War Stories

The GOP’s Bolshevik Moment

The party’s “no enemies to the right” strategy could destroy it from within.

Side-by-side photos of Marjorie Taylor Greene holding up a "Stop the Steal" mask and Vladimir Lenin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images Plus and Pavel Semyonovich Zhukov/Wikipedia.

The Republican Party’s tolerance and embrace of far-right extremists bring to mind the case of Alexander Kerensky, Russia’s first and last prime minister before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Kerensky, the leader of a relatively moderate socialist party, proclaimed a policy of “no enemies to the left” and, as a result, released Vladimir Lenin from prison, where he’d been interned for his failed attempt to overthrow Kerensky’s own government in July of that year. And so, three months later, an emboldened Lenin tried again and succeeded, with catastrophic results for the entire century.

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Republican leaders in America today have, in effect, declared a policy of “no enemies to the right.” With very few exceptions, they have declined to impeach or even criticize Donald Trump for inciting the attempted insurrection of Jan. 6. They have awarded a House committee seat to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who believes in QAnon’s wildest conspiracy theories, who has told right-wing protesters they should feel free to use violence, and, before she was elected to the House this past fall, called for the assassination of Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Several GOP lawmakers still refuse to acknowledge that President Joe Biden fairly won the November election.

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I don’t mean to draw precise parallels. Lenin and his military commissar, Leon Trotsky, were intellectuals and brilliant tacticians—two terms that don’t remotely apply to any of the American right’s aspiring revolutionaries. Nor do the strife, tensions, and hardships besetting American society and politics in 2021 bear the slightest resemblance to the combustive mix of hunger, oppression, and war that sparked the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II (spearheaded largely by Kerensky) and then the overthrow of Kerensky himself—along with any hopes, for decades to come, of a civil society.

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Still, the political dynamics of the two situations, a world and a century apart, have striking similarities. Kerensky refused to criticize Lenin and the Bolsheviks because he regarded them as potent allies against a revival of monarchism, which he (mistakenly) saw as the real enemy. Similarly, Republican leaders—including many who knew better—embraced Trump and now refuse to dissociate themselves from his most fanatical followers because they were, and are, seen as potent bulwarks against the Democrats’ liberal programs, which they see as the real enemy.

A few Republicans are beginning to grasp the depths of their miscalculation. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the party’s most cynically opportunistic (and, for that reason, often the most effective) strategist of the past decade, condemned “loony lies and conspiracy theories” as a “cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” adding, “Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality. This has nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”

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McConnell did not mention the name of that “somebody,” though everyone knew he was referring to Greene. Nor did he acknowledge, much less apologize for, his role in letting the loony lies fester in the weeks after the presidential election, or for his role in abetting the rise of loony lies within his party over the past several years—all for the sake of maintaining a majority in order to pass corporate tax cuts and seat right-wing judges, the only causes that animate McConnell’s passions besides the aggrandizement of his own power. He thought that he could corral the loonies that he helped empower; he never considered the possibility that they might wind up co-opting him.

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In the days leading up to the normally rote procedure of certifying state electors’ votes for the president last month, McConnell pressured the loonies in his caucus to fall in line with reality—but a dozen of them refused to succumb. The lies that Trump had been propagating—that the election had been stolen, that in fact he’d won in a landslide—were thus legitimized, and they spread in volume and intensity. So when Trump’s most diehard followers and gangs of militias gathered on Jan. 6 at his call, and marched on the Capitol at his orders, they really believed that Congress was about to finalize the steal and that they could stop the crime from happening.

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This too had a crudely Leninist air about it. Lenin knew that agitation and propaganda were vital to a revolution’s success. He called his party Bolshevist, which in Russian means majority, even though its members constituted a distinct minority even among the array of the country’s socialist revolutionary parties; he made many believe they were truly a majority. Similarly, many of those who stormed the Capitol last month truly believed they were the real Americans, energized by the real president.

A small number of Republicans are now, finally, trying to resist the fantasy and coax their party back to reality. They include a handful in the Senate, notably Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins, who are securely in sync with their constituents back home. But they number only a handful. On the House side, 10 Republicans voted in favor of the motion to impeach Trump, and they are paying a price for their heresy. Some have been censured (whereas Greene has not been). All will face primary challenges in two years. Rep. Liz Cheney—a stalwart conservative, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and the third most senior member of the House GOP—is now shunned as a pariah. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy—who, soon after Jan. 6, publicly blamed Trump for inciting the insurrection, but then recanted, even journeying to Mar-a-Lago and posing for a smiley photo with the deposed king Trump—is talking about stripping Cheney of her position in the leadership.

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The Grand Old Party, as the Republicans were once known, will likely lie tattered in shambles, regardless of which side prevails in its internecine battles. But what about the “uncivil wars,” as Biden described them, that have been embroiling the entire nation? How will that play out?

The revolutionary wannabes of Jan. 6 view 2021 as their “1776 moment.” If they had a deeper sense of history, they might liken their first stab at insurrection to Lenin’s failed putsch of July 1917, which he replayed with success the following October. Their dream is unlikely to come true. There is no Washington or Lenin within their ranks. Many of those who might have entertained such aspirations have been arrested for their captured-on-video crimes. But the rank and file aren’t going away. Some are plotting renewed storms. Many more continue to spread the big lies, which galvanize the plots, which lend them meaning and even a swelling—however monumentally deluded—pride of glory.

To the extent that their rumblings gain momentum and force, the blame will lie with their abettors in the Republican Party establishment—those who, for whatever motives, persist in proclaiming “no enemies to the right” and who fail, perhaps tragically, to detect the nature and scope of the real enemy, our common enemy, from within.

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