Karl Marx and his followers argued that revolutionaries should disrupt capitalist societies by “heightening the contradictions.” Russia used a version of that Marxist idea in its efforts to disrupt the 2016 presidential campaign. It should come as no surprise that the most powerful nation from the former Soviet Union, whose leaders were schooled in the Marxist tradition, is borrowing directly from that tradition in its efforts today.
What is more surprising, and far more important for American politics, is that President Donald Trump is drawn to a similar strategy.
Marx contended that as the conditions of workers started to improve, they would cease to be content with their lot, or to regard their alienation as inevitable. Lenin seized on this idea and transformed it into a revolutionary strategy.
Lenin urged that as capitalism developed, workers would see, or could be made to see, the contradictions between the official story of universal freedom and their actual inability to have real control over their own lives. The job of the communist revolutionary was to “heighten” or “accelerate” those contradictions.
During the 2016 campaign, Russians did something very much like that, not to produce a revolution, but to deepen and intensify social divisions (and to help elect Donald Trump). Mimicking American voices, they used Facebook to energize and inflame a diverse assortment of political groups: gay rights supporters, African-American activists, Texas secessionists and opponents of immigration. (“America is at risk and we need to protect our country now more than ever, liberal hogwash aside.”)
Some of their efforts vigorously defended gun rights. In one ad, a young woman asks: “Why do I have a gun? Because it’s easier for my family to get me out of jail than out of cemetery.” They attempted to appeal to Christians with provocative ads quoting Trump: “We are going to say Merry Christmas again.”
In short, the Russians tried to foster a sense of grievance and humiliation on all sides. The goal was to intensify social divisions and to contribute to an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and anger, even rage, that would ultimately weaken the nation and make it difficult to govern. Lenin would have been proud.
Even if Hillary Clinton had won, Russia’s strategy might have proved effective. As a Russian participant in similar campaigns recently said, “Our goal wasn’t to turn Americans toward Russia” but instead “to provoke unrest and discontent.”
Which brings us to the White House. Every president has his own strategy for dealing with periods of acute difficulty. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan worked to disarm their opponents with charm, grace and humor. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton moved to the center. George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama tried to get down to business and to do something significant and concrete.
By contrast, Donald Trump heightens the contradictions. He tries to provoke unrest and discontent, with a clear intuition that they are his best friends. He creates demons and scapegoats. That’s also Steve Bannon’s approach, and it captures what drew the two men together.