DONALD TRUMP AND THE TSAR

Donald Trump with his now infamous troop-assisted walk to St. John’s Church has aroused a storm of criticism. Donald Trump seems to be the ultimate authoritarian. He wants to dominate (a word he uses endlessly), to control. Not to dominate is to demonstrate weakness. That domination though is done from a distance. For Donald Trump hiding high in his gold tower (or now, from the White House), domination has always been a fantasy, safely remote. Given his real temperament Trump has missed his calling. He could have been more comfortable as a Tsar!

It is a bit difficult in 2020 to find a Tsar to hold up as an example. Tsardom itself came to an untimely end. The fact that Tsardom came to an end does not mean that its failure was inevitable. It came to an end because of an international crisis (World War I) and because the Tsar selection process produced the wrong man. The combination of crisis and incompetence proved too much. Otherwise, a modernized Tsardom could in theory, be with us still. And, in fact, it is with us still. Donald Trump is a perfect(if non-religious) Tsar. He just happens to be heading the wrong government.

Let us think briefly about the last Tsar: When shy, slight Nicholas II became Tsar in 1894, at the age of 26, his family had occupied the Russian throne for almost three hundred years. Ruling Russia was the family business. His father, the very large Alexander III, had three huge brothers (one was 6 feet 11 inches), all helped rule.

The autocratic model that all in that huge country understood (it had the beauty of simplicity) was that God intended Russia to be a pyramid with the Tsar at the very top, guiding and protecting His People on earth. That did not mean the Nicholas or even his more vigorous father really understood what was going on “out there”. Russia had a population in 1896 of about 113 million peasants (most were illiterate landless serfs), and about three million others. Many of the others were becoming westernized, but the Tsars, father and son, seemed to have little sense of the modernizing going on just under them. Tsars lived luxurious but isolated lives. Failure to understand their subjects (and all citizens were subjects) was a real vulnerability.

By 1905, workers, many of them peasants, had been drawn to St. Petersburg to work in huge new factories. They lived in terrible conditions. There were endless strikes and demonstrations. The police actually financed workers’ unions trying to channel unrest. On January 9, 1905 a priest, Father Gapon, tried to organize union members to present a petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (the Tsar wasn’t there). Gapon thought he had permission but when five organized columns of hymn singing marchers arrived they were shot down by troops. Hundreds died.

That event seemed to break the spell. Young Tsar Nicholas II, not knowing how bad things were, failed to respond quickly. When he did meet later with a delegation of workers, he was cold and dismissive. For the peasant workers (the Tsar’s base) that was the last straw. From then on until the final overthrow during World War I, the fixed belief in divine appointment that made Tsarist rule logical became ever more open to doubt.

History cannot repeat itself exactly. It is now a hundred and fifteen years after the events of 1905. Nicholas and Donald Trump could hardly be more different. Yet there are some things to be learned here:

Both Donald Trump and the Tsar have/had a base of supporters who believed that God wanted them there. The Tsar then and the President now will be vulnerable if that belief fades. One of Nicholas’s few strengths was that he passionately believed it himself.

Both the Tsar and Donald Trump almost never dealt with, and were remote from, ordinary people. The Tsar would rarely have talked to a peasant. They were viewed in royal circles as distant and romantic (The notorious Rasputin was fascinating to ladies of the court partly because he was the only peasant many had ever seen up close.). Donald Trump may grandly appear and pontificate to working class people at his rallies. He hardly wastes his time holding meaningful conversations with them. He gets back in his big plane and he is gone!

Donald Trump clearly does not trust ordinary people. The White House is being transformed into a fortress designed to keep people out. Donald Trump has, in any case, shown little interest in the daily running of his government. Nicholas normally operated from remote palaces. The separation from his own government was partly due to pressure from his fearful and neurotic wife. The result was that he remained an unnecessarily remote figure to the bureaucracy that was all his to command.

Nicholas certainly worked conscientiously. Documents were sent to him by his ministers and he spent time reading them and making comments in the margins. Donald Trump famously refuses to read anything. He likes pictures, bullet points. His staff spends a great deal of time attempting to cover his mistakes. As Tsar he would be freer to operate without criticism. Who would question the mysterious ways of God?

Nicholas had a job for life. He never had to worry about election. That, in theory, left him freer to think about the affairs of state. Donald Trump is consumed with concern about the November election. As a practical matter what little real work he is doing is almost entirely related to getting a contract to continue another four years. As a Tsar, being rechosen would never be an issue. In happy times it would be very relaxing.

Nicholas was hardworking, religious, dedicated. Tragically, he was not the strong, knowledgeable, flexible, but ruthless, person who could have driven his bureaucracy and his backward, uneducated citizenry toward a more modern and more enlightened, more democratic system. Donald Trump sits astride a modern democratic system. He would like to be a Tsar. No worries about reelection. No worries about critics. Real work optional. Guaranteed universal status. It would be perfect. Wrong time! Wrong government!

H.J. Rishel 6/07/2020

Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all