Smart Thinking

Trump’s rebellion has nothing on Lenin’s revolution

Henry Foy, Foreign Correspondent for the Financial Times, proffers some thoughts on why Trump's political posturing is wearing a little thin

The establishment elite has been toppled. A powerful, populist orator has stormed to power on a wave of anger. Institutions are in disarray, people are massing in the streets and the immature executive is ruling by decree. Law, justice and rights are in flux. The new ruling class promises to give the country ‘back to the people’.

The newly anointed leader pledges to bring greatness back to his country and positions himself as the leader of a new political approach that will sweep the West. The elite are fearful, and in shock.

One hundred years ago, Vladimir Lenin’s Russian Revolution altered the future of his homeland and the world. But his dream of a wave of socialist uprisings to topple the West’s established political hegemony failed to materialise.

Donald Trump’s Washington DC is not Lenin’s St Petersburg. His is not a revolution, but a rebellion. Yet his election, following a surge of political earthquakes, has liberals terrified.

Such fears may be overblown. For like Lenin, Trump has stormed to power on a particular cocktail of circumstance for which he provided a timely tonic. And like Lenin, he may find the rest of the world doesn’t follow America’s lead.

“Dig below the headlines, proclamations and doom-mongering, and a populist revolution is far from certain”

‘The UK was so smart in getting out,’ Trump said of Brexit, when comparing it to his own victory. ‘Others will leave.’

Indeed, populist, illiberal European politicians have seized upon Trump’s election as a sign of a new world order. Some support his protectionist, anti-elitist, nationalist stance. Others just see political capital in equating Hillary Clinton with liberal orthodoxies in their own countries. Elections in 2017 mean many could follow Trump into power.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigration leader of the Front National, tops leadership polls ahead of France’s Presidential election in April. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s campaign for a fourth term in office must combat a surge in support for the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland.

In Holland Geert Wilders’ anti-Islamic Party for Freedom is set to win the most votes in March’s general election (at the time of going to press). Matteo Renzi, the centrist former Italian Premier, lost his job in December after losing a referendum to a populist uprising. In Poland and Hungary, nationalist parties are already in power, and have cheered Trump’s victory – and Britain’s vote to leave the EU – as a sign of the death of liberal politics.

But dig below the headlines, the proclamations and the doom-mongering of political analysts, and a populist revolution is far from certain. Merkel, Europe’s liberal champion, is in little danger of being toppled. Her ice-cool response to Trump’s first few chaotic weeks in office suggests a distinct lack of panic – and contrasts drastically with the cringeworthy attempts by Theresa May to curry favour with the new administration.

In France, Le Pen’s lead appears untenable in a certain run-off vote against either of her major challengers. The rise of centrist Emmanuel Macron to become her biggest challenger has shown support for liberals is still high. In Holland, a coalition to keep Wilders from power will make his a pyrrhic victory.

Moreover, it isn’t inconceivable for Renzi to find himself back in power in Rome if fresh elections are held soon. Spain’s centre-left prime minister Mariano Rajoy has smothered a populist assault from the far-left. Austria chose a Green party candidate over his far-right rival to be its president in December.

And even if they reach power, the populist movements will soon find they have little else in common than a distaste for their domestic establishments.

Many of Europe’s populists support Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others loathe him. Some want to destroy the EU, others defend the benefits their countries derive from it. The far-left and far-right may use similar emotional messages, but their politics are in direct opposition.

Trump’s rise has shocked liberals, and made them fear for a re-writing of the Western political narrative. Like Lenin 100 years before, the US President believes himself to be on the right side of history, and at the vanguard of a global rebellion against politics as usual.

But Lenin was proved wrong. Trump will find it harder than he thinks, too.