The juxtaposition of these two names in the title may come as a surprise to many readers. What do a social-democrat who wanted to reform Communism, and the billionaire right-wing populist magnate have in common? Indeed, if we focus on their ideologies and individual histories (to the extent that they matter) nothing—not “almost nothing”, but “nothing”!
But if we look at the things from a structuralist perspective similarities are unmistakable.They do not believe in the hierarchical international systems they preside. They are part of the ruling elite but they are fighting against it.
Gorbachev came to power in 1985 planning to reform the Soviet Communism so that it could be economically more efficient and provide higher incomes for its people. The system whose head he became was a hierarchical one. Internationally, the countries of the “socialist camp” were organized in such a way that the USSR was their head; the USSR in turn was led but the Communist party. And the Communist party was led by its Secretary General. So, whatever the Secretary General decided to do, the USSR did, and whatever the USSR wanted to do had to be acquiesced in or imitated by the “allies” or the satellite counties. In the words of a Yugoslav ambassador to the USSR in the 1950s, when the “weather” changed in Moscow, if it became colder, “we would all put on winter coats”; if it got warmer, as with Khrushchev’s “thaw”, “we would all wear short sleeved-shirts”.
When Gorbachev came to power and started producing the noise that was entirely dissonant from whatever came from the Kremlin before, the Soviet and East European Communist elites were totally taken aback and paralyzed. Reforming the economic and political system and letting the Warsaw Pact countries “do it their own way” (the Sinatra song evoked by Gorbachev) were deeply troubling ideas directly antithetical to the elites’ power and to the ideological legitimation of their rule. But the elites could not imagine attacking the Secretary General ‘s position because the Secretary General, not unlike the Pope, was supposed to be infallible. Torn between an obvious undermining of their rule and inability to mount a defense, they helplessly waited for the outcome, doing nothing. We know by now that the outcome was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, end of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the end of Communism as a way to organize society.
The Western capitalist world was organized in 1945 in a similarly hierarchical fashion. The countries were “equal” but one was “more equal”. In fact, were it not for the United States and the effort and money it expended in Europe and Japan, it is very unlikely that Europe and Japan would today look the way they do. On the top of the “more equal” country, sits its president. And while the US presidents have had their own idiosyncrasies (Carter was not Nixon), there were basic rules that they all observed: a close military and political union of culturally-similar, US-led democracies was never questioned. The Western elites, including in the United States, might have liked one president more than another (the European infatuation with Obama was quite extraordinary), but they felt safe that the essential architecture of the international system, created by the United States, will be defended by the United States.
With Trump who questions the modus operandi of NATO, the way that Gorbachev wondered about the need for the Warsaw Pact, that assurance is gone (or seems to be gone). The EU is not sacrosanct either, nor is the WTO, nor the entire international architecture that the United States built from 1945 onwards.
The elite in the West, like the Communist elites in the East some 30 years ago, are now at a loss. Aping or accepting the rhetoric emanating from Washington goes against the corpus of beliefs they have created and defended over the past 70 years. Yet opposing Washington, like opposing the Secretary General, Is out of the question because no similar system can be set up by a European power, nor by a combination of European powers. The Western elites treat Trump as they would treat a tiger with whom they are unwillingly locked in a cage: they try to be friendly to the tiger hoping to avoid being eaten, but they hope that the tiger would soon be taken out of the cage.
Will Trump have a similarly devastating effect on democracies that Gorbachev had on Communism? I doubt it, because the Western democratic societies are more resilient and organic. If they are not, to use Nassim Taleb’s terminology, “anti-fragile” (i.e., thriving in chaos), they are at least robust. Communist societies, being hierarchical, were extremely brittle. Western societies have technocratic elites in power but these elites are subject to recall and they do have democratic legitimation. Further, capitalism unlike Communism is economically successful. There are very few people in France who would like to be ruled like China is ruled today; there were millions in Poland who craved to be ruled like France.
Trump will not, I think, destroy some essential structures of the Western system as it was built after the World War II, but he might, with his rough, chaotic and unpredictable government, scare the ruling elites in the West, encourage “revisionists”, and bring about changes that will alter the world as it was created in Yalta and Potsdam.
Many people (myself included) have regretted that the Clinton administration has failed to seize the moment at the end of the Cold War to create a more just international order that would be based on the rules of law, would not be dichotomic or even Manichean one with its origin in the Cold War, and would include Russia rather than leave it out in the cold. Trump is unlikely to create a new structure but he can break parts of the old one. If he does that, he might usher in a post-Cold War era, and close the book on 1945. But note that the Cold War had one good feature: it was “Cold”.