These days, there’s no shortage of people casting dire warnings about Donald Trump. Each time the president makes another statement, millions of people point out the eerie similarities between his latest “tactic” and those employed by brutal dictators of old.
The dictator to whom Trump is most often compared is Hitler, an extreme comparison that would be totally unfair if not for the fact that many of his closest advisers are full-blown white nationalists. At the risk of splitting hairs while the world burns, Trump’s style of governing (such as it is) does not remind me so much of Der Fuhrer, whose horror was at least meticulously planned. His first chaotic days in office remind me more of a completely different despot: Mao Zedong. Specifically, they call to mind Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
I’ve long been fascinated by hermetically-sealed cults of personality, like North Korea, and regimes that attempted to halt history in its tracks, like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. But the place and period that fascinates me the most is China under the Cultural Revolution (which ran roughly from 1966 until Mao’s death 10 years later), which combined a cult of personality with an insane push to erase history into one horrifying amalgam.
During the Cultural Revolution, everyone in China—all 1 billion of them—was taught to worship Chairman Mao as if he were a god. Mao had always been officially revered, but this period elevated him to an insane, untouchable level. Mao made sure he remained at this level by fomenting a climate of “permanent revolution” in which any vestige of the past was questioned, then destroyed. The result was a roiling chaos that left everyone too confused, terrified, and exhausted to question anything Mao had done.
Even if you know nothing about Mao or the Cultural Revolution, this has an obvious, superficial resemblance to Trump. His election was an attempt to destroy all political norms that preceded it—both the Clintonite neoliberal consensus and the staid fiscal/intellectual conservative wing of the GOP. In the place of both of these, Trump has created a new political reality that revolves exclusively around his own whims.
But how are the two men specifically similar? Allow me to demonstrate.