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MAGA Maoism
By J. Bradford DeLong

What could possess one of America's two main political parties to transform itself into a cult of personality in which obsequiousness trumps merit? An examination of the Communist Party of China during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution suggests some striking parallels.
WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 04: Members of Congress applaud as President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Vice President Mike Pence look on in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 04, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump delivers his third State of the Union to the nation the night before the U.S. Senate is set to vote in his impeachment trial. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

How does former US President Donald Trump still command the Republican Party’s complete allegiance? Everyone knows he has terrible judgment and a vindictive, petty personality. Even Trump’s own daughter and son-in-law are reportedly distancing themselves from him.

And yet, whatever Trump says is still gospel for the overwhelming majority of Republican officeholders and commentators. For recognizing the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming was stripped of her GOP House leadership position.

Now, the furthest any Republican will go in challenging their dear leader is former Vice President Mike Pence’s observation that he and Trump “will never see eye to eye” on the events of January 6, 2021, the day Trump incited a violent insurrection at the US Capitol. Some of the gullible Trump supporters who stormed the building, seeking to block the certification of Biden’s victory, also wanted to execute Pence by hanging.

There is a disturbingly strong historical analogy to the Republican Party’s transformation into a cult of personality: the Communist Party of China under Mao Zedong. At the CPC’s Lu Mountain Plenary Meeting in 1958, Marshall Peng Dehuai pointed out that Mao’s judgment was flawed, and that he could no longer be trusted as primus inter pares. The only question was whether the other party grandees could move ahead without Mao’s charismatic link to the party’s gullible base.

But Mao struck first. While party officials like Peng Zhen, Luo Ruiqing, Lu Dingyi, Yang Shangkun, and Deng Xiaoping were purged, Peng and Liu Shaoqi both turned up dead, and the rest of the grandees got with the program.

That program was the total chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Recognizing that those who had benefited from the initial purges would need to be kept insecure and toothless, Mao continued to shake things up. Chen Boda was purged, Lin Biao was eliminated, and Deng – with his reputation for bureaucratic competence – was brought back into the fold, only to be purged again after being threatened with the promotion of Wang Hongwen (backed by the rest of the “Gang of Four” and Kang Sheng) and then Hua Guofeng.

Through all this shuffling, only two personnel qualifications mattered: obsequiousness and powerlessness. If the official in question fulfilled both, he would be praised, honored, and promoted. If he lacked one or the other, he would be taken down a peg, sent to work as a pipefitter, or assassinated (the one exception was Zhou Enlai, whose unfailing sycophancy perhaps made up for the fact that he wasn’t entirely powerless).

This process could be sustained because there was always an ample number of party officials who saw the chaos as an opportunity for their own advancement. But while deferentially doing Mao’s bidding could yield career advantages, he was old, low on energy, and on his way to meeting Karl Marx in the great beyond. So, the court intrigue continued, with officials falling over each other to “work toward the Chairman,” even though nobody but Mao’s nephew and closest aide could claim to understand his incoherent grunts and scrawls.

Even after Mao’s death, various factions competed to show that they had been truer to his wishes than anyone else. Mao’s immediate successor as party chairman, Hua, continued to quote Mao – “If you are in charge, I am at ease” – while extolling the successes of the Cultural Revolution. Wang and the rest of the Gang of Four boasted that they were Mao’s true ideological heirs. Even Deng maintained quietly that he had remained in Mao’s favor after his second purging, and that it had been Mao, via Wang Dongxing, rather than Deng’s military allies, who had protected him from the Gang of Four.

The comparisons to the Republican Party under Trump should now be obvious. The most sycophantic and impotent Republicans are duly selected by Trump for promotion, while those with any modicum of power or self-respect are cut off at the knees. Trump knows that the latter cohort would seek to sideline him as soon as it gained power or forged its own links to the base. The purges are carried out from Mar-a-Lago, where Trump denounces his former appointees and aides as losers and RINOs (Republicans in name only).

Hence, Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, is said to have requested an audience and been refused. And everyone knows that Trump is “disappointed” in Pence and regards Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as “a dumb son of a bitch.” According to Trump, the Democrats have the advantage, because “they don’t have the [Mitt] Romneys, Little Ben Sasses, and Cheneys of the world. Unfortunately, we do. Sometimes there are consequences to being ineffective and weak.”

And yet, the overwhelming majority of Republicans cling to Trump, hoping that appeasing him will benefit them personally. During the putsch attempt on January 6, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reportedly asked Trump, “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to?” But soon thereafter, McCarthy voted to overturn Biden’s election, and then crawled on hands and knees to Mar-a-Lago to pledge fealty to Trump.

And why shouldn’t he? Trump is dangerous to cross, has a charismatic link with a gullible base, and will not be a political force for much longer. He is old, low on energy, and on his way to meeting Roy Cohn in the great beyond. And even after he passes from the scene, various Republican factions will continue competing to show that they are truer to his wishes. That’s how parallels work.

J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.
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