Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, by Vasily Perov (1872). Vasily Perov/Wikimedia Commons
As a professor of Russian literature, I’ve come to realize that it’s never a good sign when real life resembles a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with its riotous rhetoric and steady stream of scandals, calls to mind Dostoevsky’s most political novel, “Demons,” written in 1872. In it, the writer wanted to warn readers about the destructive force of demagoguery and unchecked rhetoric, and his cautionary messages – largely influenced by 19th-century Russian political chaos – resonate in our present political climate.
To show his readers just how bad things could get if they didn’t pay attention, Dostoevsky linked his political nightmare to unhinged impulses and the breakdown of civility.
A passion for destruction
Dostoevsky was as addicted to newspapers as some of us are to social media, and he often plucked crises and violence right from the headlines, refashioning them for his fiction.
Russia during the 1860s and 1870s – the heyday of the author’s career – was experiencing massive socioeconomic instability. Tsar Alexander II’s Emancipation of the Serfs freed Russian peasants from a form of class bondage, while the subsequent Great Reforms aimed to restructure the executive and judidical branches, as well as the military, tax code and education system. The reforms were supposed to modernize the country by dragging it out of the caste-like system of estates and legal privilege. But it didn’t do much to improve the economic lot of the peasant.
It was a reversal of America’s present political landscape. While today there’s simmering discontent from the right, in 19th-century Russia it was leftists who were enraged. They were angered by the reforms for not going far enough and had lost hope in the government’s ability to produce meaningful change.
One of the only unifying ideas among the more radical left-wing political factions of the period was the belief that the tsarist regime must be eliminated. Important public figures, like Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, advocated for destruction of the status quo as an end greater than all ideologies. As Bakunin famously exhorted: “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too.”
Bakunin’s conviction that a new world could rise only from the ashes of tsarism was actually put into practice by his one-time disciple, Sergei Nechaev, who was the inspiration for Dostoevsky’s protagonist in “Demons,” Pyotr Verkhovensky.
A slippery slope from incivility to violence
In 1869, Nechaev orchestrated the murder of a young student, an event that so shocked and angered Dostoevsky that it became the basis for “Demons.”
The novel begins in a boring provincial backwater inhabited by middle-aged people and ineffectual young liberals, all engrossed in their romantic lives. Pyotr Verkhovensky arrives and persuades many of these same characters to join his underground revolutionary society. Passions are stirred and the local order destabilized as the town enters a downward spiral that concludes with arson and several murders.
What’s most relevant to our time in “Demons” is not its ideologues but the anti-intellectual and impulse-driven nature of Pyotr’s rebellion. In Pyotr, Dostoevsky created a demagogue and pure nihilist, a political figure who appeals to people’s baser desires. Under his influence, the townspeople lose all impulse control and grow reckless, rebelling against all conventions of decency for a good laugh. At one point they desecrate a sacred icon; at another, they gleefully gather around the body of someone who has committed suicide and eat the food he’s left behind.
If their pranks, insults and disorder seem harmless, the decline in the level of public discourse act as a precursor to the violent and destructive acts at the novel’s conclusion. A skilled psychological writer, Dostoevsky never saw violence as divorced from normal human behavior. What’s most haunting about his works is just how close otherwise ordinary people are from doing extraordinarily awful things.
In “Demons,” narrative tensions escalate in a deliberately gradual way. What begins as minor impoliteness becomes scandal, arson, murder and suicide. Dostoevsky is essentially saying that criminal acts are rooted in social transgression; uncivil behavior facilitates scapegoating, dehumanization and, eventually, violence.
‘Make America Great Again!’
Donald Trump’s unconventional campaign for president powerfully evokes Dostoevsky’s novel. Aside from his pro-gun and anti-immigration positions, Trump doesn’t offer many concrete political plans. As we evaluate what motivated 14 million Americans to vote for him in the primaries, we might consider new research showing that his candidacy has a primarily emotion-based – rather than ideological or economical – appeal. There are notable anti-establishment sentiments among his supporters; many are disaffected, middle-aged white people who believe that American institutions aren’t working on their behalf.
And while his notorious campaign motto “Make America Great Again” is framed in a positive way, it actually advances a version of Bakunin’s creative destruction. It stands for purging the establishment, for recreating a nostalgia-tinged version of some lost, past America. We’ve already seen this destructive drive in its more Nechaevist, low-brow form at Trump rallies, where several people have been attacked.
There’s another aspect of Trump’s popularity that ties him to Dostoevsky’s “Demons.” Trump, in the way he carries himself, embodies the complete disavowal of impulse control we see in the novel. Unlike most political candidates, he speaks off the cuff, simultaneously reflecting and stoking the anger and pessimism of his supporters.
For instance, he said he wanted to “hit” some of the speakers who criticized him at the Democratic National Convention; in his words, there’s anger, a need to provoke and deep-seated irreverence. His supporters feel empowered by this. Without weighing his policies, they’re viscerally drawn to the spectacle of his candidacy, like the townspeople following Pyotr Verkhovensky in “Demons” who delight in the gossip and scandals he creates.
To complete the parallel, we might turn to the novel’s ending, which could have a sobering effect. Basic incivility gives way to an anarchic vision of creative destruction; many die or lose their minds due to Pyotr’s machinations. At one point, seemingly without thinking, crowds crush a female character to death because they falsely believe she’s responsible for the violence in town.
When audiences at Trump rallies verbalize violence by screaming “Lock her up” and “Kill her,” or when Donald Trump – either wittingly or unwittingly – advocates Second Amendment violence, I wonder whether they aren’t coming dangerously close to the primal violence of “Demons.”