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 a 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 Stephen Bannon’s approach, and it captures what drew the two men together.
That might be smart politics. But more fundamentally, it appears to be Trump’s gut instinct, his go-to approach when cornered or in trouble. In some cases, his statements look uncomfortably like Russia’s Facebook ads.
The most obvious example is his long effort, before running for office, to convince Americans that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. As politician and president, consider his recent claim that Obama failed to call the families of fallen soldiers; his focus on whether professional football players are standing for the national anthem, combined with a threat to revoke the NFL’s tax exemption; his ad hominem attacks on the Republican establishment; his suggestion that if broadcasters persist in offering “fake news,” their licenses might be revoked; his contention that Democrats do not believe in, and want to abolish, the Second Amendment; his renewed emphasis on the importance of saying “Merry Christmas”; his continuing focus on Hillary Clinton and her supposed crimes.
While Trump’s characteristic strategy is to intensify social divisions, and to make what divides Americans as salient and visible as possible, that approach is more often associated with the left than the right (true to its Marxist origins).
In the United States, Sen. Bernie Sanders has long been drawn to the approach, arguing that the interests of good, decent ordinary people are sharply opposed to those of powerful and supposedly evil actors (such as “the banks”). As Sanders’ influence has grown, the Democratic Party has moved to the left, sometimes with proposals that are rooted less in careful policy analysis than in a Manichean view of American society.
As the Russians know, heightening the contradictions is dangerous for the American people. Here’s a much better idea: E pluribus unum.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.” Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.