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Kari Lake, the Republican who lost the gubernatorial election in Arizona last November, has, four months later, still not given up the electoral ghost. Lake continues to be a softly spectral presence, haunting the Internet and airwaves while claiming to be the rightful ruler of Arizona and all its possessions. Encouraged by perhaps not-entirely-on-the-level supporters such as fascisty podcaster Steve Bannon, Lake insists that she is the “real governor, the duly elected governor” of a state that is pretty convincingly governed by someone else.
As Lake, Donald Trump and other troubled pretenders to other thrones populate the political landscape, with no apparent limits to their very public desperation, the need for historically grounded analysis is evident. Where on earth did all these creepy people come from anyway?
Scholars of history and political science generally locate the origins of the current Republican distemper near to home. It all goes back to the racial aggression of the Tea Party, some say; the Black guy in the White House was more than the old white rascals could bear. No, no, say others. The madness and dishonesty that consume the party are but the long, spooky chemtrail of Newt Gingrich. If you were to outfit Newt’s 1990s cohort with Jewish Space Lasers and the all-you-can-espionage bar at Mar-a-Lago, you would have today’s GOP.
Both theories are supported by ample evidence, from gobsmacking hypocrisy (Gingrich) to pernicious lies (Gingrich), partisan extremism (Gingrich) and wanton corruption (Gingrich). Yet they fail to tap the deep and gnarled roots of MAGA. If you think about it, the antecedent of the madness has been obvious all along: It’s Russia, Russia, Russia.
For what is Kari Lake but an American Anastasia, the young Romanov tsarina alleged, in a series of revanchist scams, to have escaped the 1918 massacre of her family? Anastasia waits, forever young, to be returned to her rightful place upon the throne. True, Anastasia would be well into her second century if she were alive today. But if QAnon can bring JFK Jr. back to be Trump’s running mate, an Arizona Anastasia hardly seems out of reach.
A century before MAGA royalty began relieving rubes of rubles, Romanov imposters initiated a similar cycle of grief-‘n’-grift in the wake of White (Russian) political loss. After the Romanov massacre, a bevy of mysterious Anastasias preyed on Russian marks who longed for the old, dysfunctional ways of empire. In the 1920s, Anastasia sightings were as commonplace as swing-state suitcases bulging with discarded Trump ballots.
Rasputin, a slightly more hirsute, old-world, version of Bannon, was already dead by the time the royal family was shot. But Rasputin’s son-in-law, Boris Soloviev, who had studied mysticism, possessed a Bannonesque eye for the main chance. Soloviev convened seances to communicate with the dead, who sometimes touted Soloviev’s schemes. Soloviev, who seems to have misplaced some Romanov jewels entrusted to him for safekeeping, promised White Russians that their money would aid the escape from Russia of a surviving Romanov. If Soloviev had had access to email and the Trump campaign’s small-donor list, he would have been soliciting monthly contributions of $19.18 or you won’t have a country anymore.
Soloviev’s wife, Maria, Rasputin’s daughter, eventually went her own way, dancing in cabarets and ending up in the U.S. working in a circus. (Insert your own MAGA joke here.) America, as it happens, figured prominently in the Romanov imposter tour; the most famous of all imposters also made it to the land of grifter dreams, and eventually settled here.
Anna Anderson, to choose her American moniker, appears to have been a Polish factory worker with a history of mental instability. After having made her way to the U.S., Anderson lived in 1929 at the home of a Park Avenue benefactrice whose social cachet briefly ratcheted upward due to her tsarina roommate. After a series of unfortunate events, including a dead parakeet and a naked foray on a rooftop, the tsarina was committed.
Still, all the grifters aboard the MAGA imposter train should take heart: The Romanov ride never really ended. Anderson emerged from the sanitorium and traveled to Germany, where rumors of her royal lineage preceded her. German royalists, like Park Avenue matrons, enjoyed the company of the magical Romanov in their midst. Everyone got to play make-believe, and no one had to run an actual empire or any such drudgery.
You can see a similar process playing out across the U.S. A March CNN poll showed MAGA-allied voters holding fast to the fantasy of Dark Brandon’s election theft while increasing numbers of them acknowledge that the evidentiary case is less than airtight. As Aaron Blake wrote in The Washington Post, Republicans are gradually coming around to the notion that the Great Election Heist of 2020 (and the lesser, more idiosyncratic, heists of 2022) is largely a phenomenon of “vibes.” Evidence of theft is lacking, Republicans increasingly admit to pollsters. But it sure feels like their pockets were picked.
Kari Lake, who recently lost another court case, isn’t quite ready to surrender to the vibes yet. Using the kind of violent cliches that pervade MAGA rhetoric, she recently compared her state’s largest county to a “house of cards” and promised to “burn it to the ground.” With time, however, she may see the wisdom of going less MAGA, more Romanov. The tsarina Anderson eventually tired of her royal obligations and settled down to a long, eccentric life in Virginia. There’s no reason that Anastasia of Arizona can’t obtain similar comforts. After all, you can’t fool all the people all the time, and, after a while, the effort truly is exhausting.