The 74-year history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a story with few pertinent analogs. It was a uniquely abusive political entity. Soviet Communism’s assaults on the human condition were extraordinary. The country’s conception of what constitutes moral statecraft was peculiarly permissive. It’s dissolution, which occurred not as a result of an external shock or revolutionary violence but a collective reinterpretation of the Union as an illegitimate enterprise, is unequaled. Few are as irritated by the Soviet Union’s grim exceptionalism as American political observers in pursuit of dramatic analogies.
President Donald Trump’s proposed executive order designed to curb acts of anti-Semitism on American campuses is the most recent example of this sordid phenomenon. The order was described in the New York Times as one that “will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion.” The Times added: “Mr. Trump’s order will have the effect of embracing an argument that Jews are a people or a race with a collective national origin in the Middle East, like Italian Americans or Polish Americans.” This was not a new idea. In fact, as Abe Greenwald noted, the idea had been proposed in COMMENTARY in a 2010 article by Kenneth Marcus, now the Education Department’s assistant secretary of civil rights. But to some observers, this was a prelude to a single out Jews in a way that’s reminiscent of Soviet tactics.
“Jewish identity was listed as a nationality on Soviet passports,” wrote Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer. “Surprised to see this become an Executive Order in the U.S.” Activist and former Think Progress editor Igor Volsky agreed. “I fled the Soviet Union to escape anti-Semitism,” he averred. “I never thought I would hear such anti-Semitic garbage from an American President.” To historian and author Alex von Tunzelmann, Trump’s actions were an eerie echo of the Soviet effort to stigmatize Jewish religious and cultural affinities. Even if Trump’s intentions were good, wrote Soviet emigre and chess champion Garry Kasparov, the long-term effects of “othering” American Jews would not be a desirable one.
This is not right. It is a fallacy to interpret this executive order and its provisions, which ensure that “agencies shall not diminish or infringe upon any right protected under Federal Law or under the First Amendment,” as an effort to define Jewishness as a “nationality” in the way the Soviets did. The Soviets, in fact, resisted the notion that Jews had any shared affinities with those of the diaspora. Though Soviet definitions of what constituted a “nationality” evolved, the label was used not to extend the full benefits of citizenship to the Union’s non-Russians but to deny them.
Accusing the president of preferring Soviet methods of social organization has become something of a nervous tick among his most vocal opponents. According to the Atlantic’s Emma Green, for example, “the American government has become a little more similar to any other strongman regime.” Specifically, the U.S. is starting to “feel a little more Soviet.” Trump’s administration behaves like the Gosplan of old, wrote Fareed Zakaria, with “lobbyists, lawyers, and corporate executives” directly petitioning the Dear Father for special dispensations and receiving them. From the viewpoint of author and contributor to Harvard Business Review Umair Haque, America’s self-obsession, this government’s distaste for anti-Trump dissent, and, oddly, its failure to uncritically embrace radical progressivism create “haunting parallels between Soviet and American collapse.”
A comprehensive refutation of these relatively shallow observations about the state of American political affairs is unwarranted. Suffice it to say that many of these and other excesses of the Trump era are exaggerations of preexisting challenges that confront virtually every society of appreciable complexity. The notion that carveouts for special interests, self-dealing, and differences of political opinion that render radical reformist agendas untenable are not unique to the Trump administration or, for that matter, the USSR.
The tendency to erect dubious parallels between America in the age of Trump and the Soviet’s style of governance is not limited to the left. Among the GOP’s more embarrassing efforts to defend the president from the consequences of his alleged behavior regarding Ukraine was the effort to brand the closed-door depositional phase of impeachment hearings a “Soviet-style impeachment process.” If the Soviets had an impeachment process at all, it might have made the Union’s ad hoc system of imposing accountability on public officials via exile, purge, and imprisonment a little more orderly.
Not all the right’s efforts to conjure the specter of Soviet governance are disapproving. In a truly bizarre aside in January, President Trump invoked the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the effort to justify the American mission in South Central Asia. “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia,” the president said. “They were right to be there.” He added that the Soviet’s financial strain was attributable to that conflict, and it led to the country’s implosion. Trump was wrong in almost every conceivable way. The Soviet invasion was an effort to prop up a friendly regime in Kabul, not to confront terroristic elements crossing the border. The economic pressures Moscow faced were due to myriad factors, including falling oil prices, the unsustainability of the arms race, and the intractable inefficiencies of a centrally-planned economy.
The conditions that prevailed in the Soviet Union have no perfect analogs, but the modern United States is particularly unsuited to such comparisons. That is a source of profound frustration for those who want to draw moral and political equivalencies with the USSR if only to justify a victim complex.