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Is Donald Trump the New Mikhail Gorbachev?

TAC’s own Rod Dreher recently highlighted [1] an American professor’s exchange with an African diplomat, who compared Donald Trump to Mikhail Gorbachev. Just as the last Soviet premier unwittingly became “the man who destroyed a superpower,” Trump in this view is recklessly squandering the United States’ global position. But upon reflection, the analogy holds for another reason: Whatever Trump’s own mixture of “irritable mental gestures,” Trumpism—as articulated by Steve Bannon, Laura Ingraham, Michael Anton & Company—can be read as a sort of perestroika for the American Right.

A reader may naturally look warily at the comparison. Can one discern a link between the rhetoric of Breitbart and Gorbachev’s exhortation, “to reject obedience to any dogma, to think independently, to submit one’s thoughts and plans of action to the test of morality”? However reaching, the comparison may allow us to discern why debates over immigration and trade now capture the conservative imagination in a way not reducible to “white identity politics” or reflexive loyalty to the president.

The reasoning of Gorbachev’s program of perestroika—as an attempt to both transcend tired Soviet orthodoxies while remaining loyal to the underlying assumptions of the regime—also explains the attraction of Trumpism to many conservative intellectuals, voters, and activists. Trumpism gives its followers the allure of reckoning with the conservative movement’s inadequacies while remaining faithful to its underlying assumptions about economics and the role of the state. The appeal of nationalist rhetoric is not reducible to nativism, though it might be for some. Instead, Bannon’s program offers conservatives a safe exit ramp from self-critical thinking, allowing them to both grapple with an erosion of work and community among America’s economic losers, while maintaining most of an existing right-wing economic program.

In a 1987 message to the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Gorbachev flaunted the Soviet order for its “conservative inclinations, inertia, and desire to brush aside everything that didn’t fit into habitual patterns.” This is the same critique offered by the Jacksonian Right of the conservative establishment. “The whole enterprise of Conservative Inc.,” wrote [2]Michael Anton in his famous “Flight 93 Election” essay, “reeks of failure. Its sole recent and ongoing success is its own self-preservation.”

For all its recklessness, it is this faction of Right that has indeed grappled with a nation whose poor- and lower-middle class face the erosion of both wages [3]and a formerly rich institutional fabric [4]. Laura Ingraham’s description of “a working class hammered by globalization” [5] would not seem foreign to readers of Our Kids, Hillbilly Elegy, or Janesville. At its most tone-deaf, the Right responds with incantations [6] to “rekindle the rugged individualism of America’s founding, frontiers, and Constitution.” But even those on the center-right with sincere empathy frequently offer only small-ball politics. For all their merits [7], a modest increase of the Child Tax Credit, repeal of occupational licensing, vouchers for improved geographic mobility, and moral exhortations for coastal elites to escape their bubble do not match the gravity of the moment. In a certain way, the Bannonite call for the wall and ripping up trade agreements is a rebellion against a purely technocratic politics without boldness of purpose. When Bannon calls for Americans to understand themselves as citizens with “certain responsibilities and obligations,” it’s a subtle—if incomplete and disingenuous—recognition that the vocabulary of  “liquid modernity” [8] cannot rescue us from the very fruits it created.

Trade and immigration are becoming the signature benchmarks for this new movement. Yet the Jacksonian shift allows conservatives to still maintain their aversion to a strong, active welfare state, an institution all other Western center-right parties have come to terms with. Limiting the fluid movement of goods and people, in this view, will accomplish the same goals as a state modeled on social or Christian-democratic purposes: We do not need to expand child tax credits or pursue ambitious investments of retraining and vocational education. All our struggling labor markets demand [9]is “stopping the importation of cheap labor.” At the same time, we can press ahead to repeal Obamacare and the tentacles of the administrative state, for economic nationalism can ameliorate our social problems far better than any program arising out of the Washington cesspool. Perhaps this strategy explains why, according to Pew Research [10], the president maintains far more support among “Core Conservatives” than “Country First” and “Market Skeptic” Republicans. The Trump revolution is ultimately not a decisive schism from old-time William F. Buckley-style fusionism, no matter what both supporters and Never Trumpers allege.

Systematic free-marketers may point out accurately how Trumpism can be just as economically redistributive as any welfare program. This is all true, but to most conservative activists, all this subtle redistribution and subsidizing looks far more hidden than paid-family leave or public investments in early childhood or prenatal care. In other words, Trumpism’s attraction derives not from its wholesale rejection of traditional American conservatism, but its potential to keep its core tenets of the right alive—even as neoliberalism’s inadequacies suggest what is needed is a more vigorous discussion of what conservatism means in the public sphere.

