often warned, an autocratic leader has an unlimited capacity to surprise. Trump can manufacture a new scandal every hour until Election Day, and he will be happy to do so if it keeps him in the headlines.
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And just as the writers and directors of “The Apprentice” made Trump look like a decisive executive guru, Fox News edits and spins his rants into soundbites and positions that look relatively normal. Worse still, the rest of the mainstream media often performs this sanitizing treatment as well, still not having found a way to cover Trump honestly while satisfying their aspiration for fairness.
That way must be found, and quickly. The American political system has failed to adapt to the new environment of the internet and social media. From a few thousand outlets, there are now millions of new agents in the system, often unknown, anonymous and hostile. Trump’s supporters and campaign, learning well from their mentor Vladimir Putin, has aggressively weaponized these propaganda tools against their opponents and against the media.
It’s time to stop daydreaming about the GOP standing up to Trump. Romney stood, but he stood alone. The rest have become apparatchiks, eager to obey. Trump now feels unstoppable, and impunity is a very dangerous quality in an autocrat. Someone who feels invincible inevitably pushes too far, and he is never the only one harmed in the resulting catastrophe. The best way to survive nine more months of Trump is to work like hell to make sure it’s not four more years.
Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation.