As much as opposing ideologues may hate each other, there is no one they despise more than those who try to make peace between them. The peacemakers may well be blessed in the hereafter, but in the earthly realm they are treated as badly as the poor and the meek. I found this out the hard way when I retired from chess in 2005 to help create a Russian coalition movement against the rising dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.
By then, it was clear that Putin was returning at all possible speed to his Soviet and KGB roots. Elected as Boris Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor in 2000, Putin was reelected in a stage-managed landslide in 2004. Russia’s wealthiest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, had been jailed in 2003 for refusing to cease his dabbling in politics. The Russian media had been brought largely to heel by a Kremlin campaign of takeovers and threats. In April 2005, as if to remove any doubts, Putin made his infamous remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”
As world chess champion, I had tried to use my platform and the protection my fame provided me to speak out against communism and Soviet repression. But this time, it was going to be a full-time job. I was no politician, as critics were quick to point out, but I had unique status as someone who had long represented the USSR and Russia while maintaining a consistent position on liberty and democracy. That patriotic past made it difficult for the Kremlin to slander me as a Western stooge (though they tried) and I obviously wasn’t motivated by financial gain to swap the peak of the chess world to march in the streets of Moscow always outnumbered by riot police.
There was no time to lose. Putin was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive presidential term in 2008, and I felt there was still a small chance to change the course of the country by having a real election and returning power to the people of Russia.
The numbers of those who would, or could, stand up to Putin’s tightening fist were small. It wasn’t easy to rally Russians to fight for liberties they had barely known and, to be honest, had seen few concrete benefits from. Skyrocketing oil prices allowed the Kremlin to claim credit for relative economic stability, but Russia was, and still is, a poor country for most of those outside the gilded rings of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The continued embrace of Putin by the world’s democratic leaders despite his crackdowns made it difficult to persuade people that he was turning Russia into an autocracy—and why Russians should care.
With no access to mass media and a dwindling number of dissenting voices left in politics, we took to the streets in a series of “Dissenters’ Marches.” Over the protests of many of my colleagues, I invited the participation of anyone who would march under our banner of free and fair elections. Along with my United Civil Front and prominent liberal voices like Boris Nemtsov, a former Yeltsin deputy prime minister, and Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister under Putin, this also meant groups like the National Bolsheviks, with their repulsive symbols and even more repulsive rhetoric. Most were youngsters who were more punk than proletarian, but who realized on some level that Putin’s closed society would have no room for them.
It was hardly my dream to march alongside people whose beliefs I found abhorrent, but we all understood that none of our beliefs would matter if Putin weren’t challenged. As I often said in interviews at the time, when asked about my strange and dangerous new bedfellows, we would sit on opposite sides of parliament—but first we had to make sure we still had a parliament to sit in. To do that, we needed people who were willing to fight, and perhaps inspire others to do so.
To make this long, painful story shorter, Putin is still in power more than a decade later, Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015, and I have lived in New York since 2013. You could that say we were naïve, or too weak, or too late, or that there was never a chance against a KGB structure that had never really gone away. But I remain convinced that the idea of uniting against the greatest threat is paramount. Russian democracy may be gone, but the lessons of its rise and fall are more important now than ever. I just never imagined that they would apply so well, and so soon, to two lodestars of democracy, the United Kingdom and my new home of the United States of America.
Rage and polarization are the lifeblood of any radical movement, and compromise means obsolescence and death. Voices of reason are shouted down, moderation is weakness, and doubts are insufficient belief in the cause. Criticism of the party leadership is base disloyalty, which has the effect of channeling authority upwards—especially dangerous when power resides in a small group, or, most dangerous of all, in one person.
In such an environment, ideology inevitably becomes less important than tribal identity, power for the sake of power. Policy goals and principles are cast aside as inconvenient burdens when the only thing that matters is winning at all costs. Political rivals are demonized, a necessary step to excuse the coming excesses against them. Debate ceases to be about two sides of an issue, becoming entirely separate streams of information, or misinformation, to the faithful.
