Tales of a Coup: What Trump Can Learn from Gorbachev

By | 2017-05-26T18:12:57+00:00 May 23rd, 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.