Americans must demand—and Republicans must deliver—accountability if they want to avoid the fate of other failed coups.
One was Wednesday, when Donald Trump incited a violent fascist-type mob to storm the Capitol, violating law, order, decency, and protocol in an attempt to overturn his indisputable loss in the November election. In Moscow for the holidays, I regretted being away from my hometown, New York, ready to hit the streets in defense of the world’s oldest democracy. The second was in 1991, when hard-line Communists detained the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in a failed coup attempt to turn the Soviet Union away from democratic perestroika (restructuring). Then, too, I was on the other side of the world, in New York wishing I were in Moscow hastening the arrival of the new Russia. But these geographical disconnects made me think of some points of comparison.
Both dramatic events are not equal either in history or politics. Yet, the reasons they occurred may not be too different—the worldview of one part of the country is in direct opposition to another—and, as they were in Russia, the consequences in America can be long-lasting and profound.
In Russia, the attempted coup by those who wanted to preserve the Soviet Union in turn sped up the Communist empire’s demise, allowing for democratic changes to take hold. Yet democracy never came—the country failed to establish a functional system of rules, norms, checks, and balances, though free markets were running wild, resulting in a chaotic, and corrupt, transition. Diminishing economic protections and the complete dismissal of the Soviet past—even though people gave up communist ideology, many were not ready to cancel their life experiences—brought Vladimir Putin to the fore. His promise of order and national self-respect was welcome, never mind that over the years his government has become more corrupt than ever before and freedoms now are in short supply. Yet, many Russians still resent Gorbachev, wishing the coup against him had succeeded, thus preserving the Soviet Union. Some 75% now believe the Soviet era was the “greatest time,” which to some offered “stability and confidence.” A lot of it is imagined nostalgia, but Putin’s clever celebration of the past, including victory in World War II or Soviet achievements in space (it’s no accident that Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine is patriotically named after the Sputnik satellite), has a lot of fans.
America’s circumstances—its 200-year-plus history of democracy, constitutional law, and functional institutions—are different, but its divide may not be, and if American leaders mishandle the aftermath like Russia did, then the country could be in for even bigger turmoil down the road.
Joe Biden insists that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent who we are” but “a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness.” This is a form of American delusion—of those who claim that Trumpism is “not us.” There is a side of American life that has an authoritarian streak, not unlike Putin’s nationalism. It feeds off searching for enemies everywhere and creating conspiracies to cover up its own shortcomings. It accepts torturing prisoners in “black sites” around the world, tolerates racist killings, or approvingly cites Hitler as Congresswoman Mary Miller did at a rally last week. Trump has masterfully stoked resentment within the white population against “the other,” often tweeting statements that look a lot like incitements to violence—long before his mobs stormed the Capitol. By constantly “saying the quiet part out loud,” he has given millions of Americans who have white nationalist views a license to act on their most nativist, despotic, and extreme impulses. What’s worse, many Republican politicians condoned this behavior with the Bolshevik thinking that any method putting the party on top will do.
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Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin talk after the failed coup in 1991. By Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images.
Every nation has the government it deserves. With America’s self-assigned credo of being a shining city upon a hill, many people in the country—most of them white—tend to think of it as infallible and superior. Trump is this America’s son, although he has taken this idea of U.S. dominance to an entirely new and fictional level, essentially declaring that he is America.
His millions of supporters live in the realm of might and fight that he constructed for them. Refusing to recognize Biden’s victory, they will not be pacified by soothing speeches about America’s “moving on” without holding the guilty to account, and with members of their own party, the GOP, leading the way.
In 1991, Soviet coup leaders were charged with treason, only to be later lauded as patriots encompassing the attitudes of those who felt marginalized and wronged by sweeping societal changes. America has witnessed a similar process, but unlike paternalistic Russia where guilt depends on the whim of the authorities, it has laws. Trump’s legal effort to overturn the election has been defeated. The president’s supporters loved his message of “law and order.” By that very logic those who violently rebelled against recent court decisions must accept real-life consequences—prison sentences, job losses, and so on. The shock and disbelief—even embarrassment, the shining city acting like an anarchic autarky—that so many felt witnessing the Capitol riot scenes should pull America back into reality. This is not some bad TV we are watching.
Almost four decades ago, Neil Postman wrote a prophetic book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he explained that the American lust for entertainment would become detrimental to its democracy. Trump, with his showman persona, is the result of this long-term downward spiral where politics is not based on policy but on a P.R. product.
Today, entertainment, along with politics, has entered a new phase. From reality television to the Marvel Universe to social media, what occupies most people is more unfiltered and instantaneous than ever. Trump is a master of this political genre—part inspired performer, part mad tormentor: few have used social media to aggressively spread megalomania and misinformation as much as he did.
His neofascist America was able to rise up because people were too busy sharing his “alternative facts” on social media, gradually losing their remaining capacity to distinguish between lived reality and its virtual Hollywoodish shadow.
Biden will have to show everyone that American democracy is worth living anew and for real. But it is the Republicans who need to help him reverse the damage. Every self-respecting, even if Trump-supporting, politician should go to their constituents denouncing unfounded conspiracies, confirming the legitimacy of Biden’s election, and demanding respect for the law. Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pence have decried the invasion of Congress, with McConnell describing it as a “failed insurrection.” But wasn’t this insurrection organized by their favorite reality-TV authoritarian, whose every whim they aided and abetted for four years? Now when they begin to reassess their relationship with a leader who has long abandoned decency and decorum, their primary responsibility is to support any effort to remove the MAGA king from office at once. Russia, with its 30 years of blame game for the country’s ills between Gorbachev-grown liberals and Putin hard-liners, is a bad example to follow.