Persuasion Via Historical Analogy: Obsession With the Cultural Revolution


Credit: Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In line with the liberal discourse, as the insurrection and storming of Capitol Hill incited the former President Trump on Jan. 6 was depicted as the American version of “Bombard the headquarters”, the memory of the Cultural Revolution back in China’s 1960s to 1970s was invoked for comparison. The analogy seems so vivid and solid that nearly every political actor in Capitol riot event could find its equivalent in the decade-long calamity in Mao’s China. Donald Trump was compared to the Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong, fervent pro-Trump rioters to the fanatic Maoist Red Guards, and Mike Pence to the purged vice chairman Liu Shaoqi.

However, the invocation of the Cultural Revolution is not new in American politics. During the last summer not long ago, the civil unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in police brutality was called America’s own Cultural Revolution, this time, in conservative and alt-right rhetoric. Amid the protests, controversial statues, memorials and monuments related to racial oppression were vandalized, toppled or removed by protesters, while controversial names of some public places were changed or planned to be changed under public pressure, which was similar to “Destruction of Four Olds (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas in China’s pre-communist past)” in the eyes of conservative pundits and right-wing intellectuals.

It is worth noting that despite divides and differences between liberals and conservatives, they at least agree on one thing: Cultural Revolution is despicable and reprehensible as opposed to acceptable and laudable. For this, it becomes a rhetoric tool for liberals and conservatives to launch political attack against each other. Given that there are sufficient debates and discussions on whether it’s accurate to compare Capitol storming or civil unrest of Black Lives Matter to the Cultural Revolution, this essay doesn’t intend to explore the suitability of this historical analogy, but it attempts to explore why the memory of the Cultural Revolution in pre-reform China found its way into the discourse of current American politics, and how historical analogy is employed for persuasion purposes in both cases.

Historical analogy is usually presented in reductionist and decontextualized manner, by which a complicated and multi-faceted historical event is reduced to some individual episodes or elements and without consideration of historical context, so that it is claimed that such episodes represent the comprehensive picture of the historical event.

The decade-long Cultural Revolution is far more complicated than the mere episodes of “Bombard the Headquarters” or “Destruction of Four Olds”. But intellectuals and pundits in both liberal and conservative camps selected such individual episodes in the traumatic political upheaval in China’s 1960s, comparing them to social realities in America that they seem to reflect, but retrieving them from historical context, as they intentionally or unintentionally overlooked the broader background of the Cultural Revolution and ignored the other episodes. Whereas liberals were keen to focus on the disastrous outcome of insurrection incited by a dangerous totalitarian leadership against the very political institutions by invoking “Bombard the Headquarters” in Capitol riot, conservatives were seeing the sporadic riots, denial of history, and apparent intolerance of different opinions amid the Black Lives Matter movement as American version of “Destruction of Four Olds”.

Of course, quoting Mark Twain, those who employ historical analogies may argue that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. Unfortunately, the argument doesn’t help deny the weakness of analogical reasoning. Due to its reductionist quality and decontextualized approach, historical analogy tends to provide short-cut to circumvent serious debate, if not shutting it down, and jump to the hasty definition and conclusion that serve as a flawed basis for decision-making.

As is argued by Henry Kissinger, “history teaches by analogy, shedding light on the likely consequences of comparable situations”. Historical analogy has been usually employed as basis for foreign policy. In time of unprecedented crisis, policymakers are usually looking into history to seek lessons or experiences from the past that may provide guidance for them to make appropriate response. Abundant precedents are in this regard. For instance, the 9/11 attack in 2001 was analogized to Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 as both events share the same character of “attack on American soil by hostile forces”. Based on such similarity, the Bush administration was able to justify its response to the terrorist attack by referring to the response to Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor. Likewise, China is compared to former Soviet Union as both regimes share characteristic of “socialism” and the ruling parties share characteristic of “communism”, so the ongoing China-U.S. rivalry was characterized as new “Cold War”, which is used to justify Trump administration’s containment policy. These precedents follow a formula presented as below: as current Event A is similar to historical Event B in sharing Characteristic X; and historical Event B also has Characteristic Y; therefore, we can infer that current Event A would also has Characteristic Y.

