When the Bolsheviks took power during the Russian Revolution in 1917, their intention was to create the dictatorship of the proletariat. They formed an army to fight a civil war against a counterinsurgency of monarchists who intended to destroy the Bolsheviks.
Vladimir Lenin, who led the revolution, appointed Trotsky to form the Red Army.
One problem was that he had never served in an army, let alone commanded one.
But Trotsky was chosen not because he had experience building an army. He was chosen because Lenin trusted Trotsky wouldn’t betray him.
In a revolution, the hardest thing to know is who will betray you. So, Lenin had no choice but to use the same people who made the old regime’s mechanisms work—not all of them, but enough to get it off the ground.
The revolution succeeded, but in the end, it was bogged down by the dizzying choice between loyalty and competence.
Lenin’s problem for Trump
Trump is not Lenin and should not be compared to him. But in a very real sense, he has launched a revolution, made speeches, and inspired masses. He promised to drain the swamp, which isn’t a bad idea.
But to drain the swamp, he must have people who understand how the swamp works. Trump is not Lenin, but now Trump has Lenin’s problem.
In order to carry out his program, Trump must have people both loyal and knowledgeable about various subjects. The federal government is vast and inefficient—not so much because of the people there, but because of its size.
The federal government also is essential to society, because if Social Security checks don’t arrive, there will be chaos. Trump cannot simply dispense with what the government does any more than Lenin could.
He must purge the system without crashing it.
Strong resistance within the government
Very few people who haven’t worked in a federal department know its levers and processes. Given Trump’s condemnation of government programs, I would guess most federal government employees voted against him and don’t wish for him to succeed.
While professors have studied the government’s myriad departments and programs, few actually know how they operate. Those few are not enough, even if they agree to do the work.
This is the problem Trump faces. He can’t simply appoint an agency director or department secretary. Such people normally don’t do much, and when they do, they develop policies that thousands beneath them carry out.
Trump promised fundamental changes in how the government works, so he needs people who can make it happen. For that, he needs experts. He needs to figure out who is loyal to his plan and who will sabotage it.
There is no expectation Trump alone will recognize this expertise. No president can. But he must gather around him a group of people to select those at the top who are both competent and loyal to his vision.
In past transitions, this wasn’t difficult. The difference in viewpoints between presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Clinton and George W. Bush, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama was not all that fundamental.
They disagreed on things, but no one came into office expecting a massive reorientation of government. Even Obama, who made speeches on how different he would be, turned out to be not so different.
The decisive moment
If Trump is serious, then this is the moment that will determine whether he succeeds. His advisers must be able to identify top-level people who know how Washington works and oversee them as they pick the next two levels down, to make sure those people are competent and loyal.
The problem is that all of those people have worked in Washington for years and likely see Trump as a mad interloper. They will do whatever they can to sabotage him.
The point to focus on is this: In October 1917, the people Lenin selected to serve near him determined the future of the Soviet Union. On the whole, it was pretty wretched—but wretched preferred loyalty and fear over expertise, and Lenin pretty well got what he wanted.
It is possible to break the gridlock in Washington. Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan both did it.
The US was born out of the most conservative revolution in history. The regime was designed to moderate ambitions by blocking them. Trump can achieve some of what he wants, while other issues will be left to Washington.
But he can achieve those things only if those around him know where the bodies are buried and who buried them. In other words, Trump understands knife fights in Washington. Having knife fights among advisers is not a great start.
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