It is easy to guffaw at the idea of a billionaire Bolshevik in the White House, but it seems there is more to the comparison than meets the eye.
Last September, as many Republicans wrestled with their conscience over whether or not to support Donald Trump as their nominee, an anonymous article appeared in a short-lived online magazine, the Journal of American Greatness, urging his critics to set their scruples aside. It appeared under the pen name Publius Decius Mus: a tribute to a Roman consul who sacrificed himself in 340BC in return for victory in battle. With his army facing almost certain defeat, Decius mounted his horse and plunged headlong into a hail of arrows. It was a suicide mission but one that so shocked the enemy, it caused a breach in its defences, through which Decius’s men then flooded to devastating effect.
At the time the article appeared, Hillary Clinton was riding so high in the polls that some Democrats boasted they were heading for an emphatic victory that would give them power for a generation. According to Decius, therefore, Republicans faced what he called “the Flight 93 Election”: a rather bracing reference to the heroic passengers who tackled al-Qaeda hijackers on 9/11, bringing down their plane in rural Pennsylvania. However repulsive conservatives might find Trump, there was no choice but to try to charge the cockpit. “You may die anyway,” Decius wrote. “You – or the leader of your party – may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane.” The choice was stark. For American conservatives, a Clinton presidency was “Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
Of the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump, a sizeable proportion made precisely this calculation. And it has now emerged that Decius has found himself in the cockpit of the Trump administration – as the senior director of strategic communications on the National Security Council. At the weekend, he was “outed” as Michael Anton, a 47-year-old former speechwriter for President George W Bush and Rupert Murdoch, who has, by all accounts, an impressive knowledge of ancient history and the Renaissance.
Not surprisingly, very few intellectuals have migrated into the land of Trump, but among those that have, there are consistent themes in their world-view. The first is a declaration of war on so-called Davos Man. This species, first pilloried by Samuel Huntingdon in 2004, looks rather forlorn and moth-eaten today. Trump’s choice for US ambassador to the EU, Ted Malloch, a great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, has written the obituary of the “Davoisie”.
In the same spirit, according to Anton, all 16 Republican candidates whom Trump beat to the nomination failed because they were seen as “sophists” of the same discredited ancien régime. Once in power, they would bow to the pressure of the “Davoisie oligarchy” on “open borders, lower wages, outsourcing, deindustrialisation, trade giveaways and endless, pointless, winless war”. Davos Man – already reeling from Brexit – did not see the juggernaut emerging on his right flank.
He is not the only one flailing in the surge of nation-state populism. In France and Britain, established parties have yet to grasp the full extent of what has happened (few more so than our own Labour Party). Trump’s legions of critics have taken solace from the protests on the streets, his abysmal ratings, legal challenges to his executive orders and startling tales of dysfunction from the White House. The question asked in civilised company is, “When will it end?” Yet the one that has not yet been faced up to is very different: “What if it works?”
Do the anti-Trump protesters have the solidarity or staying power to outlast the revolutionaries in the Oval Office? The cacophony of criticism has not diminished the zeal of the vanguard now in the pilot’s seat. After Trump’s inauguration, I asked a wily old Marxist friend what she thought of his speech. Eschewing any value judgement of the man himself, she described it as “Leninist”. In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, it is easy to guffaw at the idea of a billionaire Bolshevik in the White House, but it seems there is more to the comparison than meets the eye. It has now emerged that Trump’s chief of staff, Steve Bannon, from a blue-collar family of Democrats, has gloried in exactly that label. “I’m a Leninist,” he is reported to have said 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.”
Another former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, has warned about the potential creep of autocracy under Trump. But the clue to Trump’s success, he notes, is likely to be popular economic policies – tax cuts and big spending, high employment and wage increases, especially for those without college degrees. If it works, even temporarily, it will move the centre of political gravity.
Culture wars over things such as immigration and civil liberties are likely to consume our attention for the next four years. Trenches will be dug deep and Trump will be resisted in the hope his actions can later be reversed. Yet it may be that the real revolution takes place elsewhere. On her visit to the US, Theresa May commented that one thing that united her and the president was a desire “to put the interests of ordinary working people up there, centre-stage”.
The British and American left may think this opportunistic and inauthentic; and they may have a point. However, they had better take it seriously, because the earth is moving under their feet. Millions of voters have shown themselves willing to charge the cockpit in the hope of some sort of “new deal”, however ugly the consequences. As it stands, right-wing Leninists have Davos Man by the throat.