However, the comparison of Capitol riot and Black Lives Matter movement to China’s Cultural Revolution shows a distinct pattern. In these cases, analogical reasoning is not applied in international politics, but in domestic politics; it is not drawn by policymakers, but by intellectuals and pundits; and, most importantly, it does not serve as basis for policy option, but for persuasion purpose. In short, the above formula is further developed in this pattern. We not only infer, but also persuade the public to believe that current Event A shares Characteristic Y with historical Event B. Intellectuals and media pundits, regardless of liberal or conservative, opportunistically leverage analogical reasoning of history to persuade the audience and mobilize political support in partisan rivalry.

It’s undisputed that the Cultural Revolution is violent, chaotic and calamitous. First, equating Black Lives Matter movement with the Cultural Revolution, the right-wing pundits may create the impression that the protests for racial justice was violent and was spinning out of control into chaos and calamity, and thus attempting to brand protesters as “radical leftists” and persuade the public to support Trump’s “Law and Order” political strategy. Second, comparing the protests to the Cultural Revolution that happened in a socialist regime several decades ago shed some ideological light on political opposition as it may be implied that the protesters were advocating socialist agenda. Third, as Democrats were committed to fighting for racial justice and embracing the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement, coupled with the policy agenda of the progressive wing in the Democratic party, it was not surprising that the former President Trump simply labelled all Democrats as Socialists when campaigning against his Democratic opponent Joe R. Biden for presidency. Fourth, as the Cultural Revolution happened in socialist China, drawing such comparison may render the misperception that the Black Lives Matter protesters learned the tactic from socialist China, which helped further convince the public that China was exporting the chaotic and anarchic Cultural Revolution to America. Ultimately, a chain of equation was established: The Democrats were equated with Black Lives Matter protesters, radical leftists and socialists and put alongside with revolution-exporting socialist China.

The comparison was not drawn by conservative intellectuals and pundits, instead of by policymakers, but is utilized by policymakers to rally support for the conservative cause against liberal opponents in an election year. Throughout the campaign from the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, the right-wing rhetoric linking racial justice movement with political upheaval in China’s 1960s and 1970s intertwined with Trump’s rhetoric towards his Democratic opponent on the campaign trail. Despite that the parallel seemed to implicitly link ongoing domestic anarchism with China’s socialist regime in pre-reform era, the Trump administration’s focus was not on foreign policy, but on domestic politics. He announced the establishment of 1776 Commission to push for “Patriotic Education” as it’s in the belief of the policymakers that American younger generation was “fed lies” about the country’s racist history. Obviously, the comparison linking racial injustice activism with China’s Cultural Revolution helped the Trump administration to stoke fear among electorates for the erosion of American society by socialist ideology, so as to improve the legitimacy of its domestic policy and enhance his electability in the fierce presidential election.

In liberal rhetoric of “Cultural Revolution” analogy, former President Trump was compared to China’s Mao in sharing his totalitarian personality. Such comparison between Trump and Mao and discussion on Trump’s authoritarian propensity are not new in liberal discourse. It even predates the Trump presidency. Although some defenders of Donald Trump may dismiss such comparison, arguing that the former President was already under harsh scrutiny to the extent that is unimaginable and incomparable in totalitarian or authoritarian regime, it is the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 that revived this comparison and pushed it to the climax in the final days of the Trump presidency.

Like right-wing rhetoric, the liberal version of “Cultural Revolution” parallel also resorted to persuasion-through-fear strategy. It compared dictatorship-minded Trump to totalitarian Mao, warning of dangers and threats posed by Trump to the very democratic institutions. By arousing public fear for the coming of authoritarianism to America, the analogy was intended to rally bi-partisan support for removing Trump from office or launching another impeachment trial, in order to purge him permanently from politics.

As is shown in the use of “Cultural Revolution” parallels in American liberal and conservative discourses, analogical reasoning of history is not only employed in international politics as in existing literature, but also in domestic political dynamics. Besides, it does not only serve as basis for decision making, but also for persuasion purpose, where it is generally mixed with ideology to function as “ideologically informed rationales” to convince the audience that the political action is appropriate. In foreign policy, it is warned against the perils of mixing ideology and analogy as it may blur the cognitive distinction between what political scientist Yuen Foong Khong calls “specific and concrete” metaphors and “abstract and generic” worldviews driven by ideology. Such “bewitchment of analogy” in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, based on ideological position and free from objectivity, does not help policymakers to appropriately evaluate and properly respond to the crisis situation. However, this might not a concern in dealing with domestic partisan politics because the ideologically-driven historical analogy is not expected to help shape any policy choice in the first place. By selectively searching for shared characteristics from historical episodes, it simply serves the persuasion purpose, convincing the public and mobilizing their support for favored course of action.

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