Want to understand what Trump and Bannon are up to? Look to the Russian Revolution of 1917

An unlikely playbook.
An unlikely playbook.
Image: AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky
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The key to a successful insurrection, Vladimir Lenin wrote three days before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, was the seizure of the telephone and telegraph. Every Soviet child, including myself, learned this dictum in the fourth grade.

In the 21st century, I never thought I’d have reason to reflect on Lenin’s advice again. The Soviet Union is long gone; I now live in the US. Then, in the first month of the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Americans inaugurated Donald Trump as their 45th president. This is a man who, in alliance with most radical elements of the Republican Party, has flooded the country’s media channels with fake news and conspiracy theories. If Trump hasn’t yet seized the modern-day equivalents of the telephone and the telegraph, he has certainly managed to scramble their signals.

Does Trump’s victory and his cabinet appointments genuinely amount to a government takeover akin to the one staged by the Bolshevik Party in 1917? If we view Trump’s “movement” as a radical faction within the Republican Party that has swept him to power despite opposition from within the party, the comparison is not as far-fetched as it may seem.

The disturbing parallels between Lenin and Trump include the role that foreign interference appears to have played in their rise to power. Although never definitively proven, Lenin’s rapid assent to power has long been credited to the complicity of Germany, which had a vital interest in destabilizing Russia, their key adversary in World War I. An exile in Switzerland up until April 1917, Lenin and his comrades had been allowed to pass through German lands in a special “sealed train” and eventually reach Petrograd. There, he joined other Bolsheviks to plot the second—proletarian—revolution. According to many prominent historians, Germans also provided significant funding for Pravda, the newspaper that spread the Bolsheviks’ propaganda.

One hundred years later in the US, American intelligence agencies and bipartisan members of Congress have come to a consensus that the revanchist and anti-democratic government of Russia meddled in the 2016 US election, using cyber warfare to tip the scales toward the pro-Putin candidate. What seemed unimaginable just a few months ago—lifting Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea—is now possible. In the post-industrial world, totalitarianism, too, can become global.

Now, despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million people, the new US president is forcing a radical agenda upon his country that is contrary to the beliefs of at least half of the 2016 electorate. If his victory is viewed as a kind of government takeover, aided by a hostile foreign power, the shock and unprecedented grief experienced by the 62 million Americans who voted for Clinton is not the loser’s inability to move on, and no “bubble.” It is something akin to what the Russians experienced 100 years ago when they woke up to the news that the legitimate provisional government had been disbanded by the Bolsheviks, whose stated agenda was the destruction of the Russian state and building a completely different—Soviet—entity in its stead. Indeed, the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has himself cited Lenin as an influence. Writer and historian Ronald Radosh wrote in the Daily Beast that Bannon approvingly told him in 2013, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

But if Bannon can model his strategy after Lenin’s, so too can Trump’s opponents heed the lessons of the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks succeeded by activating fringe groups, including radicalized proletariats and soldiers deserting the war, and by demagoguery summed up in the slogans “Peace to the Peoples,” “Land to the Peasants,” and “All Power to the Soviets.” In the months leading up to the October coup, they spread false rumors about the provisional government colluding with the Germans, the personal life of the government’s leader, Alexander Kerensky, and generally equated the government with “exploiters,” “war profiteers,” and “traitors to the people.”

In 2016, Trump’s campaign adopted a similar strategy by mobilizing the economically disadvantaged—as well as racist, nativist, and other right-wing groups—against the so-called “coastal elites.” The difference is that while pre-revolutionary Russia had been truly devastated by World War I, Trump and company perpetuated the myth of American decline in an expanding economy (which also happens to be the largest and one of the richest in the world). This is not to deny the real economic struggles faced by many Americans—only to note that, in the reality shaped by mainstream and social media, Trump’s virtual “American Carnage” proved as persuasive as a real war.

Trump’s decision to appoint billionaires, bankers, and oil tycoons to his cabinet signifies that his administration does not plan to even pay lip service to a democratic government. The fact that many of the new cabinet members lack relevant expertise doesn’t matter; Lenin famously maintained that “any cook can run the state.”

Trump is no revolutionary, at least not in the Lenin’s sense of the word. He doesn’t seem to care about ideology, and he’s no ascetic. But fundamentally, their goals are not that different.

Lenin viewed the world as a space in which he could build the dictatorship of the proletariat with himself at the helm. To Trump, the world is a collection of structures upon which he can stamp his own name. Both gave little credence to the expertise or knowledge of others; both had no problem pandering to the basest instincts of the human race.

We should remember, however, that revolutions are only able to take hold when the majority remains complacent. Right now, Trump’s voting base is likely maxed out at the roughly 63 million people who voted for him. (Given the intensity of feelings he ignites in both supporters and opponents, let’s assume that most people who wanted to vote for him did so.) Roughly 66 million people voted for Hillary Clinton. And about 42% of eligible voters—that is, an estimated 95 million—stayed home, choosing to vote for no one at all.

This “silent majority” is not necessarily in the Trump camp. They did not vote to end Affordable Care, Medicaid, and Social Security. They do not necessarily believe that the best government is one that’s designed by billionaires, for billionaires, or that climate change is a hoax. It is these voters who need to be mobilized to protect our democracy.

If there is any lesson from the Russian Revolution, it is that active engagement with the base is critical. That doesn’t mean that Democrats should focus on fundraising emails and better slogans: It means they need to work to understand why a substantial chunk of eligible voters did not view November 2016 as a referendum on the American way of life. They then need to mold the progressive coalition to accommodate voters’ concerns and struggles, so that the fight against conservative takeover becomes their fight.

The Democrats cannot afford to mull this over. The effort needs to happen quickly. What’s at stake—democracy in the US and around the world—is too important to “wait and see.” We all know who came after Lenin.