History has many warnings about the catastrophic power of such methods in even the most enlightened environments. I prefer the less common example of Spain in the 1930s because it was a clash of two opposing and extreme forces that gradually pushed out every moderate element, resulting in a bloody civil war. In 1936, a new Popular Front coalition narrowly won national elections, but it was too little, too late. Francisco Franco led a coup with an alliance of nationalists that openly turned to fascism, including receiving the support of Hitler and Mussolini. The leftist Republican government turned to the USSR for help after France and Britain declared their neutrality, soon incorporating a vicious proxy war into the conflict and resulting in Stalin’s agents purging the Republican ranks of rival leftist groups like the Trotskyists.
The extremes left little room in the middle, even though few Spaniards wanted war at the start, let alone one that would associate half of them with Nazis and the other half with Stalinists. (Stalin could also claim credit for Hitler’s own rise: he demanded that the German Communist Party, the KPD, target not the fascists, but the dominant Social Democrats, who were denounced as “social fascists.” This effectively allied the Communists with the Nazis in bringing down the existing democratic order and paving the way for Hitler.)
Even in stable democracies, moderates find it difficult to compete against the overheated rhetoric and outlandish promises of radical demagogues. Reasonable leaders are expected to produce results, a bar that is constantly lowered and eventually discarded altogether by autocrats. They blame the opposition, the media, minorities, foreign enemies—anyone but themselves.
A modern media model based on clicks and trending topics feeds the electorate’s dopamine triggers of rage and joy. Centrists feel marginalized by the lack of attention their humble goals receive compared to the threats and fantasies of the radical wings. This leads many either to tune out, which cedes more space and influence to the radicals, or to pick a side in order to feel as though they have a voice.
There is no easy way out of these traps, and they don’t have to be fatal or final to be hugely damaging. Of course, the United States in the 2020s isn’t 1930s Spain or Russia in the early 2000s. A civil war or a full-blown dictatorship remain very unlikely outcomes. It’s the trend that is worrying—that these well-known roads to disaster are being cleared and paved in the world’s most powerful country.
Leading the way to political perdition is the American Republican Party. The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan is now slavishly loyal to a corrupt reality-TV host whose only demonstrable allegiances are to his own image and Vladimir Putin. GOP legislators of the past pushed back against Richard Nixon, against Gerald Ford, and even against Reagan and George W. Bush. That someone of the high crimes and low character of Donald Trump now commands complete Republican fealty says more about the state of the GOP, and perhaps the country, than about Trump—and it says nothing good.
Worse, the GOP sees Trump not as an embarrassment to endure but as a working model to perpetuate. What Trump believes matters not at all; it only matters that he won and holds power. Worst of all, Trumpism looks set to outlast Trump himself—with whichever equally unqualified family member tries to succeed him in the finest autocratic tradition. Trump’s victory in the 2016 election validated his personal bombastic political style. There is still time to relegate it as a terrible mistake, a tragic fluke of tiny electoral college margins, an unpopular opponent, foreign intervention, and media gullibility. But Trump’s reelection in 2020 would validate his political methods and have a long-lasting impact on America and the world.
Demagogues and extremists draw the spotlight with hateful rhetoric or utopian promises—usually both. While we usually think of these movements as revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary, democracies are not immune to these timeworn techniques. Attention translates into media coverage, into campaign donations, and into votes.
Despite the romantic image of coups as sudden insurgencies, usually military in nature, the reality is usually more prosaic and insidious. Putin was originally elected, albeit with considerable irregularities. Quite a few other elected leaders have followed Putin’s model of assaulting and degrading the democratic institutions they are supposed to protect in order to move from mere president to president-for-life. The architecture of a republic is surprisingly easy to pull down from within: you never know when your vote will be the last meaningful one you cast.
Trump has even begun talking publicly about staying in office beyond 2024, one of the many menacing boasts he makes at rallies that the mainstream media desperately dismisses as jokes. (As Masha Gessen wrote in these pages, “Rule #1: Believe the autocrat.”) And while anything beyond the 2024 election would be much to ask of Trump’s diminishing capacities—and the Constitution—there is no prohibition against one of Trump’s family members claiming the mantle, and no sign that the GOP will resist formally becoming the Trump Party.
