Everything Is Relevant (1)

When the real world is a complicated and frustrating place, I start interpreting everything through its lens. Fiction about a boy who learns to fly? Essays about World War II? Speeches before Congress about funding for the National Endowment for the Arts? All somehow relevant to the chaos, bigotry, and incompetence of August 2018. With the contortions I manage to make in mind, I've finally gotten around to reading the end of A People's Tragedy.

I read Orlando Figes's gargantuan history of the Russian Revolution one part at a time. The final installment – "Part IV: The Civil War and the Making of the Soviet System" – is a chronicle of the chaos and bloodshed that followed the Bolshevik coup in October of 1917. One remarkable assessment of the Bolshevik consolidation was the role incompetence and corruption played in its later strength. Figes writes of urban life in the later years of the civil war:

"It was an absurd situation: while the economy came to a standstill, its bureaucracy flourished. The country was desperately short of fuel but there was an army of bureaucrats to regulate its almost non-existent distribution. There was no paper in the shops but a mountain of it in the Soviet offices (90 percent of the paper made in Russia during the first four years of Soviet rule was consumed by the bureaucracy). One of the few really busy factories was the Moscow Telephone Factory. Such was the demand of this new officialdom for telephones that it had a waiting list of 12,000 orders.

This correlation - empty factories and full offices - was not accidental. The scarcer goods were, the harder it became to control their distribution, since the black market thrived on shortages, so that the state increased its intervention."

In this telling, the overwhelming incompetence of the regime in all but propaganda and agitation led to the construction of a massive state that would provide infrastructure for terrorism and coercion on an unprecedented scale. It makes insightful punditry that our institutions may be saved by Trump's incompetence ring differently. Where it used to be unoriginal, it now seems incurious and dangerously unimaginative.

There's no comparison in kind. Lenin was an incompetent executive but a sharp thinker, brilliant politician, frighteningly disciplined leader, and utterly ruthless dictator. Trump is none of those things – save, perhaps, that he is a brilliant politician in the narrow space in which the base of his support lives. But Lenin's incompetence as a bureaucrat led to a maze of overlapping agencies with conflicting directives, rival leaders, competing patronages, and thirst to please the party leadership. Stalin – an extraordinarily gifted bureaucrat and clever politician – would use that very maze to accomplish terrifying things in his three decades as its custodian. 

The point is not some sloppy and convenient comparison between Trump and Stalin, Republicans and Bolsheviks, America and revolutionary Russia. The point is rather that we frequently fall victim to a failure of imagination and the prevailing wisdom in the run-up to Trump's election was that we had failed to prepare the government for a tyrant like Trump. That was true enough, but we have taken to thinking of Trump as the end-game. He's not. There will be a president after Trump. We have failed to imagine that successor as anything but a reversion back toward the political mean. But even in the wildest of scenarios where he declares himself Emperor-for-life and moves troops into Canada, he only lives for another decade or two or three.

There will be a president after Trump. That president may very well be a progressive Democrat, but four or eight years down the road, there may be another backlash. The question is, what sort of government will that reaction have at its disposal? A reduced bureaucracy with a politically popular safety net and stronger norms enforcing executive restraint and protection of civil liberties? Or a bureaucracy no smaller or more humble than today with bloated security agencies rife with corruption, warped by political loyalties and patronage, and stretched to realize an expansive conception of their own role in the world? What damage could a competent bureaucrat – a Ted Cruz, or Mitch McConnell, or Jeff Sessions – do with the latter?

Sometimes stretching and tying oneself in knots to imagine the most radical historical parallels is a useful exercise. Particularly when imagination is the very thing we tend not to consult when contemplating our own political future.