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 Britain. Like the Bolsheviks in 1917, the political movements behind Mr 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 well-being, 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.

Like Bolshevism, the new revolutionary movements 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 Mr 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 any more."

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

As with all revolutionary programmes, Mr Trump and Mr Bannon's approach is fundamentally about rethinking the state and state power. Still, today's revolutionary leaders do not fit neatly into conventional categories of left or right, because they promiscuously adopt policies from both camps. The New York Times quoted a Trump "associate" who claims that the President himself wonders if Mr Bannon is "alt-right or alt-left".

Regardless of how one categorises Mr Trump's domestic agenda, it is clearly a response to a world in which a principle of openness - to foreign goods, capital and people - coexists with a complex system for regulating these flows. Foreign goods are subject to national safety and product-information standards; capital flows are managed by controls on bank lending; and migration is limited by an array of checks and conditions.

The lesson is that revolutionaries confront an impossible dilemma after seizing state power. If the revolution continues apace, it will disintegrate into incompetence, disillusionment, frenzied witch-hunts, and a recurring cycle of violence. But if the revolution is aborted, its leaders will be unmasked as empty windbags.

Trumpism promises to make life simpler, less regulated, and free of dictates from an administrative class by getting rid of international entanglements. This is a tempting proposition for many ordinary citizens who find globalisation complicated and bewildering. Most people are frustrated by red tape. But, of course, there is just as much red tape in domestic interactions, where the state regulates everything from product quality and safety to financial services and labour markets.

In the case of Brexit, the original "Leave" campaigners drew a line between the "people" and the "experts", and they called for dismantling large parts of the British state apparatus, where those experts are apparently ensconced. As the former justice minister and Conservative Party Brexit leader Michael Gove famously put it, "People in this country have had enough of experts", and "big changes" are needed to change how the government and civil service go about their business.

Once revolutionaries are in power, they quickly come to believe that a conservative "deep state", intent on obstructing the will of the "people", is undermining them. Thus, the British Foreign Office is pilloried for being sympathetic to European Union technocrats; and US intelligence services are accused of leaking information to a press corps that has become "the enemy of the people".

But if the revolutionaries take their war against the state too far, they face a different problem, because members of the old establishment are the only people who know enough about specific government programmes to get anything done. Ultimately, the revolutionaries must try to strike a balance between betraying their supporters' radical wishes and escalating their conflict with the state to the point that no other policy goals can be achieved.

This same dynamic characterised the Russian Revolution. Civil servants - chinovniks - were the declared enemy, and concern that the bureaucracy would prevent the revolution from being fully realised fuelled radicalisation, and reinforced the idea that a revolutionary party must supplant the state altogether.

But the same old problem emerged. Early 20th-century Russian society was already very complex. All sorts of administrative skills - whether to manage railway networks or to pay and equip the military - were needed to ensure that normal daily life continued. For Leon Trotsky, Stalin's accession to power after Lenin's death was a counter-revolution. The revolution had been "betrayed" as soon as true revolutionaries like Trotsky were replaced by chinovniks.

The lesson is that revolutionaries confront an impossible dilemma after seizing state power. If the revolution continues apace, it will disintegrate into incompetence, disillusionment, frenzied witch-hunts, and a recurring cycle of violence. But if the revolution is aborted, its leaders will be unmasked as empty windbags.

The first revolution of 1917 toppled Czar Nicholas and created a provisional government that, headed by the socialist leader Alexander Kerensky, turned out to be a transitional blip. Lenin described Kerensky as the "balalaika" (Russian stringed musical instrument) played by the old order to continue to deceive the workers and peasants. But the second revolution - which brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power - produced a regime that was no less vulnerable to accusations of betrayal.

As today's revolutionaries try to wield power, we can expect to hear much more talk of betrayal at the hands of the administrative state. But that state is far more extensive and capable than it was a century ago - and the costs of radicalisation would be far higher as well.

•The writer is professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's revolutionary dilemma'. Print Edition | Subscribe