What Donald Trump Learned From Vladimir Lenin About Chaos in Politics

The Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin shown making a speech in Moscow. There is a certain logic to what President Donald Trump is doing, a logic most identified with a political leader long dead but much remembered. Keystone/Getty Images

Washington is now dealing with the fallout from President Donald Trump's recent decision to cut off about $7 billion in federal payments to insurance companies to keep them in the Obamacare exchanges. When the White House announced the end of the payments on Friday, it justified the actions with a legal rationale, saying the Cost Sharing Reduction payments to insurance companies represented a legal overreach by the Obama administration—and it even cited a Justice Department argument saying that only Congress could have appropriated the CSRs.

That rationale blew up quickly. As dozens of state attorneys general went to court to keep the payments coming and to insist there was no legal justification for cutting off the payments that keep insurers in the marketplace, the president made it clear that legal niceties were not the real issue—killing Obamacare was. After the decision, Trump tweeted that Obamacare was a "broken mess" and that the CSRs were just a "payoff" to insurance companies. For his part, Steve Bannon made it clear that the cut off payments were about pure destruction: The former Trump adviser and current Breitbart News chief told an audience of conservative voters: Trump is "not gonna make the [CSR] payments. Gonna blow that thing up. Gonna blow those exchanges up, right?"

By Monday, Trump was still cheering himself on about cutting off the payments: "The gravy train ended the day I knocked the insurance companies' money." He noted that there were "emergency" meetings taking place involving Republicans and Democrats attempting to come up with a fix by November 1, when open enrollment begins on the exchanges.

As it happens, two senators, Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, have been working for months on legislation to stabilize the insurance markets, which had been wobbly even before Trump ended the CSRs.

This kind of bipartisan legislation on an important topic used to be fairly commonplace in Washington. It is the way the system is supposed to work: The leading members of a committee—in this case, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee—would hold hearings and together craft a bill that, if it was approved by the panel, would go on to the floor and then, if it cleared that hurdle, would be taken up by the other chamber. This is the "regular order" that Senator John McCain of Arizona spoke of when he took to the Senate floor this summer to vote against the GOP's latest health care plan because it was written hastily, without any hearings. The Alexander-Murray bill would continue the CSR payments to insurance companies, and because it was authored by Congress, it would overcome the Department of Justice's legal arguments. It isn't perfect legislation, but it would do a lot to stop the flight of insurance companies from health care markets around the country.

Initially, Trump was very supportive of the bill on Tuesday, even while members of the White House denounced it. By Wednesday morning, he was tweeting his opposition to the Alexander proposal. All of this left everyone in Washington unsure if the Alexander-Murray fix could pass or even come up for a vote. Thus, the president has sowed chaos, and then sowed chaos again as senators sought to repair his original mess.

This kind of chaos is familiar by now, of course. It's often likened to the antics of a child. Trump has been characterized that way many times and, by contrast, Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are dubbed adults. (See James Mann's lengthy essay "The Adults in the Room" in The New York Review of Books.)

But what if Trump's penchant for disorder doesn't stem from a lack of self-control? What if it is a calculated effort to make a mess, to make things worse so he could make them better at a later date? As it happens, there is a certain logic to what Trump is doing, a logic most identified with a political leader long dead but much remembered.

It's been almost a century since Vladimir Illyich Lenin led his Marxist sect to power. The 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution is upon us. It's a common misconception that the Bolsheviks overthrew the czar, but the Russian royal family had abdicated in February 1917, eight months before Lenin's gang took control. When Lenin seized power, he was overthrowing the parliament-backed provisional government of Alexandr Kerensky.

Lenin and Trump couldn't be more different, of course, a slender, bald, intense Marxist versus a doughy, wild-haired, unfocused mogul. Trump has mere authoritarian tendencies, while Lenin was a true dictator and mass murderer: There's no moral equivalence between the two. Lenin was one of the 20th century's pivotal figures, and history has yet to determine Trump's mark on the 21st. But Lenin was a great believer in the power of making things worse, or, as it's known from his writings, "heightening the contradictions." The phrase, sometimes translated as "accelerate the contradictions," meant that the contradictions of capitalism—the conflict between capital and labor—had to get worse before they got better so that Communism could save the day.

Almost everything Trump does is Leninist, in that it heightens the contradictions. Indeed, Bannon has called himself a Leninist. The president is tearing down Obamacare, making it unviable and not putting anything in its place. It's not just the end of the CSR payments but virtually everything he's done on that front. Next month, when enrollment in Obamacare begins, there will be less federal funding for advertising choices to consumers, and the website will be less available. It's not that Obamacare was a perfect system. Critics had good cause to question its often high premiums, lack of universal coverage and impositions on small businesses and younger consumers. But it was at least coherent. What Trump is advocating now—blowing up parts of Obamacare—is pure nihilism.

The same is true for the Iran deal. Trump is now declaring that Iran is not in compliance with the deal, which contradicts what he said just a few months ago. The U.S. isn't pulling out of the agreement: The administration is just rolling out the hand grenade that Iran is breaking the accord and encouraging Congress to take action such as instituting sanctions against Tehran. That really is a Leninist move, one that sows chaos. For what it's worth, it puts the U.S. squarely against France, Britain, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia, who all agree that Iran, whatever other subterfuge it's engaged in, has adhered to the nuclear deal. Trump has undermined and weakened the Iran deal without going so far as to blow it up, which may be the most destabilizing thing he could have done.

In the nuclear standoff with North Korea, he's undermined his own secretary of state by calling Rex Tillerson's diplomacy a waste of time. Tillerson continues to try to corral allies and adversaries—most notably China—to put pressure on Pyongyang, but he's made life harder for his top diplomat with a brand of belittling never seen from a president. The semi-scuttling of the Iran deal can only make Kim Jong Un believe the U.S. won't adhere to any agreement anyway.

"Chaos is a ladder," says one of the characters in Game of Thrones. Lenin and his heirs like Mao understood that in anarchy lies opportunities. The worse things get, the more people will look toward a radical solution. Trump isn't much of a reader, but he intuitively understands what Lenin was getting at, which is why his days begin with a cavalcade of tweets designed to unsettle the body politic. Colin Kaepernick and kneeling at NFL games was of modest interest until Trump elevated it into a culture war. Presidents historically have been pastors, conciliators in chief. Almost everything Trump does inflames and exacerbates and confuses.

There's another eerie parallel with Lenin. In 1917, Lenin was living in exile in Switzerland. He returned to Russia via a sealed train provided by Germany's kaiser, who had no love for Bolshevism but wanted to see Russia drop out of World War I which Lenin promised to do. And so he was delivered "to the Finland Station" in what was then called Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), where that train sits in memorial. WIthout German facilitation, it's not at all clear there would have been a Bolshevik Revolution. Russia hopes to assist Trump in the 2016 elections, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded, as well as undermine faith in democratic institutions and sow confusion. Marxism-Leninism is long gone from public life in Moscow, but the advantages of creating chaos are evident. Russia now has an American president who has expressed doubts about NATO, called for greater friendship between the countries and who refuses to acknowledge Russian interference in American elections. Talk about heightening the contradictions.

Churchill long denounced the kaiser's regime for allowing Lenin to travel to Russia, and thus for Leninism to spill out into the rest of the world. The "plague bacillusm," as he called it, worked beyond Germany's wildest dreams and became the world's nightmare. Lenin convinced his fellow Bolsheviks that they could seize power themselves without being subservient to any alliances. You wonder what he might have thought about the chaotic capitalist who is his heir.