Last week, Donald Trump had Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — who had testified before Congress about his Ukraine phone call — fired and frog-marched out of the White House. Not content with this act of revenge against Vindman, the president fired his brother, an administration legal counsel, as well. Later that day, Trump also announced the firing of Gordon Sondland, his ambassador to the European Union who had likewise testified about the pressure campaign on the Ukraine.
There’s a pattern here: When then-FBI Director James Comey couldn’t bring himself to swear a loyalty oath to Trump and refused to stop investigating the Republican campaign’s Russia ties, Trump fired him and tweeted out a series of insults to boot. He ordered the FBI to fire Deputy Director Andy McCabe, who had aroused Trump’s particular ire for his role in the Russia probe, hours before he was due to retire; the firing put McCabe’s retirement in jeopardy. When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Trump launched an extraordinarily vindictive intimidation campaign against his own attorney general. He did the same against Sessions’s deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
The list goes on. Trump, the reality TV star who specialized in firing his victims on “The Apprentice,” uses the power of the soft purge — the destruction of people’s livelihoods, careers and reputations, as opposed to the bloody violence of Soviet or Nazi purges — to enforce a culture of absolute loyalty and to deliberately break the power of independent agencies and bureaucracies. It’s a way of formally playing by the rules of a democratic political game while, in practice, shifting what is permissible in a deeply authoritarian direction.
Tuesday’s extraordinary announcement that, after a slew of Trump tweets, the Justice Department’s top brass was going to overrule its own staff in their sentencing recommendations in the Roger Stone case is another example of the loyalty culture that Trump is demanding.
The point isn’t that it’s important for Stone to receive a long prison sentence — as readers may know, I’ve written extensively on the harshness and overly long sentences of the criminal legal system in the U.S. But Trump didn’t pressure Attorney General William Barr because he’s inherently opposed to lengthy sentences; he pressured Barr because Stone is his friend, and in Trump’s worldview, loyalty to him as president transcends any notion of the impartial administration of justice. Oppose Trump’s will, and, it is now clear, you will likely be purged and publicly humiliated.
That the career prosecutors all chose to resign in the wake of the Justice Department’s action speaks volumes to where we are as a country: People in government who disagree with the president increasingly feel their only way of expressing discontent is to sever their ties with federal agencies — and, as they do so, they are replaced by toadies, yes-men only too happy to genuflect to Trump’s will.
There is a long and destructive history of soft purges in the United States. During the McCarthy years, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, thousands of people were fired from government agencies, teaching positions at schools and universities, from the entertainment industry and elsewhere, simply because Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen challenged their loyalty and asserted — frequently without evidence — that they were communist sympathizers or fellow-travelers.
My grandparents on my mother’s side lived in Los Angeles during these years: my granddad, a violinist; my grandmother, a modern dancer. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I would visit them and they would introduce me to their friends. Many of these people had lost their livelihoods 30 years earlier. They had been forbidden to perform their music and had been cut off from the world of work that they loved because back in the 1930s and 1940s, they had joined either the Communist Party or an array of other political groups, had signed petitions or had allied themselves with civil rights organizations. As a result, they were raked over the coals by the House Un-American Activities Committee in those ugly, paranoid years.
I remember talking with them about these years, and I remember the pain they still showed in their eyes decades later when they recalled the humiliation. Of course, McCarthy — whose right-hand man, Roy Cohn, mentored the young Trump — wasn’t the first to realize the power of the purge. Before McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, who would be director of the FBI for nearly half a century, began his rise to power in the wake of World War I, when, as a young law enforcement agent, he helped whip up an anti-Red scare, under Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer.
Using powers granted by the Sedition Act, Palmer and Hoover coordinated the arrest of thousands of suspected communists and anarchists. Many lost their jobs and livelihoods. Many, if they lacked U.S. citizenship, were deported to Soviet Russia — as happened to the fabled leftist organizers Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman — or elsewhere. Many others were simply beaten by the police during raids of union offices and political gatherings.
In the South, too, teachers and other public servants were often fired and otherwise intimidated if they came out against Jim Crow laws and conditions. In the northern cities, corrupt political machines such as Tammany Hall in New York used patronage appointments to reward allies and economic cudgels to attack their political enemies.
Trump’s strategy is similar to those of other American demagogues and fear-mongers beaded throughout the country’s long history. He is a man intolerant of dissent and, increasingly, intoxicated by his own raw power.
In his literary masterpiece, Stalingrad, the Russian writer Vasily Grossman wrote of Adolf Hitler: “He appealed to the basest of human instincts, to which he himself was in thrall: he was born of these instincts and, day after day, he helped bring them to birth in others…. He suppressed the resistance of the revolutionary forces of the Germany working class and he made short shrift of the democratic intelligentsia. He silenced all dissent, transforming Germany into an intellectual desert.”
I read Grossman’s description, and though the parallels are obviously not exact, I worry about where Trump’s United States could head.
We have soft purges today. But what’s to stop this man — an authoritarian who boasts of staying in power in perpetuity, who calls his opponents “scum,” “traitors” and “enemies of the people,” who has essentially been told by the Senate that he is beyond the reach of the law, and who expresses envy at the speed with which totalitarian regimes can carry out the death penalty — from moving toward harder, more overtly violent purges tomorrow?