In February 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made an extraordinary gambit. In a closed session of the Communist Party congress, he made a “secret speech” detailing the extent of his predecessor Joseph Stalin’s crimes.
Most of what he detailed had been widely alleged by critics of the regime, and had been written about in the Western press for 30 years since Stalin consolidated his power over party rivals in the chaos following Lenin’s death.
Stories of purges, torture, mass imprisonment and wholesale execution; tales of forced famines in the Ukraine; of the slaughter of Kulaks; of the persecution of political figures deemed to be a threat to Stalin’s cultist rule.
“Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion.” Opponents were “doomed” to “moral and physical annihilation,” Khrushchev told his audience.
What made the moment so electric was that Khrushchev was putting the Communist Party’s imprimatur on the allegations.
He was speaking not to those already suspicious of the Bolshevik system, but to its diehard supporters. He was destroying a village to save a village – shattering the image of the party among its faithful to try to revitalize it as a credible ruling force over the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
Ultimately, of course, the project would fail, and the Soviet Union would cease to exist. The system was, quite simply, too rotten to redeem. But Khrushchev’s rhetorical effort was still vitally important, breaking Stalin’s cult-like grip on the imagination of millions of people.
Khrushchev pointed out that Stalin originated the concept of “enemy of the people,” and said the “term made possible the usage of the most cruel repression, violating all norms of revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin.”
The “secret speech” went viral before going viral was a thing. Soon, Communist Party stalwarts in countries around the globe were debating it, attempting to understand how an ideology that they had believed in, with the intensity of religious fervor, that they had trusted as a force for human progress and emancipation, could have gone so horribly wrong.
On my father’s side, my grandparents, many of their relatives, and friends were among this group; I told their complex stories in my book, “The House of Twenty Thousand Books.” They joined the party as young adults, believing it was the most effective way to fight fascism, and that Marxism outlined the best way forward toward an egalitarian and just and fair society.
After the Secret Speech, they peeled away from the party in horror. My grandfather, in particular, an extraordinary intellect and, by the time I knew him, a passionately liberal, humanist figure, spent the rest of his long life second-guessing himself.
He was wracked by guilt that he had been so hoodwinked by Stalin’s Soviet Union, that he had bought into the cult of the personality so completely, and that as a young man he was so willfully blind toward the horrors that, had he looked, were all too plain to see.
I tell this story not simply as a history lesson about how to burst a bubble of denial that too often surrounds leader-gods, but because it shows a way forward for honorable Republicans looking to get beyond the sordid, coarse, brutal language and persona of the Trump era.
Trump, of course, hasn’t implemented wholesale purges and mass killings, and the American system isn’t akin to Stalin’s Soviet Union. But Trump has fundamentally challenged and degraded important norms of civil society.
He has bandied about the term “enemy of the people,” encouraging his followers to view people who dissent as traitors to be viciously trolled and even physically attacked.
He has mocked and ridiculed, humiliated and harassed people he disagrees with, be they football players who kneel in protest at police violence, or senators who cross him politically.
And he has demeaned a slew of international leaders, slash-and-burning his way through alliances and away from treaties. He has, too, stoked racial and religious bigotries and relied on truly scurrilous figures like Steve Bannon for political succor. He has engaged in an increasingly terrifying game of name-calling and deadly serious nuclear chicken with the deeply paranoiac North Korean leadership, a game that, if it goes wrong, could cost millions of lives.
When Trump’s political moment ends, as one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, it will, whoever succeeds him will face the extraordinary task of re-establishing civil political discourse.
Which Republican will lay it all out in a GOP equivalent of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech? Who will address a “closed” session of congressional and state GOP leaders, with words in actual fact aimed squarely at the broader Republican Party base, and point by point demolish Trumpism as a phenomenon and Trump as a man?
Who will take it upon him- or herself to drive a stake through the heart of Trump’s political ghost, of the whole narcissistic, brutal, power-crazed, and sadistic project of Trumpism?
It’s not a phrase one hears very often in American politics. But let’s hope that growing numbers of senior Republicans have the courage to channel their inner-Khrushchev soon.
Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in recent speeches denouncing Trump and his bullying, tempestuous style, have come close. Flake explicitly accused Trump of undermining democratic ideals and institutions. Corker accused him of a mental instability and hubris so dangerous that it could put the country on the path to world war.
Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), too, has shown an admirable willingness to take on the president. But Flake and Corker are retiring next year, their political prospects for 2018 dimmed if not shredded by a now firmly Trumpist GOP primary-voting base. And McCain is, unfortunately, nearing the end of his long and storied career.
When will senior Republicans with no intent of retiring take on Trump? When will Republicans who need that GOP base, who still have skin in the game, risk taking that base on, and, with no caveats, censure Trump?
Someone, sometime will have to do so, will have to break Trump as the army hearings ultimately broke the demagogue Joe McCarthy, as the Secret Speech ultimately broke the cult of the personality surrounding all-things-Stalin.
In performing such a rhetorical feat, that honorable Republican will be doing a vital historical service, helping to break the spell with which Trump-the-demagogue holds so many millions of GOP voters in thrall these days.
Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.