Is the disruption and disorder of our politics permanent, or not? In this Boomer Opinion piece, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs says, take a cue from history. It’s up to us.
Call it a cautionary tale in this disconcerting year of 2020.
A decade ago now, I shot a television documentary in Russia. The grammatically-graceless working title was, “How does Putin get away with what he gets away with?” Having covered draconian days in the Soviet Union, when all any citizen seemed to want was freedom, I was staggered by Vladimir Putin’s swelling stranglehold on his nation’s short-lived post-Soviet liberties.
One man I interviewed in Moscow was the head of Russia’s only reliable polling agency, called Levada, which had recently asked people about their perceptions of Joseph Stalin, the tyrant who’d ruled through dread and death for a quarter of the 20th Century. The verdict? 40-percent of Russians thought Stalin had brought “more good than bad.”
Which is, equally staggeringly, how some see their own historical dictators in other places around the planet.
I once covered an attempted coup in Spain by fanatics for Francisco Franco. They longed for the autocrat who’d aligned with Hitler and Mussolini and oppressed their nation for 35 years.
I’ve seen ethnic Serbs commend the conduct of war criminals— the likes of Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic— who exterminated enemies on their behalf.
In North Korea, each of the three “Dear Leaders” created a cult of personality that fooled people into believing their despot was all that stood between them and debilitating foreign domination. In her compelling book Nothing to Envy— the title taken from a North Korean children’s song called We Have Nothing to Envy in the World— author Barbara Demick asks of the brainwashed masses in that cloistered country, “What if the nightmare imagined by George Orwell in 1984 were real?”
And lest we forget, even if not a sovereign nation, 909 sorry souls died together in 1978 at Jonestown, Guyana, at the command of the charismatic zealot Jim Jones, who lured them to his paragon of utopia, but locked them in his prison of body and mind.
I’ve also done stories with citizens right here at home who hanker for Hitler. To say nothing of the millions during World War II who cheered on the Nazi death machine itself.
Staggering, but cautionary tales, all.
This all came back to me last month when The New York Times ran a fascinating feature called, “Along Russia’s Road of Bones.” It was about the 1,200-mile trans-Siberian highway that carried countless of Stalin’s political convicts to their enslavement and most to their death. Today, the cold and isolated towns that are now just shadows of Stalin’s time are inhabited largely by elderly survivors, or their descendants. But the amazing thing is, many revere the dictator.
Yes, Stalin did modernize some characteristics of his country. He did preside over a persevering Nazi defeat. He did elevate the Soviet Union to its decades-long status as a superpower. But he also did create gulags without mercy, and famine without precedent. Under Stalin’s reign of terror, some 20 million Soviet citizens died.
“That Stalin was a great man is obvious,” one man said, even though his own father and grandfather had come to Siberia as Stalin’s prisoners. “Stalin was God” said a 93-year-old woman, who had served a sentence herself of 10 years in the gulag. “Stalin wasn’t at fault at all. It was the party and all those people. Stalin just signed.”
That popularity poll I saw a dozen years ago was a portent. According to The Times, Joseph Stalin’s popularity is at its highest level in decades. I could argue that it’s not a very high bar, but high or low, he outpaces all other Soviet leaders in public esteem.
It’s staggering, but maybe not surprising. Call it the consequence of people’s isolation. Of their present-day struggles. Of the passage of time. Call it the consequence of the information bubbles in which more and more of us live, and the lessons of the past that more and more of us forget. Or just call it the upshot of human nature… although maybe downshot is a better word.
I could argue that there are parallels— not to the behavior of history’s odious oppressors, but to their popularity— today in America.
Consider the fact that in the wake of Trump’s incontestable defeat, one of his shameless lawyers tweeted for him to “use the Insurrection Act, Suspend the December Electoral College Vote, and set up Military Tribunals immediately.” And that another said that the Homeland Security official fired last month for declaring the elections the “most secure in American history” should be “drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn and shot.” Predictably, a whistleblower protection group condemned the comment. Equally predictably, the president did not.
If you didn’t know better, you’d assume these anti-democratic atrocities came from Russia, China, Syria, North Korea, Uganda, Afghanistan, or a host of other countries whose conduct we typically condemn. But you do know better. They came from right here at home.
And, consider the fact that the man who has abused his authority and has bullied his rivals and has been doing his damndest to convince his countrymen to mistrust the underpinnings of our democracy— the independent judiciary, federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the free press (which with Stalinesque denunciation he has called “the enemy of the people”), and now, the electoral will of the majority— this man got 74-million Americans to vote for his reelection. Consider that to this day, despite a dearth of proof, more than half the members of his political party actually say he rightfully won.
The only saving grace is that more than 80-million voted the other way.
Still, as commentator Frank Bruni asked on election night, “Just how badly must a leader behave, just how rotten must his character be, for him to be rejected unequivocally in America circa 2020?” Maybe the working title of a documentary on this era should be, “How does Trump get away with what he gets away with?”
Even if he doesn’t get away with it any more, roughly half of all his constituents have shown their approval for his behavior. A personal friend painted this perturbing picture: “What we are witnessing is the demasking of America.”
Britain’s Winston Churchill famously said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” Our own future is shaky, if cautionary tales are ignored.