We learned this the hard way in Russia, where our constitution has been altered, evaded, and ignored by Putin for years. As the 2018 US midterm election demonstrated, American institutions have deeper roots and have proved more robust than have Russia’s, but many of them are untested and rusty. Decades of partisan Congresses’ ceding their authority to presidents of the same party have turned the first branch into a third-class institution full of second-class minds. Congress was ill-prepared to deal with someone like Trump, a man with no concept of public service or the national interest, or anyone’s welfare beyond his own.
After three years of his increasingly disgraceful behavior, Trump’s critics still seem to believe there are lines he will not cross in order to protect himself and his power. This is a common mistake, and a natural one. A disregard for anything but oneself is a type of evil superpower in politics (and business). It allows such people to constantly surprise their rivals by doing what others find unthinkable. Every time I hear someone say, “But Trump would never do x,” I recall all the times we were told by tut-tutting Western pundits that surely Putin would never jail his opposition, would never return to the presidency, would never invade Ukraine, etc. He would and he did.
Laws are only as strong as the character of the people charged with enforcing them. They cannot be applied selectively, or you soon find yourself in the cynical world encapsulated in the words of the Peruvian military leader and politician Óscar Benavides, “For my friends everything, for my enemies the law.” A few days after Trump’s inauguration, I said in an interview that Americans were about to find out how much their government was based on traditions and the honor system. What happens when a president ignores those things? What happens when the executive declines to hold press briefings, and simply doesn’t fill leading positions in the vital government departments, appointing yes-men as acting heads who are often untested and unvetted?
Unallocated power accrues upwards, reducing accountability and transparency. It’s a slow-motion coup of attrition, largely invisible, with unpredictable and far-reaching effects.
Typical officials and bureaucrats expand their dominions by adding subordinates and creating new departments and agencies. Autocrats require total loyalty, so the circle of confidants inevitably shrinks both in size and in quality. In the resulting vacuum, no one can hear the whistleblower’s whistle, assuming there’s anyone left to blow it.
The rise of populist nationalism that has been gaining from the zero-sum global decline in democracy doesn’t belong to any political ideology or side. The populist left in Venezuela, Greece, and Spain sounds much like the populist right in Hungary, Turkey, and France. The far left and far right in the United States are starting to sound more and more like each other. Not in the content of their unrealistic promises, but in the vengeful tone of their rhetoric, their cynicism about democratic norms and institutions, their hostility toward the free press, and their attitudes toward expanding state power. What’s needed today is a popular front against populism.
The increasingly marginalized majority must, by voice and by vote, support candidates and media outlets that refuse to sink to sensationalism and hyper-partisanship. The Republicans and Fox News have followed in Trump’s footsteps, but the reaction cannot be to match them lie for lie, outrage for outrage. America’s two-party system can give the appearance of a zero-sum, “with us or against us” struggle, but it wasn’t so long ago that both “conservative Democrats” and “moderate Republicans” strode the halls of Congress. We need leaders who can argue policy and priorities without believing in an alternate reality or treating their opponents like enemies of the state.
The latest warning comes from America’s closest transatlantic ally, the United Kingdom. The recent election proved that in Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party had succeeded in fielding perhaps the only politician in the UK more reviled than the Tory leader, Boris Johnson—quite an achievement, made possible by Corbyn’s particular combination of personal deficiencies and outdated socialist platform. By pulling Labour’s agenda to the far left and refusing to step aside for a less unpopular candidate, Corbyn dashed millions of his traditional voters’ hopes and interests in electoral defeat and for years to come.
Corbyn also attempted to sidestep the issue of Brexit, when the country was, for perfectly logical reasons, obsessed with it. This is another lesson for the Democrats in 2020, who currently seem more interested in arguing over the minutiae of their health care plans than focusing on Donald Trump’s open assault on American democracy. There is a real chance the Democrats will nominate a candidate who is far left enough to keep some anti-Trump voters home and drive Trump voters to the polls. There won’t be any Green New Deals, Medicare for All, or loan forgiveness programs if Trump is reelected. They won’t even get a proper burial. Instead, Trump will likely get to replace two more aging, liberal Supreme Court judges and entrench his assault on American institutions for a generation. Such an arch-conservative Court would be a fortress against any modernizing initiatives required in our rapidly changing times.
