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.”