Trump and Putin shaking hands
Credit: Shealah Craighead/Flickr

The most stirring statement of any witness in the House impeachment hearings last fall came from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council, who opened his testimony with thanks and reassurance to his father, who had brought his family to the United States for “refuge from authoritarian oppression” in the Soviet Union.

“My simple act of appearing here today. would not be tolerated in many places around the world. In Russia, my act of expressing concern through the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions, and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.

“I am grateful for my father’s bold act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant where I can live free of fear for my and my family’s safety. Dad, [that] I’m sitting here today in the US Capitol talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”

Did Colonel Vindman misread his adopted country?

After honoring a subpoena and testifying under oath on President Trump’s “inappropriate” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Vindman got death threats so alarming that the Army and local police had to provide security. The Army considered moving his family to safety on a military base. And last week, after being acquitted in his impeachment trial, an unleashed Trump had Vindman escorted out of the White House and then threatened him (by tweet) with unspecified military punishment. This was part of a widening pattern of retaliation by the Trump apparatus against impeachment witnesses and other independent thinkers in government.

The United States is not the Soviet Union, of course, and it’s a good bet that Vindman would never think it was. Furthermore, invidious analogies between Trump and various forms of authoritarianism—fascism, Nazism, third-world dictatorships—are so common that they have lost their bite. So it’s important to recognize that while the American constitutional system is under immense strain by Republicans impatient with its messy checks on their power, the restraints have not yet broken.

Nevertheless, to one who lived in Moscow from 1975 to 1979, there is a queasy taste of familiarity in the impulses of Trump and his Republican followers. There is a certain kind of political actor, whether Soviet or American, who cannot stand dissent and debate, who derides facts and truth, who sees all behavior through a lens of personal or ideological loyalty, and whose values extend no farther than immediate victory and the expansion of authority. In this mindset, truth-tellers are “enemies of the people,” to quote Stalin and Trump. Policy differences constitute warfare in which argument and rebuttal are not enough: Opponents must be destroyed through smears, propaganda, and retribution.

These actors have no moral brakes. They wield whatever weapons the system permits.

In the post-Stalinist Soviet system that I observed, the punishments for suspicions of political irreverence ranged from mild to severe: a formal denunciation by peers, a denial of promotion at work, a rejection of a coveted trip abroad, a job dismissal, a cutoff of your phone, even imprisonment or Siberian exile if your dissent was public and persistent. Certain positions—journalist, history professor, factory manager, hospital director, and the like—required membership in the Communist Party, which was highly selective and relied on proof of political reliability.

In the United States, Republicans under Trump—and earlier under George W. Bush—have imposed their own kind of political orthodoxy, conducting litmus tests on applicants for government jobs in the Justice Department and other agencies that are supposed to be non-political. As I wrote in the last chapter of The Rights of the People, Bush administration “applicants were asked ideologically charged questions: ‘What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?’ ‘Tell us about your political philosophy,’ whether you’re a ‘social conservative, fiscal conservative, [or] law and order Republican.’” Some in federal law enforcement were grilled on their views of abortion, their voting histories, and their favorite Supreme Court justices, all matters irrelevant to their jobs. Membership in the conservative Federalist Society was nearly as critical to getting hired in the Justice Department in Washington as membership in the Communist Party had been in Moscow.

So the impulse for ideological purity did not begin with the Trump administration. Nor did the disdain for the rule of law. Soviet authorities constructed facades of legal-looking procedures for trying dissidents in a highly politicized judicial system. American authorities after the 9/11 attacks constructed charades of legal rationalizations to permit torture, warrantless surveillance, and imprisonment without trial. Republicans, especially under Trump, are on a mission to politicize the federal courts, and Trump derides their independence. The Soviet and Republican purposes are the same: to facilitate the machinery of the state.

One difference between Moscow and Washington is that while Soviet leaders were canny and closed, Trump is clumsy and explicit. He has made no secret of his desire to have adversaries arrested—the whistleblower on Ukraine for “treason,” Vindman for “insubordination,” Hillary Clinton for just about anything. These crude slanders have not yet been translated into legal assaults, but what if he wins a second term? He has gradually purged the White House and the Justice Department of officials devoted to the constitutional principles of law and the separation of powers. As he accumulates a collection of adoring sycophants, he distills his inner circle into a concentrated toxin.

Trump has been most obvious among presidents in denouncing judges, obstructing investigations (see the Mueller report), and interfering with prosecutors, as this week when he got the Justice Department to rescind its tough sentencing recommendation for his pal Roger Stone. Soviet authorities often determined sentencing behind closed doors in what Russians sardonically called “telephone justice,” a phone call between a judge and a Communist Party official. By contrast, the American judge in Stone’s case, Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee, can afford to be independent; she needn’t curry favor with anyone, being too old (65) to be considered for elevation to a higher court.

As the law is manipulated, so is history. Soviet archives were closed and secret, and the portrayal of history was distorted to hide wrongdoing and conform with current ideology. The Trump administration is violating federal law by destroying documents required to be filed in the National Archives. So American archives will now be incomplete, damaging historians’ work. Still, unlike the centralized Soviet Union, America’s pluralism retains diverse centers of authority, so that no single hand can dictate what citizens know of their country’s past.

In some respects, the lessons of history seem to be running in reverse, at least to this old Moscow hand. History is usually touted as informing the present, explaining current events in the context of what has gone before. Now, the present is informing the past, as the Trump era illuminates authoritarian impulses in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

It used to be conventional wisdom to see longstanding Russian culture—from the czars through the Communists—at the root of Russians’ affinity for a strongman like Stalin (and now Putin) and for the compliance of Soviet citizens in the conspiracy of myths and lies and injustices. But American culture has no such tradition. Looking at the present Republican adulation of Trump, whose cult of personality would be nearly as dangerous as Stalin’s if the United States were not a constitutional democracy, we might be witnessing traits more universal in humanity than previously acknowledged.

During the liberalizing era of Mikhail Gorbachev, I heard this joke in the Kremlin:

First Member of Parliament: “What we need is a democracy like Sweden’s.”

Second Member of Parliament: “It will never work here.”

First Member: “Why not?’

Second Member: “We don’t have enough Swedes.”

I used to think that you could substitute “Americans” for “Swedes.” Now I’m not so sure

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David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer; Pulitzer Prize–winning author of seven books, including Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; and former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report and cohosts the podcast Two Reporters. Follow David on Twitter @DavidShipler.