Tales of a Coup: What Trump Can Learn from Gorbachev

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 May 23, 2017|
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The president was widely seen as incompetent, naïve, hostile to the professional experts in the bureaucracy, if not an outright traitor, paid off by the nation’s ancient enemies. The traditional political establishment, the intelligence services, and the career federal police were proven patriots and experts, who saw a tragedy unfolding before their eyes. They and everyone in their circle were increasingly worried over the destruction of the nation’s economy and the dangerous concessions to foreign enemies. He must be stopped.

Familiar, no?

In light of recent domestic events, it is worth remembering the 1991 coup attempt against Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

While Americans look at the 1980s nostalgically as the time when we “won the Cold War,” for many Russians today, the era has a mixed reputation. By the mid-1980s, the Soviet regime was increasingly unable to deliver its promises of a glorious socialist future. It maintained a powerful military, but at great expense, and that military was bogged down in an unpopular and inconclusive war in Afghanistan.

Ordinary people were impoverished. They had been told prosperity was right around the corner, but for most it never materialized. Coupled with widespread poverty, the gap between the regime’s claims of equality and social justice and the privileged position of party members, senior government officials, and the security forces, as well as their families, was humiliating to the ordinary workers for whom the Soviet Union was supposed to be a “paradise.” The regime had failed to deliver on its own terms, and its legitimacy was increasingly fragile.

Part of the break occurred in pop culture. In spite of widespread censorship and social pressure not to criticize the regime, a well-developed culture of unofficial news, jokes, and mockery about the “official line” were commonly circulated underground among close friends and family.

The regime had failed to deliver on its own terms, and its legitimacy was increasingly fragile.

In an effort to shore up the nation, Gorbachev embarked on radical reforms known as perestroika. He saw that the legacy regime was unpopular and unsustainable. Small markets would be permitted, as the government-controlled economy could no longer deliver minimal economic supplies to the populace.

At the same time, Gorbachev engaged in arms reduction efforts with the Americans, agreeing to rid Europe of medium-range SS-20 nuclear missiles, which many Soviet defense officials considered a giveaway, in light of the continuing western development of the U.S. “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative anti-missile weapons. Gorbachev, however, was of a new generation and committed to ending the suffocating effects of the Soviet Union’s defense spending mania and stultifying lack of freedom at home.

By 1989, Soviet control over its neighbors mostly had ended. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Gorbachev agreed to remove Soviet troops from East Germany, and Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan. He faced centrifugal forces at home in the form of separatist movements in Georgia and Lithuania, where Soviet forces had used force against demonstrators in January 1991. The economy was in terrible shape, bled white by its massive defense apparatus, and falling global oil prices. The country looked weak, on the brink of collapse, and traditional Communists blamed the radical programs and bad leadership of Gorbachev. For them, his program, far from bringing peace and prosperity, was a threat both to the country’s strength and independence, as well as their own privileged positions in it.

By August 1991, they had enough. Proclaiming a state of emergency, the coup plotters sought to replace the president with his vice president, Gennady Yanaev. Leaders of the defense ministry and the KGB were on board. They confronted Gorbachev while he was on vacation in Crimea, while simultaneously declaring a state of emergency and cutting off Gorbachev’s communications. They declared Gorbachev unfit for duty due to illness on state television. Tanks were deployed in central Moscow. The coup leaders thought they would be celebrated as saviors of the nation and that the Soviet people, long bred in habits of fear and passivity, would accept these events regardless.

The parallels with the current talk against Trump are rather remarkable. As Trump noted in his inaugural address, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished―but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered―but the jobs left, and the factories closed. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.”

Quite the opposite occurred. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators appeared in Red Square in Moscow and Leningrad to defend nascent democratic institutions. Then provincial leader Boris Yeltsin rallied the people to support Gorbachev, and many of the military units assembled for the crackdown defected to the other side. Ordinary people, it turned out, were hostile to the legacy Soviet elite. They wanted change, and they risked their lives for it.

Soon the coup plotters were arrested, several committed suicide, and the Communist Party and eventually the Soviet Union were soon officially disbanded.

The parallels with the current talk against Trump are rather remarkable. As Trump noted in his inaugural address, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished―but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered―but the jobs left, and the factories closed. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.”

As some observers pointed out, 2016 was a Flight 93 Election, where the alternative to Trump was certain doom.

Conservatives sometimes forget that the vast majority of Soviet dissidents were not quoting Hayek or Adam Smith, nor were they clamoring for democratic capitalism. Rather, the hypocrisies of the ruling class loomed large. Their special privileges belied their claims of being a “socialist democracy” organized around the proletariat. Can a country where a “democratic” politician is paid $250,000 for a speech by Wall Street be far behind?

In addition, for the Soviet Union, the corrosive effect of pervasive and demonstrably false lies loomed large. Claims that economic production were up, while citizens waited in long lines for ordinary and shoddy items—watches, lipstick, socks, bread—exposed the ubiquitous propaganda of the regime to ordinary people on a daily basis.