If Trumpism’s fundamental attraction to most conservative writers and activists derives from its ability to revise but sustain their movement, it is difficult to see how it will be to evolve into a credible governing program. This is not because a more hawkish line on immigration and trade is a fundamental betrayal of the “liberal world order.” Indeed, one need only read Paul Collier [11], George Borjas [12], Michael Lind [13], Peter Skerry [14], or Dani Rodrik [15]to find sustained, reasonable critiques of the establishment consensus on these matters.

But none of these authors would present their heterodox dissents as singular solutions for restoring the American (or Western) social contract. Just as Gorbachev’s ambition was not to revitalize Russia but the Soviet Union, so is Trumpism not a program to save the Republic, or even a more narrow “Middle America.” Despite the Jacobin rhetoric, the Trumpism of Bannon, Anton, and Ingraham is ultimately a rearguard maneuver to preserve a conservative movement whose even devoted partisans recognize has not aged gracefully since 1989. To keep it alive, wrecking the “globalist” consensus on immigration and trade must be pursued, regardless of the absence of any discernible benefit for the white working class.

What would a true revolution for American conservatism look like? It should start with the (early) thought of George Will, who wrote in the New Republic [16]that, “if conservatism is to engage itself with the way we live now, it must address government’s graver purposes with an affirmative doctrine of the welfare state.” Conservatives must “come to terms with a social reality more complex than their slogans,” where equality of opportunity is assumed as given. The Hayekian claim that any language of social justice commences a perilous journey towards serfdom was perhaps necessary to combat midcentury sirens of collectivism. But today it is more often representative of an age fearful of placing demanding claims upon our lives. The Right must again recover the wisdom [17] held by Disraeli, Churchill, and the (early) domestic neoconservatives, in which the state is again recognized as a limited but essential expression of our shared life together, where we are members not just of a market but a “great common enterprise” in which solidarity and justice are indeed tangible things. Accepting this truth will be a harder project than tightening the border and combating Chinese mercantilism, worthy though such things may be. But it will be far more revolutionary, even historic, than anything the present Trumpian revolution offers.

David Jimenez, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College and a Fulbright Scholar in Romania, works on campus outreach at a Washington think-tank.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Is Donald Trump the New Mikhail Gorbachev?"

#1 Comment By EngineerScotty On November 14, 2017 @ 11:22 pm

Someone else at TAC asked a similar question, and the answer is, no: Trump is no Gorbachev. If anything he is our Boris Yeltsin.

And no, that is not intended as a compliment.

#2 Comment By MEOW On November 15, 2017 @ 12:07 am

Good points. Gorby was a realist like the Chinese. They could not depress a people’s living standards with an inferior system of exchange, production, and distribution. The word was out about living standard differences. The one-world movement is very different. It means to disable all our traditions and differences (Happy Holidays for Merry Christmas – rewriting history etc) in order to allow a different cabal to prevail in this artificially created vacuum.

#3 Comment By Mac61 On November 15, 2017 @ 6:46 am

Gorbachev said we must set aside all ideology and look at all things through thre light of morality. Trump is not capable of that. Bannon tried to ally Trumpism with Judeo-Christian morality. That project seems incomplete at the moment.

#4 Comment By Egypt Steve On November 15, 2017 @ 9:26 am

I suppose if you compare any two things, you can find some points of similarity somewhere.

#5 Comment By M1798 On November 15, 2017 @ 9:32 am

You ask for a more expansevive welfar state, but didn’t Make the case that our current welfare state does any public good. Food stamps and disability payments subsidize mothers to not keep the father around and fathers to not work to provide for their families. We have job training programs, yet you fail to make the case that they serve any long term good. And even our most popular welfare programs, social security and Medicare, are financially unsustainable. You wrote this article as if the GOP has legislated in the same way as their rhetoric, yet the we saw the failure to repeal Obamacare as proof that this isn’t true.

#6 Comment By Dan Green On November 15, 2017 @ 9:39 am

I subscribe to what Heyak coined, the road to serfdom.Once The Social Democratic Welfare State is fully implemented , as we witness today, the state cannot make it work. Currently the model is subsidized with debt.

#7 Comment By John On November 15, 2017 @ 10:49 am

If there were an award in journalism for the hottest of takes, this might be a strong finalist for this year’s. Otherwise LOL.

#8 Comment By vern On November 15, 2017 @ 11:38 am

Trump is none of the above. His only purpose in government was for his own ego gratification and to increase his wealth.

He is a puppet for whoever is close enough for him to pull his strings. His favorite world leaders all happen to be autocrats who care little about civil liberties or human rights.

He cares about wins and losses (ego) He is not religious, it is just a smoke screen he has put up so he can hide his worse tendencies and use it to block criticism.

#9 Comment By spite On November 15, 2017 @ 11:57 am

People that write these kind of articles just never get it (actually they probably do but cannot say these things openly). It has to do with race, whether you like this reason or not – this is the underlying fundamental issue at play here. Being replaced by another people is not going to sit well with some, one would think this is stating the obvious but it seems that the fear to broach this topic makes people come up with all kinds of reasonings that simply do not admit the truth of this. I know that anything to do with race causes so called conservatives to have abject fear (even this comment has a high chance of being censored), but you simply cannot ignore this anymore.

