Susan Sarandon, a leftist’s leftist, fielded mockery from smug neoliberal Democrats back in 2016 when she speculated that Donald Trump could “bring the revolution immediately.” That was prescient.
Sarandon made the assertion in the context of a conversation with MSNBC host Chris Hayes about whether she would ultimately vote for Hillary Clinton, whose nomination she opposed bitterly as an ardent backer of Bernie Sanders.
“Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode,” the actress grinned. Pressed by a baffled Hayes, Sarandon confirmed she was referring to the “Leninist model of ‘heighten the contradictions,'” as the host put it.
Cass Sunstein wrote about this concept in the context of Trump three years ago:
Marx contended that as the conditions of workers started to improve, they would cease to be content with their lot, or to regard their alienation as inevitable. Lenin seized on this idea and transformed it into a revolutionary strategy.
Lenin urged that as capitalism developed, workers would see, or could be made to see, the contradictions between the official story of universal freedom and their actual inability to have real control over their own lives. The job of the communist revolutionary was to ‘heighten’ or ‘accelerate’ those contradictions.
“While Trump’s characteristic strategy is to intensify social divisions, and to make what divides Americans as salient and visible as possible, that approach is more often associated with the left than the right,” Sunstein added.
Speaking of context, Marxist revolutions are obviously about overthrowing capitalism, not statues (although that can be part of it). But the fatal disagreement in Sanders’ campaign this cycle is instructive here: today, some leftists want an economic revolution, some want a cultural revolution, and some want a version of both. Not every leftist wants the revolution to upend our concept of biological sex, or will applaud the corporate appropriation of cultural progressivism.
Back to Trump. We’re not witnessing Sarandon’s anticipated Marxist revolution against capitalism. And Sunstein is wrong that Trump is responsible for “heightening the divisions” on a cultural level. From 30,000 feet, even Trump is playing defense in the culture war, however many tweets about liberal celebrities and athletes he sends. It is “progressives” who have been waging this battle for decades.
Writing in The Week, Damon Linker once described “heightening the contradictions” as “the idea of searching for a catalyst within the present that can serve as a launching pad for total revolution.” That is clearly how the left has used Trump since he took office.
As I weaved through the Black House Autonomous Zone briefly erected near the White House last week, I saw a cardboard sign that read, “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH AND TO THE LITTLE MAN IN THE WH THANK YOU THIS WOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT YOU!”
Immediately I thought back to Sarandon’s comment. No cabal of powerful Marxists is meeting behind closed doors to use Trump as a catalyst for “the revolution.” But signs of a cultural revolution are clearly mounting as we undergo a mass purge of objectionable statues and names and people. We’re certainly not on the precipice of a leftist economic revolution, and ironically this wave of cultural change likely has little support in the working class.
But the left is attempting to use Trump as a catalyst for sweeping cultural change. They drive news cycle after news cycle with his tweets and relentlessly litigate anonymous claims about his conduct, holding it up as representative of lingering racism and misogyny and general bigotry.
This is not the work of self-identified Marxists so much as cultural leftists with key allies in elite neoliberal institutions, and it may not even work. But this all has the effect of intensifying the cultural status quo, obviously with the intent of stoking discontent. Trump is their catalyst, and they know it.