Whether Trump is somehow forced to resign, taken out in a real or quasi-coup, or hobbled by passive resistance from the federal bureaucracy, it is worth remembering his American enemies echo almost identically the themes of the ’91 Soviet plotters, right down to the excuse of illness, claims of national emergency, and suggestion that the vice president would be a more capable steward of their interests.

Today, the propaganda is more insidious. We’re told diversity is our strength, as race riots proliferate and elites live in secure, gated communities and send their children to tony private schools. We’re told about the dangers of isolationism, after the failed campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. We’re told globalization is beneficial, even as Michigan, Ohio, and much of the Midwest have become hollowed out economically and socially. All the while, Washington, D.C. has become one of the most well-heeled, prosperous, and generally gleaming cities in America.

For supporters, Trump was partly a symbolic figure, whose style and substance signaled an emphatic rejection of the old order, which aligned on a bipartisan basis against him. Many who voted for him did so nervously, aware that he lacked a track record and had some obvious character flaws. Nonetheless, the election was a referendum on the status quo, and Hillary was the symbol of that in spades, right down to her nepotistic origins as a politician and massive personal wealth obtained primarily by selling political influence.

Whether Trump is somehow forced to resign, taken out in a real or quasi-coup, or hobbled by passive resistance from the federal bureaucracy, it is worth remembering his American enemies echo almost identically the themes of the ’91 Soviet plotters, right down to the excuse of illness, claims of national emergency, and suggestion that the vice president would be a more capable steward of their interests.

While they might try to pull this off, perhaps they should be worried they’ll share the same fate as the Soviet coup plotters.

About the Author:

Christopher Roach
Christopher Roach is an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, The Journal of Property Rights in Transition, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.
  • jack dobson

    Spot on.

    It won’t be difficult to mark the day the federal government officially became illegitimate. That would be the day after the president fired a lawless, seemingly corrupt FBI director. On that day, the Deputy United States Attorney General–who was put into the position due to a fraudulent scandal that required his boss not to be involved in such matters–appointed a Special Counsel to “investigate” the fabricated tumult. That Special Counsel once headed the FBI himself and was his immediate and now-fired successor’s friend and mentor.

    Even the Soviets weren’t that brazen.

    The clichés now are more Orwellian than those the USSR pushed.

    “We must fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” they bleat as our borders are forced open ever wider and we take as refugees some people who likely participated in jihad and genocide. Of course, the first president elected after 16 years of unrelenting violence against Americans has to be muscled out because he wants to protect, of all things, Americans. What will that do to gardener and maid salaries in D.C., for God’s sake?

    What is called “resistance” looks an awful lot like a nasty reaction to what was a velvet revolution.

    Ad nauseum.

    I still hope these darker characters in our capitol will get a grip before it is too late. Yet given events of late, if they find themselves considered legitimate targets of war this time next year due to a final embrace of self-destructive and likely violent insurrection, would they even have the introspection to understand why? Some voices of reasons have started to pipe up, but these events tend to take a life on their own. All would do well to remember the Soviet troops refused to fire on the Russian people.

    Plato wrote in “Republic” that all democracies end in tyranny. Most of those who went before us also were able to mark the day it happened. As Decius suggested in “The Flight 93 Election,” the United States was given a rare second chance to pull back. It looks like the junta that controls this nation will squander a unique opportunity.

  • mikeman

    Very well written article, and the similarities are striking. But Gorbachev was still a communist, and our president is the ultimate capitalist, a celebrity and most importantly an outsider. We finally have the non politician the country needs to weaken the DC bureaucracy.
    Like Hercules cleaning the Augean stables, draining the DC swamp is a monumental task. And despite media lies and cacophonous, vile democrats, Trump seems more than capable of slaying the establishment’s Cretan bull.
    God bless you President Trump.

    • AZVick

      Very well said.

  • LOn Layton

    If there is any coup in the works it is being orchestrated by the corrupt media. The democrat party takes its marching orders from the media and acts accordingly. The American people put Donald Trump in office to do exactly what he is doing, and if anyone thinks we will stand idly by and let him be destroyed then they are sadly mistaken. Drain the swamp and MAGA!

  • Kelly Palmer

    “…long bred in habits of fear and passivity…”

    THAT is a great line. Unisex bathrooms, anarchists and rioters glorified, a strange new language of safe spaces/triggering/cultural appropriation, and a government picking the winners (“clean” energy) and losers (fracking and coal). This is not the country I grew up loving, and I’ll be damned if it goes down without a fight. We got the guns and the will, and more than a few of us know what Stonewall did at Chancellorsville and could reprise that flanking maneuver. Simply put, if the self-appointed DC overlords don’t sit down and shut up, there will be blood. Theirs.

  • Aril

    Trump equals Gorbachev. Thanks for the morning laugh. Conservatives have become so pathetic. And comparing Trump to a any Russian leader Is just icing on the cake. Can not wait until 2018.