Perhaps it’s because I was born in a totalitarian country, but I always thought the objective of elections was to win. There’s no moral victory against an autocrat; you just get written out of the next editions of the history books. Democrats shouldn’t look at Trump’s low approval rating and assume that any of their candidates will beat him, and that therefore the real competition is to out-promise each other in the primary contest. The voters whom the Democrats most need to turn out are the ones most likely to be frightened off by controversy and radical ideas—from either side.
A popular front against Trump would mean keeping him and his many abuses in the spotlight, as well as targeting his defenders in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t want to host an impeachment trial with witnesses. What might voters make of that? Repeat the facts about the administration’s crimes and failures, from the trade war tariffs that hurt American producers and consumers to his reckless, Corleone-style foreign policy. Ask Americans if they think the president should be above the law. Campaign on a return to stability and sanity, instead of trying to out-Trump Trump with wild promises and wild-eyed rhetoric.
Around 100 million eligible voters didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election, enough to have defeated both Trump and Hillary Clinton. For all the talk of voter suppression and the potential for more foreign interference or outright cheating in 2020, even a moderate uptick in turnout in the right places would overwhelm any subtle fraud. Still, it is important to make clear that the watchers are watching, and that any campaign law violations or foreign interference will be dealt with severely. This would be part of a platform of unity and integrity that keeps these matters and Trump’s own well-documented immorality and criminality in the foreground.
There are many traditional issues worthy of thorough debate, to be sure. Economic inequality, threats to the environment, a ballooning deficit and the need to re-fund the entitlement budget as the huge Boomer generation leaves the workforce. The extravagances of debt-fueled commerce have gone unchecked, opening the door for socialists who want to tear down the system that created unprecedented prosperity, instead of working together to fix it. Vital matters, pressing matters—none of which will be addressed if Trump is reelected.
The stakes are high not just for the US. Putin isn’t going away, unfortunately, and his influence looms large in nearly every global crisis point, from Ukraine to North Korea to Venezuela to Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Kremlin has taken lately to trolling Poland with lies about the origins of World War II and making noise about old Russian claims on Belorussia, both efforts to aggressively reinterpret the past. These misinformation offensives aren’t just for domestic consumption anymore, and Trump’s dubious support for NATO is very much on the minds of Baltic leaders. Putin badly needs Trump to stay in the White House, keeping the US out of his plans.
Iran threatens to be the crisis everyone dreaded the moment Trump’s election was confirmed. Since Trump cares nothing about national security or human life, we are left to hope that his self-interest doesn’t violently clash with national and global interests. But his attempted extortion of Ukraine and the Republicans’ lack of interest in punishing him for it are poor omens.
My past experience obliges me to give warnings, not predictions. As when I marched against Putin in 2005, raising the alarm about his turn toward despotism, I want to be proven wrong. I would like nothing better than to be called hysterical, a crank, a chessplayer who couldn’t see five moves ahead—if it meant that the American people had heeded the warning signs and acted in time to avoid a repeat of the painful recent history I witnessed.
Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate will send a message to the country and the world; the only question is what that message will be. No matter what Trump does, his GOP defenders will never abandon him if he looks politically invincible, and he will spawn more imitators, both at home and abroad. Back in 1974, Richard Nixon’s resignation in the face of impeachment proceedings so stunned Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership that they thought it might be an American ploy of some kind. I remember how it shocked my family in Baku in a very different way—because we saw it as evidence that in a democracy even the top man was not above the law. How could we not imagine what it would be like to live in such a blessed place ourselves?
But for Trump to stay in office, especially if he wins reelection in 2020, will inspire authoritarians and dishearten their subjects. It will set a negative example for both US political parties that there are no consequences for cheating and lying. The downward spiral will accelerate. The only remedy is to mobilize public opinion and for the American people to hold not only Trump accountable, but his defenders as well. And that will have to happen the old-fashioned way: at the ballot box in November.