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Op-Ed

Zugzwang for Trumpublicans

September 16, 2022

Zugzwang describes a chess position in which your little army appears to be in good shape: The king is protected, no weaknesses apparent — unless you have to make a move. And it’s your move.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

The excellent word zugzwang describes the position in which many “strongmen” find themselves today. I’m thinking of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and the Trumpublican Party.

Many strongmen, today and in the past, have found themselves in zugzwang. It’s a slow paralysis, which, if prolonged, may show that the strongman wasn’t so strong after all.

Think of the collapse of the old Soviet Union: An immense icy chain of 290 million people in 15 putative countries melted apart faster than anyone could have believed, after a single link in the chain snapped: the Berlin Wall.

The Politburo had to figure out what to do next, and it didn’t have a clue.

Putin finds himself in a similar situation, to a great extent, but not wholly because of Ukraine.

Effective Boss for Life of a country of 144 million — half the size of the old USSR — this Soviet-style strongman actually is so weak that he cannot — will not — allow a crack in his armor to appear anywhere. Look at him: While waging war against a country of 39 million, he’s locking up anyone who dares to call it a war.

It's zugzwang. Putin is a ruthless, vile human being, but he’s not stupid. He knows that a crack anywhere in his dystopia could lead to cracks everywhere — so he cannot allow even the tiniest crack in the system. He’s got to rig elections and political nominations in hamlets in remote Siberia. That’s a strongman on the surface, but underneath it’s a man who’s scared for his life — with reason.

So, Putin made a move. He invaded Ukraine. Turns out it was a stupid move, but that’s the situation in which “strongmen” will always find themselves, eventually. They’d like to keep the pieces arranged just so — forever. But history doesn’t work like that. 

Xi Jinping finds himself in a similar situation. Why do you think he is so scared of Taiwan and Hong Kong?

First, because their combined populations of 32 million speak fluent Chinese, and they know what he’s up to.

Second, because their healthy economies can get along very well without Beijing, and Xi knows it.

But mostly it’s zugzwang. Xi can’t afford to let these breathing outposts to the world show the 1.4 billion people he keeps under his thumb that there could be another way to play the game. A single crack, left unattended, could unravel his dictatorship as surely as Berlin shattered the Soviet Union. 

This also explains Xi’s genocide in Xinjiang. It’s not just that most of Xinjiang’s 17 million people are Muslim; it’s that they are composed of 47 ethnic groups, including Uyghur, Kazakh, Mongolian, Kirgiz, Uzbek, Tatar, Tajik, Russian and Han. And any one of these, if left “unattended,” could stir up god knows what sorts of trouble for Beijing.

So Xi can’t afford to let them move — lest it force him to make a move. And strongmen want things to stay just as they are.

This brings us to the U.S. Trumpublican Party. Why do you think their entire strategy, under Presidents Obama and Biden, can be characterized by two words: paralysis — stalemate?

It’s because the Trumpublicans think that they’re sitting pretty: Stalemated in the Senate, able to paralyze it through filibusters. But Trumpublicans have nothing to offer our 332 million citizens but zugzwang: endless stalemate.

Mitch McConnell said as much after we elected our first Black president. McConnell said all his efforts would be bent toward stopping Obama’s programs and preventing his second term. And there’s been little difference under President Biden, though the race-baiting, if you can believe it, has actually increased from Trumpublicans.

But Trumpublicans have nothing to offer us, unless you think abortion should be illegal nationwide — though we respect “states’ rights”; that Social Security and Medicare should be privatized; that labor unions are horrible things, as are environmental laws, public schools and teaching U.S. history, especially about Black people and Mexicans, and how our laws evolved.

No, the Trumpublicans are in zugzwang. Like Putin and Xi, they may think they’re sitting pretty. But what will they do when it’s their move — and they have to make a move?

Trumpublicans have backpedaled on abortion since their packed Supreme Court gave them what they said they wanted.

I don’t think the Republican Party has the ghost of a clue of what it plans to do next, unless it’s to claw its way back to zugzwang: threaten to indict any Democrat who gets elected, unless prosecutors in multiple jurisdictions refuse to indict the guy who ought to be indicted.

Trumpublicans are asking Americans to vote for perpetual check. That’s why they won’t concede to any chink in his flimsy armor. They will not admit to the tiniest flaw. Because once you admit, ‘well, yeah, that was a lie …’ then what?

Out of the Trumpublican Party! Our hero can do no wrong!

No, my friends. That’s fascism. 

That’s not how America made its way in the world, and got ahead. And our Mostly American Great Ancestors (MAGA) didn’t need a fleet of lawyers to help them do it.

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