This week marks at least three significant anniversaries of world history: the quincentennial of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of a German church, the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the one-year anniversary of the election to the U.S. Presidency of Donald Trump.
Despite the calendar confluence, I haven’t seen writers discussing these three epochal events together. I’d argue that they have crucial aspects in common, and that we glean insights by seeing the current President through the lenses of Luther and Lenin. Here in the 21st century we often suffer from something called teleology; we believe we know better than our forebears and that the world is always getting better. When we consider how badly our current leaders want to be part of capital-h history, it’s worth asking how well they measure up to it.
The Theses, the Revolution, and the Trumpening are all milestones in populism. The old elites had grown fat, entitled, presumptious, and out of touch with the people they supposedly represented. When we learned about Martin Luther in high school, I seem to recall that every student intuitively understood the abstruse term “indulgences.” Learning that rich people in the 1500s could pay to get out of hell didn’t surprise anyone: the rich were being indulged. One rule for the wealthy, another rule for the rest of us…no surprise.
By 1517, enough Europeans were sick of sclerotic elitism to change Europe. By 1917, enough Russians were sick of something similar to change Russia. By 2016…well, you know that story. But…was the cure worse than the poison? As The Who once put it, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”?
This isn’t the place to scrutinize the vicissitudes of Luther’s life; or even to question whether he actually nailed the Theses to any actual door. It’s more important to note that October 31 has been celebrated as Reformation Day far longer than it was ever celebrated as Halloween. More than any other single event, the 95 Theses created the schism in the Roman Catholic Church that profoundly affected the Christianity that has so profoundly affected all Western lives. The thumbnail version is still worth understanding because the thumbnail version is what made Christianity capacious enough to embrace other sorts of pluralism throughout the West.
If the beginnings of Protestantism seemed to refute 1500 years of history, Tolstoy and his fellow Bolsheviks saw themselves refuting a lot more than that: capitalism came from mercantilism, descended from barter systems that went back to ancient Egypt. On paper at least, the Communist revolution was the end of thousands of years of abuse and exploitation, the culmination of the long-delayed rise of Labor Power, the People Finally Running Things. Again, this isn’t the place to complicate the story; the simple version changed the world. Without the ascension of the Bolsheviks, there would have been no Hitler, no Mao, no guerrilla warfare, really no 20th century in the way we’ve come to think of it.
I know, I know, totalitarianism. I just assigned my students Hannah Arendt; her analysis of the rise of Soviet authoritarianism is fresh in my mind. We know that from 1918 to 1920, with the world dying from war and flu, most countries gave Lenin a “pass” on prosecuting the bloody civil war that created the Soviet Union. We know that from 1920 to 1924, the world’s intellectuals were impressed with the Soviet Union, from its feminism (every woman was working) to plenitude (everyone was eating) to apparent Marxism in action (to each according to their means) to mechanization. After 1924, Stalin’s naked authoritarianism changed the game, but after 1929, the worldwide Depression changed it again: most civilized countries, including the United States, began charting a middle course between the two C’s, Communism and capitalism. No one would have bothered if Lenin and Trotsky hadn’t been so successful.
So what, exactly, is the legacy of these two populist watersheds, the Reformation and the Revolution? They were both examples of “creative destruction,” made possible because leaders were corrupt. These leaders’ corruption had become associated with their ideas, to the point where their personal malfeasance was judged part of the failure of their ideology. The leaders that replace them began with good intentions, but then they also got corrupt. We’ve seen plenty of corrupt Protestant leaders in the last five centuries. That said, it’s hard to think we’d have been better off if Luther had never protested. The nature of the papacy invites corruption; the nature of the Protestant Reformation, where no single human (like a pope) rules over all his subjects, is inherently less corruptible. Luther probably saved Christianity by compelling it to be more responsive and responsible.
Soviet Communism before the Stalinist purges was (sorry) preferable to what had come before. The Soviets lost millions during the Great War because they hadn’t bothered to modernize their railroads; Nicholas II couldn’t resupply the men fighting at the front. Could the Russians have modernized and made all their women into workers without Marxism? Maybe. But some have made the case that Communism was a little like a trip to the moon, a 70-year dream that the world needed to get out of its system, and that Stalin’s decimation of swaths of his own population may well have done American conservatives a backhanded favor, invalidating Marxist ideology for many.
The forces that propelled Trump to victory one year ago had something important in common with the first Lutherans and first Soviets – chiefly disgust with the “system” as they knew it. Americans’ embrace of Trump was a rejection of America’s two-party duopoly and the two parties’ profound failure to solve America’s very solvable problems. Sadly, it also reified that duopoly, because Trump ultimately received votes from both the loyal Republicans and the Republicans disenfranchised from their party. In November 2016, Americans voted for change, but in the following 12 months their President advocated only three kinds of changes: personal enrichment, vociferous opposition to any law passed by his predecessor, and reheated Republican fantasies (for example, about crime and taxes). Some might more charitably call this renewed Republicanism, an allyship that expands the “big tent.” I’d say it’s closer to the worst of both worlds, something like Alfred’s explanation of the Joker – “some people just want to watch the world burn.” (Is it a surprise that Trump’s strongest supporters are 4chan anger-bots?) Whatever you call it, none of the previous 44 presidents had ever attempted quite such an egregious bait and switch.
Had Luther, or Lenin? Perhaps, because of the internet and an accelerated information cycle, we’re simply seeing a quicker version of Luther and Lenin’s changes? Nice try, but not really. The worst Protestant reformers were still better than the most indulgent Popes. Lenin’s leadership was never close to as bad as Nicholas II’s. And Luther and Lenin, after gaining more power, publicly advocated for (and sometimes well represented) society as a whole. Luther didn’t set himself against ordinary Catholics; Lenin worked to extend benefits to every Soviet. Trump can’t bring himself to help or hail people in parts of America that didn’t vote for him, like Puerto Rico and California.
In a century, can you imagine world thinkers praising Trump the way they have Luther and Lenin? It would be hard to imagine them doing that tomorrow. Conservatives who aren’t blinded by love for their Dear Leader might see Trump as a bit of a Lenin-Stalin combination – saying many of the right things, doing mostly the wrong things. (Is that why Trump loves Russia so much? Is that why Bannon called himself a Leninist?) The Trumpets are trying to learn from history; they’re just learning the wrong lessons. Their instinct toward “creative destruction” isn’t necessarily wrong, but they’ve got to do more to see where and how that’s worked before. In centuries past, other countries had populist moments that led to Trump-like leaders; is it any wonder we haven’t heard more about those leaders?
Europe was ready for reform and got lucky with Luther; Russia was ready for reform and got lucky with Lenin, but unlucky when he died too young; America was ready for reform but got unlucky to get such an unrepentant scumbag. A Trump-like figure without the kleptocracy, corruption, and pathological hatred for criticism (Marc Cuban? Oprah Winfrey?) could make America’s 21st century even better than its 20th, assuming he or she governed somewhat like Trump’s campaign and tried to respond to majorities. Despite the polarization in places like Twitter, we want someone to be President for all Americans, not just someone who scores points for one side. In practice, this would mean a leader who treated the country the way Mike Bloomberg treated New York City when he became its Republican mayor, taking a little bit from Column A (Repubs) and a little bit from Column B (Dems). Jobs, voting, civil rights, wages, global warming, taxes, immigration, gun control, terrorism, education, health care, war: if a leader STARTED somewhere between the (very well established) Democrat and Republican positions, and worked from there, that leader could positively alter a century and even a millennium in much the way as Luther and Lenin. We still have the chance to live UP to the past.