Can the prophet Trump bring America salvation?

Lenin © Alamy
Whipping up the masses is the easy part – giving them what they want proves trickier

Donald Trump is unlikely to win the US presidential election. The worry is what happens when he loses, says historian Peter Frankopan.

We live in strange times. The European project is at a crossroads, and perhaps even at an end, even if commentators argue whether Brexit was a symptom or the cause. A new Cold War is imminent – and according to some, has already started. The collapse in the value of sterling; China’s debt bubble; the potential imminent economic failure in Saudi Arabia; a refugee crisis; the rising tide of religious fundamentalism, the threat of terrorism. The list is a long one. The world around us suddenly feels dark and threatening.

Then there is the US election. It is hard to imagine a candidate in history as divisive as Donald Trump – and difficult to conceive of one who would ever be so poisonous in the future. Trump is still standing, despite a seemingly never-ending stream of women alleging sexual misdemeanours and his positively creepy and sexist comments. Trump is still standing despite asking a foreign-policy adviser three times in one hour why the US doesn’t use nuclear weapons, and despite polls showing that nearly half of American voters believe he will start a nuclear war if elected president.

Trump is still standing despite saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Many are alarmed by the fact that, despite all this, Trump is still polling above 40%. Populism seems to be yet another problem to add to the long list of things that are not quite right in the early 21st century. And yet populism is not the problem in itself. Articulating views that resonate with voters is, after all, what lies at the heart of politics. Working out what people want to hear is what all politicians are supposed to do; those who don’t tend not to get elected.

So what explains the appeal of a man who seems to defy logic and maintain a core base of support in the face of scandal after scandal; what is it in his message that is so powerful that tens of millions of voters look set to overlook the obvious flaws and put him in charge of a huge nuclear arsenal – which he himself calls “old and tired”, compared with the “tippy top” weapons held by Russia?

The answer is that Trump, like other demagogues in the past, has the characteristics of a prophet. He relentlessly prophesies doom and gloom, telling anyone who will listen that America is hanging on for dear life and that disaster is not just around the corner, but already here. The Chinese are “using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China”, he has said; “we have to stop our jobs being stolen from us”. He is not talking about problems in the future or problems that are imminent – but those in the past and present.

“If you keep saying things are going to be bad, you have a good chance of being a prophet,” said Nobel literature laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Being able to explain the economic downturn in simple terms to a generation of Americans who have lost their jobs or fear losing them has been Trump’s trick, just as Communism was that of Lenin, Trotsky and the early Bolsheviks (see below), who were able to galvanise Russia into revolution by talking about inequality, imbalanced land ownership that had placed assets in the hands of the few and the strained economy that saw bread queues get worse and worse in wartime Petrograd.

Trump has built a following by relentlessly putting his finger in American wounds – drawing attention time and again to the loss of jobs and the stalling economy, to the failure of military efforts abroad and to the media (Trump’s assessment: “dishonest scum”). His rallying cry is simple: it is not just time for a change; it is time for radical change.

We are seeing similar themes play out all over Europe this year as parties with what used to be considered extreme views gain momentum and support. This is the cold reality. Rather than dismissing their views, it is important to recognise that they are hitting a nerve. The world is in transition, as the centre of gravity switches back from the West to Asia, where it lay for millennia. The economies in developed countries have ground to a standstill; yesterday looks better than tomorrow. In the East, things are the other way round.

The challenge, of course, is for Trump – and those like him in Europe – to come up with solutions, rather than simply identify the problems. The fact that many believe he can do so, thanks to his business background, is part of his appeal: that his widely trumpeted achievements are perhaps not as spectacular as he insists they are is beside the point. Trump’s simple strategy is to win power by dicrediting the press, insisting that there are too many vested interests trying to retain the status quo – and keep talking about the catastrophe that lies ahead if the status quo is not overturned.

The truth is that there is nothing that Trump can do about the problems he identifies. He can talk about walls being built to protect the border with Mexico, about leaving the Middle East to its own devices and introducing tariffs with China. None of these will make things better for the parts of the population Trump is speaking to. History teaches that you cannot turn back the tide.

My worry now is not what happens if Trump wins the election, as the chances of that happening are remote. My concern is what happens if he doesn’t. Remember what happened when the Bolsheviks did not triumph in the elections in the winter of 1917. We would do well to remember that often it is not salvation that prophets bring, but revolution.

Fact file: the Bolsheviks

At the start of 1917, Russia’s Bolsheviks were a tiny Marxist sect – with about half the membership of today’s Green party. Yet by November of that year they had taken control of state power, and more or less immediately set about seeking an end to the world war. The events leading to the seizure of power were “ten days that shook the world”, as historian and eye witness reporter John Reed put it in the title of his classic book. The Bolsheviks’ success is often put down to the skill of their leader, Lenin, and the highly disciplined and centralised nature of his organisation.

Their skills as “populists” – offering peace to war-weary urban workers and soldiers, and bread and land to the still largely peasant population – played their part too. In the aftermath of the revolution, the Bolsheviks suppressed all opposition and democratic institutions, including that of the workers they nominally represented. In elections held at the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks won 25% of the 36 million votes cast, losing to the Socialist Revolutionaries, with 58%. The Bolsheviks declared victory anyway and dissolved the Constituent Assembly.

By 1920, state ownership of industry had been almost entirely concentrated in the hands of the state and there was a state monopoly in many areas of trade. Prices were controlled. But another way of destroying the capitalist economy had also occurred to the Bolshevik leadership that may seem more familiar to MoneyWeek readers. The simplest way to destroy capitalism, according to a quote attributed to Lenin, is to flood the country with money notes of high face value that are not backed by financial guarantees of any sort.

• Dr Peter Frankopan is senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. His best-selling book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, is published by Bloomsbury.