Trump’s Revolutionary Dilemma

PRINCETON – The Russian Revolution’s centennial this year coincides with the Trump Revolution in the United States, which itself followed the Brexit Revolution in the United Kingdom. Like the Bolsheviks in 1917, the political movements behind Trump and Brexit consider themselves to be the vanguard of an international revolt – or what former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage calls a “great global revolution.”

But today’s rebels should consider the lessons of history. The Russian Revolution took an enormous toll in human lives and wellbeing, and few modern historians think that anything constructive came of it. And yet Lenin was a political pioneer who understood that revolutionary movements focus on an unpopular but ultimately necessary administrative state or bureaucracy.

The new revolutionary movements, like Bolshevism, are rebelling against what they see as an oppressive and constraining international order. For Lenin, this order comprised the Western powers that had brought Russia into World War I against Germany – and against its own interests. For Trump, it is embodied in the vague term “globalism”: “We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It’s not gonna happen anymore.”

And yet these movements’ immediate enemies tend to be domestic rather than foreign. In a recent speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, declared a revolution for American sovereignty, defined by economic nationalism and the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”