Was Jan. 6 the American “Great Dress Rehearsal”? Maybe.

Courtesy of Tyler Merbler via Wikimedia

In 1917, the Bolsheviks conquered the then-Russian capital of St. Petersburg and overthrew the House of Romanov, which had reigned for nearly 300 years. 12 years earlier, they staged what Vladimir Lenin called “The Great Dress Rehearsal,” in which they attempted to overthrow the czar, were unsuccessful and waited until the regime was vulnerable enough to try again. Supposedly, General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thought about the failed 1905 Russian Revolution in the wake of the attempted insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. During the chaos, Milley felt concerned that the riots were a precursor to an even worse event in the future (The Washington Post, 2021). Unfortunately, he may be right.

All Americans should heed his worry about the events that unfurled during the last days of the Trump administration and are described in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s newly released book “Peril” (The Washington Post, 2021). Whenever a shocking event occurs, the historically inept are quick to describe such events as “unprecedented,” whereas the historically curious eagerly scout for possible parallels. Milley, an amateur historian, attended Princeton University before serving in the U.S. military, obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in politics followed by a Master’s in international relations from Columbia University. As Woodward and Costa describe in “Peril,” the metaphors that came to Milley’s mind––whether they were cultural or historical––illustrate the dark chapter that the United States continues to live through in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.

Following the attempted insurrection, Milley feared Donald Trump could spark an American “Reichstag moment” before Joe Biden’s swearing-in two weeks later, akin to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler using an arson attack on the parliament building as a ploy to establish dictatorial rule in 1933 (CNN Politics, 2021). In fact, this is not the only parallel to the Nazi regime that occurred to Milley as he attempted to make sense of the attack. Sadly, he concluded that some insurrectionists, including the Proud Boys and Boogaloo movement, arrived with plans to begin a revolution. In other words, they were modern-day Brownshirts. Without a doubt, Milley was right (Business Insider 2021).

During the Black Lives Matter protests in Summer 2020, former President Trump rebuked then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper after his public opposition to the invocation of the Insurrection Act, which allows the President to deploy the National Guard without congressional approval under certain circumstances. According to Milley, Trump’s animosity reminded him of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 war film “Full Metal Jacket,” whose antics included constant screaming and crude insults (CNN Politics, 2021). Moreover, he viewed Stephen Miller, Trump’s top adviser who attended meetings centered around solving the unrest, as an American version of Grigori Rasputin, a seemingly insignificant character who actually wielded substantial power in the final years of Czar Nicholas II’s reign (The Washington Post, 2021). 

Throughout the final year of his presidency, Trump remained consistently curious about attacking Iran. These sentiments frightened Milley, as he pictured a “Wag the Dog” scenario in reference to the 1997 film in which a president launches a war to distract his constituents from a sex scandal. While Trump weighed in on possible Iranian targets, including Qasem Soleimani, Milley also envisioned a situation similar to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the event that kickstarted World War I, as well as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In evoking such parallels, Milley revealed his fears of the potential consequences leading to a war between great powers. As Woodward and Costa write, “It was precisely the kind of hair-trigger environment where an accident or misinterpretation could escalate catastrophically” (“Peril,” 2021).  

Pretending that he didn’t lose does not make Donald Trump a winner; however, lacking the awareness of how truly dangerous he was as a leader––which some moderate Democrats are doing––in no way lessens the threat he and his loyalists pose to our democracy. If another uprising from his base occurs in 12 years, or maybe sooner, we will wish we did something in the present day to prevent it, like convicting the politicians and assailants responsible instead of simply decrying their decision to underplay the gravity of the situation. Was Jan. 6 the American version of the Great Dress Rehearsal? Maybe a failed Reichstag moment? Although unclear, history tells us that it may have been, meaning that an irreversibly damaging effect on our democracy will possibly take place. That being said, are we as a country willing to pay enough attention in order to avert the graphic sequel? It certainly does not seem that way, but we must in order to protect the republic.


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