    • jack dobson

      You’ll lose, perhaps badly. The left-wing is entirely discredited due to their involvement in a Third World-style coup attempt. Democrats aren’t coming back to power for decades.

  • The analogy is good, to a point. However it reminds me of Gorbachev’s relatively recent interview in which he opined that America has not yet had its pierestroika. The election of President Trump could indeed be American pierestroika.

    Also – beware to finish the story… Russians ultimately compare the 1990s to the Time of Troubles. Gorbachev aimed to reform the Soviet Union, not end it, and the geopolitical repricussions (for good and ill) are visible today. Are you willing to take the analogy that far? Is Trump our moment of national idealism, to be followed by ultimate decline and fall?

    Unfortunately the fundamentals of Western civilization are not strong amongst its peoples any longer. Is Trump renewal – or the last dying twitch of a once great people?

    We shall see…

    • I guess the question is whether Trump is the Putin character to push back on the power of oligarchs after the Time of Troubles (2007-2012), or whether it is yet to come. It is a good point that after the very popular Yeltsin came to power, Russia entered a period of economic and political decline, chaos, and disorder.

    • SaguaroJack49

      If you’re a Christian you know that Trump’s the last dying twitch. Sad, because he has what it takes to be a great one.

  • Sam Agami

    Interesting piece. I think the comparison of the Soviet Party power structure and the current D.C. elites, is certainly valid in one regard. Neither was capable of comprehending how out of touch with the general population they were/are. The reason that this disconnect exists is also in common; the fact that they have isolated themselves from ever interacting with others with whom they do not share common experiences. This is probably most troubling for those who are part of the Washington/Media power structure. As you explain, although they profess values of diversity and inclusiveness, they live in the most segregated communities in America. Segregated not only by race and wealth, but culturally and intellectually. They only talk to each other, so they are convinced that everyone believes in the same set of abstract values. This echo chamber has created an ever more bizarre and warped world-view, one that leads to both more and more alienation from the general population, but a more profound sense of shock and betrayal when one in a position of power, such as President Trump, dares reject them.

  • SaguaroJack49

    I’m unaware of any Trump “character” flaws.

  • Silent T

    If we are very lucky, the Left will continue down their path of madness and try to take power by some insane violent coup attempt, doomed to failure. Such an attempt would completely unmask the Left and allow for the kind of tough housecleaning that would render the Left politically dead for generations.

  • Bad Wolf

    There is no doubt that the Democrats including their auxiliary, the Press, are engaged in a purposeful effort to nullify a legitimate election, essentially a coup. This is treasonous. If they wish to oppose specific polities, that is Democracy. But using fake news, fake accusations, deep state allies in an attempt to eliminate a legitimately elected President who was elected specifically to correct the bad policies initiated by the permanent party controlled by the multinationals and crony capitalists, the public worker labor unions and the state dependents – all the Democrats and many of the RINOs – is treasonous. Voters should remember this come the mid-terms.

  • Bad Wolf

    Unlike Gorbachev, Trump is relentless, a fighter who never quits, who takes hits and shrugs them off and and moves back on the attack. The treasonous Democrats and their RINO allies who seek to un-do a legitimately elected President are being steadily unmasked and will fall in disgrace. Trump will win.

  • ADM64

    This article makes a number of factual errors to draw what is at best a poor analogy:
    Gorbachev wanted to improve the condition of his country, but he was incompetent. He was very much a child of the Soviet nomenklatura, he believed in socialism to the very end, and fundamentally did not understand his country, what its structure was, what its government depended on, and thus fundamentally misdiagnosed its problems. He was unable to act ruthlessly or effectively because he simply did not understand what he was doing. The fact that the Soviet nomenklatura was even more incompetent and was corrupt – the latter not being one of Gorbachev’s failings – doesn’t change this fact. Nor should it obscure Gorbachev’s own high self-regard, his immense ego, and the degree to which he made it all about him.

    I’d suggest that the real lesson of “reform” in the Soviet Union is that even when confronting an entrenched and incompetent establishment is that the person choosing to challenge it had better a) know what they are doing, and b) correctly understand the problem that they are facing. Donald Trump ran as an outsider – and I voted for him for a number of reasons (not least of which was that he wasn’t Hillary) – but he has shortcomings that are very apparent, and he remains committed to many key aspects of the welfare state (the entitlements in particular) even if willing to rein in the out-of-control regulatory state. I’d suggest also, that the second lesson of the last years of the Soviet Union is that when an incompetent but earnest leader engages in a fight with an incompetent, corrupt and entrenched establishment, the outcome could well be national disaster.

    We need reform of the most fundamental type. We need to return to the small government, constitutionally limited, free market and individualism that the country was founded on. Getting there will be a huge exercise. I see only limited evidence that significant parts of our population, let alone our leadership, want to actually get there.

  • TempoNick

    There is one other parallel that you missed. The Republican Party is the first political party since 1991 that is as despised by a plurality of its own voters/members as the Communist Party was.