How Trump's Republican Party Went Soft on Communism

It's the most astonishing reversal in modern American political history.


If you had told Ronald Reagan in 1988 that in 30 years, the president of the United States would be chummy with communist dictators in China and North Korea, eager to please a brutal Kremlin autocrat, and indifferent to the needs of our military allies, he might have said: That's what you get for electing a Democrat.

Today's Republicans make up a party he wouldn't recognize. For decades, the Russians and Chinese dispatched spies and enlisted American sympathizers to try to harm the United States and tilt its policies in their favor. Under Donald Trump, they don't have to. They have a friend in the Oval Office.

It's the most astonishing reversal in modern American political history. Over the past century, the right accused liberals and Democrats of excusing the crimes of Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro. Often, the criticism was well-founded.

Harvard's John King Fairbank, the dean of American China scholars, spoke for many on the left in 1972 when he said the communist revolution was "the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in centuries." President Jimmy Carter, who spurned Americans' "inordinate fear of communism," was shocked by the invasion of Afghanistan. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, he lamented, "lied to me."

Conservatives saw Carter as a starry-eyed dupe. "The most flagrant offenders of human rights including the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba have been the beneficiaries of administration good will, while nations friendly to the United States have suffered the loss of U.S. commercial access and economic and military assistance," said the 1980 Republican platform.

"The evidence of the Soviet threat to American security has never been more stark and unambiguous, nor has any president ever been more oblivious to this threat and its potential consequences," the platform added. "The president's failure to shoulder the burden of leadership in the Western alliance has placed America in danger without parallel since December 7, 1941."

All these charges have deafening echoes today. But this time, the credulous appeaser failing our allies is a Republican president. For communist dictators such as Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, Trump exudes admiration and amity. To the anti-Western Russian President Vladimir Putin, he offered congratulations for winning a rigged election.

When it comes to Canada's Justin Trudeau and Germany's Angela Merkel, by contrast, he seethes with resentment. With Trump, it's better to be a long-standing American adversary than a faithful ally.

That about-face strains belief. More incredible still is that the Republican Party has chosen to follow his lead. GOP leaders and conservative commentators have turned themselves inside out praising behavior they would have torched had it come from a Democratic administration.

This new outlook might be defensible if it were the product of a conscious, informed reassessment of our role in a changing world. But it's not. It's almost entirely the product of the takeover of the Republican Party by Trump. Anything he says immediately becomes its semiofficial policy—no matter how deeply it contradicts past doctrines.

The pattern is uncannily reminiscent of the Communist Party USA in the years leading up to World War II. First it opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a capitalist lackey. Then, as fascist movements rose in Europe, it joined with noncommunists on the left in "popular front" organizations that aligned with FDR in opposing fascism.

An abrupt turnabout came in 1939, when Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler. American Communists jumped to defend this cooperation with the Nazis—and condemned Roosevelt for providing aid to Britain, which was at war with Germany.

When Hitler and Stalin proceeded to divide up Poland by force—putting millions of Polish Jews under Nazi rule—the party defended the dismemberment. When Hitler shocked Stalin by invading the Soviet Union, American Communists shifted yet again, getting behind Roosevelt and calling to help the countries fighting Germany.

Many members of the Communist Party USA couldn't stomach these grotesque reversals and chose to leave. But many remained loyal, quickly changing their beliefs to fit whatever the Kremlin did.

"Both the CPUSA leaders and the rank and file absorbed Stalin's ideological hatreds as their own," wrote the peerless historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes. These Communists wore "special glasses that allowed them to see only what Moscow saw and that rendered all else invisible."

Republicans of 50 or even five years ago would be appalled at how Trump has reshaped American foreign policy. But then, they weren't wearing special glasses that warped their vision. They were seeing clearly.