THE BLOG
08/30/2016 03:46 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2017

Clinton-Trump: Are We Looking At The Wrong Analogy?

JOSH EDELSON via Getty Images

We all have moments in our lives when we think: "Isn't that like the time when..." Those moments are particularly intriguing when a new historical analogy comes to mind, something that has not already made the rounds of coffee shops and Facebook posts.

So here's mine: the 2016 elections in this country are most like the presidential election in Russia in 1996, which I covered as Newsweek's Moscow bureau chief. The contest pitted the former Communist Party bigwig-turned reformer Boris Yeltsin, who was seeking a second term, against Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the largely unreconstructed Communist Party.

Is this a far-fetched analogy riddled with inaccuracies? Yes. But less so than the analogy I'm most frequently asked about as the author of books like Hitlerland and The Nazi Hunters.

My specific answer to the Nazi analogy: No, we are not living in a country like Germany of the 1920s and 1930s, and Donald Trump is not Hitler, no matter how demagogic he may sound. Any attempt to argue otherwise trivializes Hitler and his monstrous crimes. My more general answer: direct historical analogies are almost always inaccurate and more a reflection of conventional wisdom than of real analysis.

But that doesn't mean that such analogies can't be fun to play with. In that spirit, certainly not as a historian, certainly not as a disciplined intellectual exercise, I'll make the case for mine, no matter how much it will infuriate supporters of both Trump and Clinton.

In this script, Trump plays Zyuganov and Clinton plays Yeltsin, at least in terms of the kinds of voters they attract.

Attending a Zyuganov rally in the manufacturing town of Klintsy in Western Russia that had fallen on hard times, I jotted down the chatter of his mostly older supporters. A sampling:

"All the factories have stopped producing. We don't know who is responsible for this."

"Everyone is to blame -- Yeltsin, the government. They tricked us all and they took everything for themselves."

"They are building mansions -- for themselves and their children."

"The mafia is living well. That's why they're all for Yeltsin."

"We lived better under the Communists. Of course we did."

Although not explicitly stated, the recurrent theme, in Trumpian terms, was "Make Russia Great Again." Zyuganov's stump speech included this line: "People ask themselves one simple question: what happened in this huge country that was one of the five countries where people felt most secure?" He usually didn't bother to explain who the others were.

Bewildered by a new economic order that enriched the few and left many behind, Zyuganov's supporters conveniently "forgot" about the Communist Party's recent history of mass cronyism and corruption, food shortages and political repression, all of which censors had worked hard to eliminate from public discourse. Instead, they focused on the highly publicized abuses of the new system.

As for Yeltsin's younger, more entrepreneurial supporters, they were not blind to the shadier dealings of the new establishment, where the line between government and organized crime was frequently blurred. But they were appreciative of the chance to open private businesses, travel freely and benefit from what was then still a relatively free press. Between the oligarchs and the destitute, a fledgling middle class had begun to take hold.

The Yeltsin camp's message: whatever their team's failings, a Zyuganov victory would throw the country back to a dark past, where all the progress they now took for granted would be wiped out in a day. Just as Hillary supporters firmly believe that a Trump victory would wipe out all social progress in this country.

For Yeltsin supporters, a key vulnerability was his health. The Russian leader was only 65 at the time, but his history of heart trouble and heavy drinking, often on public display, was hardly reassuring. Besides, male life expectancy in Russia was barely 60 then.

In fact, before the final vote, Yeltsin disappeared altogether for several days. To cover this up, state television ran footage of him in previous public appearances. The newly independent media -- composed of journalists who were terrified by the thought of a Zyuganov victory -- played along. When I talked to people emerging from voting stations, many of them had not even noticed that Yeltsin had dropped out of sight.

There is plenty of chatter in this country about Clinton's supposedly shaky health at the moment. Her supporters predictably dismiss this as more right-wing slander. But suppose that she suffered a major medical setback in late October. Given our polarized media, you can bet that many reporters who are repulsed by Trump would try to underplay the story -- and that Trump supporters would do the same if his health faltered.

As in the case of Yeltsin versus Zyuganov, both sides are convinced that they have to win at all costs -- or they will lose much more than an election. In Russia's case two decades ago, this outside observer was left with the uncomfortable feeling that neither choice was an edifying one -- and that the country had blown the opportunity to reframe the public debate and initiate a new more honest discourse. You had to wonder: couldn't a country as large and full of talented people as Russia produce two less flawed candidates?

Or a country like the United States?

But wait: you don't need to take anything I just wrote too seriously. But wait again: just maybe...