Donald Trump’s Cultural Revolution

An art lover walks past a series of images titled ‘Mao Trump’ by contemporary pop artist Knowledge Bennett at the Ren Gallery display during the LA Art Show. Mark Ralston/Getty Images.

As we approach November 8th, it is not novel to compare Donald Trump to a dictator, nor is it unusual to see his style and tactics likened to those of Mussolini and Hitler. However, the fascist comparisons have been done and arguably overdone, so I think it might more interesting to look at the ways Trump and the forces around him recall Chairman Mao and China’s Glorious Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao and Trump might be extreme ideological opposites, but they’re united in paranoid style. And both men would agree that their cults of personality are really the best cults of personality their countries have seen.

Commentators are less likely to compare Trump to Mao than to dictators on the right, but both armchair and professional Sinologists have taken note of the Maoist overtones of Trump’s rhetoric.

Here’s Chris Buckley of the New York Times:

Like Mao during the Cultural Revolution, the primary target of Trump’s insurgency is his own party establishment. Trump has harsh words for Hillary Clinton, to be sure, but his energies seem most focused when he has another Republican in his crosshairs. Consider Trump’s “admiration” for Hillary Clinton over “traitors” in his own party in those Tweets, the inverse of Mao’s declaration that the “real” right-wing was preferable to the “fake” left-wing.

Although Mao Zedong was intellectually compelling as a younger revolutionary, the Chairman Mao presented to the world during the Cultural Revolution was filtered through a variety of interpreters, such as Zhou Enlai and the editors of the infamous Little Red Books. Donald Trump, despite his protestations of having a “really great brain,” has never been an intellectual powerhouse, nor does he have an ideologically consistent program. He relies on surrogates like Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway to massage away the contradictions at the heart of Trumpism.

The primary political weapon wielded by Mao at the start of the Cultural Revolution was the Red Guards — millions of alienated and under-socialized youth who answered Mao’s call to crush the “Four Olds.” Trump’s supporters are generally older, but his shock troops on the so-called “alt-right” are younger white supremacists and right-wing provocateurs like Milo Yiannopolous who grew alienated from the political process during the Bush and Obama years. While the Red Guards took their struggle to literal public squares, the alt-right clash against Trump’s enemies in online fora, occasionally venturing offline with doxing or other real-world intimidation. And where the Red Guards ritualized the waving of Little Red Books, Trump supporters have ritualized the wearing of ugly red hats.

Trump, like Mao, is a womanizing septuagenarian leading a political movement, and generational politics is inseparable from that movement. Mao was the product of China’s New Culture Movement twenties, while The Donald is the product of the Reagan eighties. One of the ironies of the Cultural Revolution is the way in which the Red Guards targeted the veterans of the New Culture Movement — the angry youth of the Mao’s own generation devoured by the angry youth of the next generation. While Trump is no Reaganite — he had little love for Reagan — his cultural revolution has similarly targeted veterans of the Reagan Revolution. Trump’s message to Republican voters in 2016 is like Mao’s in 1966: I am the true spirit of the party, and your establishment has betrayed you.

Just as Mao was surrounded by a menagerie of toadies and enablers, Trump also has his own “rat pack,” to invoke Jon Podhoretz’s memorable essay on Trump’s cultural foundations. In keeping with our broader analogy we find that many of Trump’s associates have analogues in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Consider:

  • Gov. Mike Pence is Trump’s Zhou Enlai. Like Mao’s Prime Minister Zhou, Pence is more establishment, more refined, a more thoughtful speaker. Someone who mends fences between Trump and the rest of the GOP even as Trump dismantles the party. Someone who goes out to say “Trump didn’t mean it” after the latest outrage du jour. Like Zhou, Pence is someone who projects decency, but will ultimately be tainted by his loyalty to Trump. But unlike Zhou, the masses will not come out to mourn Pence when he finally leaves the stage.
  • Steve Bannon of Breitbart is Lin Biao, and Bannon’s Breitbart is a party within a party, much as Lin’s PLA was a party within the Party. Bannon has relentlessly propagandized for Trump, and is a force to be reckoned with, but with all that power it is inevitable that he will be purged by Trump and his family in the future. Lin was one of Mao’s closest supporters, but rivalry with others in Mao’s circle, along with Mao’s own paranoia, led to his mysterious death in a plane crash on the Mongolian border in 1971. (Expect Bannon to take a fatal flight to Canada — metaphorically speaking.)
  • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the Liu Shaoqi of this drama. The moderate Liu was — according to Mao at least — a “capitalist roader” and a prime target for Mao’s wrath. When Mao launched the Cultural Revolution Liu was technically the leader of the country and Mao was semi-retired. This places Ryan and Liu in similar company. Trump and Bannon have already attempted to purge Ryan from the leadership more than once, and while Speaker Ryan seemingly opposes Trump, he cannot bring the full measure of his opposition public without threatening his political power. Since Trump’s election campaign, or lack thereof, threatens down ballot-races, Ryan’s restraint — like Liu’s at the start of the Cultural Revolution — may prove a fatal mistake.
  • When thinking about the Jiang Qing role, Melania comes to mind, but only one woman really has Donald’s heart, and more importantly, his ear — his daughter, Ivanka. Like Madame Mao, she has already been blamed by other Republicans for some of Trump’s ideological deviations, and like Madame Mao in those final years, Ivanka Trump continues to grow in popularity while cultivating her own brand. A standard talking point by Mao apologists was that Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four (see below) were to blame for Mao’s crimes during the Cultural Revolution. Thankfully for Ivanka, she’s likely to escape an implosion this November with her career and spring clothing lines intact.
  • Rounding out Trump’s Gang of Four is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, already a mini-master of the universe in his own right, and allegedly planning to start a Trump TV venture; Bill Mitchell, Trump’s tireless Twitter propagandist, who has invented his own rules of mathematics; and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, foremost among Trump’s surrogates for his aggression and shamelessness in media appearances.
  • Our story is missing a clear analogue to Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping. Hua was a factory chief — in charge of making Mao buttons, naturally — whisked by Mao to a position in Beijing and named as Mao’s successor in 1976. (Basically, he was the winner in the final season of Mao Zedong’s The Apprentice.) To whom will a fading Trump say, “With you in charge, I am at ease?” At the same time, who will survive Trump’s purges to lead the party in the future? Political pragmatist Deng Xiaoping was the great survivor of the Cultural Revolution, and after pushing aside Hua Guofeng, he continued to rule China for almost two decades. Will our Deng analogue be Sen. Marco Rubio, who, like Deng, was repeatedly underestimated and mocked for his height? (“Little Marco” seems likely to win his race in Florida, unlike some other candidates.)

Analogies can only stretch so far, of course. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution as the final chapter in a long political career. For Trump, political activism came late. Unlike Communist China, where Mao’s will to power manifested itself in Beijing and party conferences, Trump’s will to power was first expressed in a corporate boardroom. In fairness to Trump, one notes that he is a democratically nominated candidate of a major party in a democratic country, whereas Mao was China’s on-again, off-again dictator. Trump is constrained by democratic norms, and unlike Mao, the violence of Trump’s rise has been primarily metaphorical.

Another difference is that Mao launched his revolution without much in the way of foreign interference, while evidence suggests that Trump’s Cultural Revolution has been actively aided and encouraged by Vladimir Putin. Russian hacking and like-minded media fronts (RT and Wikileaks, among others) are all in for Trump. Trump’s Twitter network relies heavily on bots, with up to a third of pro-Trump Tweets coming from automated accounts, some of which can be traced back to the Kremlin. Racist agitation cannot be discounted on Twitter, either. Trump’s Twitter critics are regularly targeted with anti-black, anti-Arab, and anti-Semitic insults.

On that note, in modern terms, Mao would probably be a racist, but his racism was never put to the test. Trump, by comparison, is disturbingly racist under the aegis of being “politically incorrect.” While Mao seized upon the aforementioned generational contradictions to redirect the country towards his revolutionary ideological ends, Trump’s movement is reactionary at its core. Make America Great Again is a slogan with a myriad of interpretations, but among Trump’s most fervent supporters it means “Make America White Again.”

Finally, while Mao and Trump are similar in that their revolutions left them in control of their political party, their most important difference is that only Mao could claim that his revolution also gave him control of his country. Trump’s Cultural Revolution has enabled him to corrupt the soul of the Republican Party, but it has also guaranteed that the next president of the United States will not be named Donald Trump.