#10 Comment By Alex On November 15, 2017 @ 11:59 am

Oh, please. I am from the former Soviet Union. I know who Gorbachev was. He was a democrat, Trump is a dictator. Gorbachev was able to talk and listen to people, Trump is very good in insulting and blaming people. I can continue forever. They have nothing in common as human beings.

#11 Comment By connecticut farmer On November 15, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

“…in which the state is again recognized as a limited but essential expression of our shared life together, where we are members not just of a market but a “great common enterprise” in which solidarity and justice are indeed tangible things.”

This phrase unfortunately constitutes a blemish on an otherwise fine and thoughtful article. Exactly what does the phrase “limited but essential expression of our shared life together” mean? “Limited” by what? What “great common enterprise”? What “solidarity”? Ours is a country where commonality of purpose–to the extent that it has ever existed in the first place– appears to be vanishing at an exponential level.

Lots of questions. No answers.

#12 Comment By polistra On November 15, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

Obama is more like Gorbachev. The last attempt to rebrand the old system, hoping to make it more palatable.

Trump may turn out to be more like Yeltsin if he starts doing SOMETHING. So far the fake image of “Trump” is causing all sorts of reactions and changes, but the actual Trump has done nothing at all. He just emits meaningless noises, handing his enemies free ammunition.

#13 Comment By grumpy realist On November 15, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

Gorbachev had brains. Trump has none, and is very easily manipulated by anyone who points a camera at him and tells him how great he is.

If you don’t believe me, look at how the Chinese manipulated Trump on this last trip to Asia.

#14 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On November 15, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

“For all its recklessness, it is this faction of Right that has indeed grappled with a nation whose poor- and lower-middle class face the erosion of both wages and a formerly rich institutional fabric.”

But Trump might already be betraying it, as this article on banking (de)regulation suggests. It doesn’t bode will for what the tax reform bill would mean for the 80% in the bottom quintiles of the population.


#15 Comment By S T Lakshmikumar On November 15, 2017 @ 8:36 pm

Unfortunately the entrenched social democratic welfare state will not lead to serfdom but to a dysfunctional society. This is the lesson from independent india which has no political party representing individualistic policies. The current Hindu nationalist party in power caters to Hindu sentiments but a redistributive economic policy. As an outsider i see USA following the same path with islands of functionality sustaining barely, the rest. Hopefully the author would join in a length discussion with me on this

#16 Comment By John On November 15, 2017 @ 10:33 pm

It’s very tempting to read into what Trump says, to try and see a broader strategy. However, the facts differ. Even his aides admit he gets more of his news from cable TV (of which he consumes several hours a day) than from the army of people whose job it is to inform him. While most presidents are much more informed than the average American, I believe Trump is only slightly more informed. And can you really accomplish anything if you have few goals deeper than platitudes? No. And as we have seen, he has indeed been unable to accomplish much.

#17 Comment By Robert K On November 16, 2017 @ 1:13 am

Schlock from bottom to top.

#18 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On November 16, 2017 @ 3:48 am

I can continue forever.

Indeed you should. Because this:

Trump is a dictator.

Trump is very good in insulting and blaming people.

is a complete non sequitur.

#19 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On November 16, 2017 @ 7:45 am

Gorbachev presided over negative economic growth and the demise of his country and social-economic order, so comparing Trump to Gorbachev is not a compliment to Trump. (The collapse of the Soviet Union was a monumental humanitarian catastrophe, probably one of the biggest in post WWII times outside Africa).

I feel like a lot of the commenters here are missing that.

#20 Comment By TR On November 16, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

Hector St. Clare: Not the “demise of his country” but the demise of his Empire. There’s a difference.

#21 Comment By Joseph Gustavus On January 7, 2019 @ 1:57 pm

I find it very insulting that one would dare compare Donald Trump and Mikhail Gorbachev together. Yes, under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union fell after suffering horrible economic trends and partisans and the whole nine yards. He inherited those problems though, he did not cause them. And though there were many things that he could’ve fixed, instead he decided of fixing the social situation of Russia and its client states. He helped dismantle Communism in Eastern Europe, reunified Germany after tearing the wall down, along with Reagen he put a stop to the Cold War, and introduced perestroika to revitalize the economy and to also reintroduce freedom into the Russian culture. Gorbachev was premier of an evil regime that believed that it could be made right, a belief that the Slavic state could be strengthened, Democratically. He proclaims that his only regret was that he could not see the transition through for he was usurped by the many governors that betrayed him. He was a man that believed in righting the wrongs of the past, you put a stain on his name those who comment calling him vile, and those who dare put Trump on his level of dignity.