On 22 January 1905, the Orthodox priest Georgy Gapon led a large procession of hungry and dissatisfied workers towards St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, an event that would culminate in the tragedy known as Bloody Sunday, as imperial soldiers opened fire on the unarmed crowds. Father Gapon, however, was not exactly a model revolutionary. Born to a Cossack father, he had excelled in school and seemed destined for a life in the church, and though his life took some twists and turns before he was finally ordained as a priest, he turned out to be a very talented one.
In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1905, Gapon — who had always been interested in the betterment of the poor — eventually set up an explicitly non-socialist, non-revolutionary worker’s organisation focused on education and mutual aid. And he did so with the support of the Russian secret police, the Okhrana, who hoped to use Gapon to sideline the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries, all of whom hoped to use the workers to overthrow the Tsar.
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In other words, the man at the centre of the event that would quite literally spark the 1905 Russian Revolution had been put there in order to prevent it from happening. Gapon’s plan was straightforward, if naïve: he hoped that handing over a written petition to the Tsar — or at least a representative of the Tsar — would mollify the angry workers and de-escalate the rapidly worsening political situation. Once the soldiers started firing on the crowds, however, he quickly lost control of the entire situation. The revolution that Gapon almost certainly had been trying to avoid was now on, and he was simply along for the ride.
At a time when the rumour mill is abuzz with news of the impending arrest of Donald Trump, and the increasing likelihood that America’s 46th President will be subjected to some drawn-out and polarising court spectacle, it is useful to recall the ultimately tragic lessons of 1905. Trump, like Gapon before him, was very much an unlikely protagonist, with little in his life to suggest he’d become a populist candidate or be turned into an enemy of the republic by almost half of America. In 2016, hardly any Republican insiders took him seriously, while Democrats cheered him on and hoped he’d stay in the primary for as long as possible, thinking it would make Hillary Clinton’s stroll into the White House that much easier. On the eve of the election, Trump’s belated victory speech was topped off by The Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. It was an odd choice of music to celebrate a victory; it was almost as if the Trump campaign had expected to be giving a concession speech instead, and never even took the time to prepare another song.
Both during his time in office and afterwards, Trump has generated more than his fair share of disappointment and disillusionment among both former and current supporters. His rock-star patina of 2016 is by now very tarnished, though it would be foolish to assume it has disappeared completely. With all that said, however, both those who hate Trump and those who idolise him tend to make a similar mistake: they either underestimate him or overestimate him, and often do both at the same time.
The real force behind Trump in 2016 was the same as that of Gapon in 1905. Trump, like Gapon, was propelled not just by his personal qualities, but also by the way these qualities allowed him to serve as a vessel for political passions that were much, much more powerful than him. No matter what they thought they were doing or initially hoped to accomplish, both men eventually ended up being swept along by the tide. The events of January 6th, which the Democratic Party has long tried to turn into America’s own contemporary Bloody Sunday, with fairly modest results, was something that Trump himself was powerless to control.
Many of Trump’s critics style him as a fiendish manipulator, a snake charmer of the uneducated masses who have supposedly been hypnotised by some sort of showbiz “magic” that only Trump himself knows how to wield. But this is almost the exact opposite of the truth. Trump is the sort of politician who holds massive rallies where his own fans, upon hearing things they don’t like (such as being told to stop fussing so much and just get vaccinated), loudly boo him. And to Trump’s credit, he normally takes this in his stride. For a populist, one shouldn’t make light of just how useful this characteristic is. But it also illustrates Trump’s basic power dynamic: even at his own rallies — filled with nothing but his most loyal supporters — Trump is, in a fundamental sense, really only along for the ride. Far from Trump being a snake charmer and “the mob” being a passive victim in this drama, it is his voters and supporters who have made him and who have the power to unmake him. Trump served as an outlet for a deep (and still growing) dissatisfaction inside the American body politic; removing him won’t make that dissatisfaction somehow go away.
In the days ahead, we should keep this in mind. Imprisoning Trump and subjecting him to politically motivated public humiliation or legal action might feel very cathartic, and it might even seem like a good idea. But it’s really not. During times of rising inflation, political polarisation and a growing military crisis, a dormant political volcano always lurks just out of sight. And as things become worse, as the future becomes more gloomy and the present becomes more painful, the risk of a serious eruption greatly increases. Once Gapon had served his purpose leading the march to St. Petersburg, neither the crowds nor the revolution needed him any longer. He died in obscurity soon after, murdered by the very same Socialist Revolutionaries he had once successfully kept away from the main stage. Bloody Sunday led directly to a massive general strike that, at least for a time, completely crippled Russia. And it was also the event that really made workers ready to listen, for the very first time, to the much more radical socialist agitators. Georgy Gapon was no longer needed.
There are many people today who hope to turn the tail end of Trump’s political life into a tragedy, who dream of ruining him, of exacting “vengeance” and making an example out of him. To those people, the tragic tale of Father Gapon, can be summarised quite easily: be very careful what you wish for — for one day, you might just get what you asked for.
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