Republicans want American voters to believe that the Democrats will bring forth an oppressive future that will mirror the brutal mistakes of communism's past — and so from the first day of the Republican National Convention, they tried to revive Cold War-era fears about the "red menace" of communism.
Donald Trump Jr., for instance, pledged Monday that a vote for his dad would bring about a world in which "the good guys" persevere over dark forces. "Imagine a world where the evils of communism and radical Islamic terrorism are not given a chance to spread — where heroes are celebrated and the good guys win. You can have it," he said.
Maximo Alvarez, a Cuban-born immigrant, alternatively suggested that a win for Democrats in November would make America totalitarian — and he compared Joe Biden to the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. "I heard the promises of Fidel Castro," he said, "and I can never forget all those who grew up around me, who look like me, who suffered and starved and died because they believed those empty promises. They swallowed the communist poison pill."
The Republicans, though, have it exactly backward: It's Trump's GOP that has facilitated the kinds of oppression that echo the human rights abuses of the 20th century's communist regimes. I should know: My family suffered from and fled an authoritarian communist regime.
In 1949, my grandfather tried to escape communist Bulgaria when it was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. He was caught, arrested and thrown into Belene — a concentration camp for opponents of the regime located on a remote, marshy island on the Danube River called Persin. After the gulag opened in 1948, it became known as the Island of Death; the camp was so horrific that another survivor wrote that Alexander Solzhenitsyn's experience in a Soviet gulag sounded like "a dream" in comparison. Inmates were starved, beaten and shot to death on a whim; some of them had to kill and eat water snakes raw to survive, while others picked through horse manure for undigested barley. The camp guards liked to chase them on horseback and whip them as if they were livestock.
After his release, my grandfather tried to escape Bulgaria three more times — serving more prison time for two of the attempts — before he made it to the West on his fourth try.
The gulag was officially shut down after Stalin's death in 1953, but it reopened as a prison several years later. In the 1980s, Muslim minorities who refused to convert to Christianity were sent there.
Authoritarian communist regimes were brutal — the American left shouldn't deny that, even as it praises programs that led to universal literacy or the universal health care and education systems made available to people under them. But Republicans also have no business cynically exploiting that history to smear liberal Democrats like Biden and Kamala Harris or democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders as would-be Stalins.
First of all, the widely popular policies of democratic socialism —such as universal health care, a living wage and access to quality education — aren't inseparable from violence and oppression. You don't need brutal gulags to send more kids to college without leaving them in debt or to pay employees a livable wage. Instituting programs to benefit the public good doesn't necessitate trampling individual rights and freedoms.
What gulags do represent is a disconnect between crime and appropriate punishment, as well as an ability to see all of the members of our society as equally human and worthy of treatment as humans. Trump's party of "law and order" has no right to decry regimes notorious for gulags and unjust imprisonment; many Republicans oppose basic criminal justice reform even as people are serving life without parole in the U.S. prison system for the victimless crime of selling marijuana while Black.
Meanwhile, during the Democratic primary season, Sanders had the most progressive criminal justice platform. And while Biden and Harris are hardly poster children for a more moral criminal justice system, thanks to the left flank of the Democratic Party, they're being forced to embrace reform and reckon with their poor records on the issue.
The Republican hypocrisy when it comes to its communist smear campaign hardly ends there. Trump's signature policy is and has been building a wall to prevent emigrants from coming across at the Southwest border. Where does the party of "Build the wall!" get off talking about communist regimes with harsh restrictions on freedom of movement?
For one, Monica Crowley — who would later become a Trump administration official — tweeted a picture of herself in 2015 grinning against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall, which was built by the authoritarian East German communist regime to prevent East Berliners from fleeing to West Berlin. "At the Berlin Wall last week. Walls work," Crowley said.
My grandfather spent four years in a concentration camp for the victimless crime of attempted emigration — and on his third failed escape attempt, he tried to cross the border into Greece, where he was caught by border guards and sent back to prison.
In addition to building a physical wall, Trump immigration policy is designed to stem the flow of refugees. Many people who fled the communist regimes that the GOP wants Americans to fear now — including my grandparents — were exactly that: people whose lives were untenable in their home countries. Today, that's true of Syrians trying to escape a country pulverized by a dictator and a nightmare civil war, African migrants who risk drowning to make it to Europe and South American refugees trying to escape violence sparked by America's global drug war.
My parents and I were able to come to the U.S. at the end of 1989, when the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on the satellite states, because my grandparents lived in Southern California, so we qualified under the U.S.'s family reunification policy. Over the past three years, Trump and his adviser Stephen Miller have been obsessed with ending family reunification; had they been in charge 31 years ago, families like mine might not have escaped the last gasps of the communist regimes they're now decrying.
It's patently absurd to paint the deeply centrist Biden-Harris ticket as a Trojan horse for communism — but it's absurd and offensive for the party of Donald Trump to cite the oppressive parts of historic communist regimes as potential outcomes of a Democratic administration. The most brutal qualities of a communist regime — unaccountable prison systems, militarized borders, the oppression of minorities — are almost perfectly mirrored in Trump's own policies.
Years after his ordeal, my grandfather wrote in a notebook that his time in the gulag had made him more determined than ever to come to the U.S. "After surviving 4 years and two months on the 'Island of Death,' Persin, I was released in April 1953, and I decided that I must go to what's meant to be my home: America," he wrote.
The America that people dreamed about behind the Iron Curtain was a place of freedom, prosperity and opportunity for all. That's not the vision of America represented by Donald Trump and the GOP, and each night of the RNC, they make that more and more clear.