Comparing great things to smaller ones, is Donald Trump, in spirit, becoming our version of Napoleon Bonaparte?
For a decade and a half Napoleon wrecked Europe. He hijacked the platitudes of the French Revolution to mask his own dictatorship at home and imperialism abroad. Yet today, two centuries after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, he remains an icon for many in, and a few outside, France. Why? How could geniuses like the novelists Victor Hugo and Stendhal acknowledge Napoleon’s pathologies and the damage that he did to the early 19th century European world, and yet enthuse that he made the French feel both politically and morally “great”? Most French even today believe that he did.
Of course, for a while at least, Napoleon really did “make France great again,” at least in terms of territory and power. At its pinnacle between 1806-11, Imperial France ruled the continent in a way not seen again until the Third Reich’s briefer rule between 1940 and 1942 from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River. It threatened to do away with the incompetent and reactionary regimes in every European country and replace them with a supposedly meritocratic class of social reformers, beholden to a natural Napoleonic hierarchy.
Moreover, Napoleon’s own political agenda was a mishmash of conservative authoritarianism and populist social justice. So effective was the strange brew that even to this day scholars fight over whether Napoleon was a proto-Hitler whose unhinged ambitions led to millions of innocent European, Russian, Caribbean and North Africa dead, or a loyal defender of the French Revolution, whose eleventh-hour iron hand alone kept alive the threatened ideals of fraternity and egalitarianism.
Donald Trump is not going to invade Russia, but he is starting to sound a lot like Bonaparte, well aside from a similarly narcissistic convergence of America’s future with his own Napoleonic persona.
What are Trump’s politics? Like Napoleon’s, no one quite knows. In the past, he has praised Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. He may well have favored Barack Obama in 2008. He’s running as a Republican, but has not always been conservative — and he threatens to run as a third-party candidate if he is not treated nicely. Trump’s populist attacks on hedge funds and selfish international corporations sound like those of Bernie Sanders.
Then again Trump also sounds like a Tea Party populist and nationalist, railing against illegal immigration, free trade, excessive government spending, a corrupt political class, and a waste of American blood and treasure on those conniving countries abroad who never deserved our sacrifices.
But what unites both Trumps are his messianic and unifying visions of making America “great” again — a 19th century notion of glory and honor that so far seems to appeal to lots of voters in a way that it supposedly should not.
Is there something to Trump’s claims that even his supposed opponents want to share in his agenda of restoring a lost “greatness” rather than merely to claim the usual spoils allotted from business-as-usual identity politics?
Political contradictions supposedly fade when Trump appeals to all Americans to trust him to make us strong, respected, and rich again, much in the same way as Trump himself excels in the business world. Trump’s success in real estate and his commercial savvy are supposed to be transferable to ensuring similar wins in government, in a way reminiscent of Napoleon’s innate military acumen that was to be loaned out to the French Republic to ensure its political ascendance.
The desire for greatness is most acute among a people that claims that it has enjoyed glory in the past but has since lost it, due to the sell-outs and the weak in their midst. Although Trump is not shy in suggesting that American “weakness” is due to our malaise, he is more accusatory of “them” — the opportunistic and predatory foreigners in China, Europe, Mexico, and Asia who took advantage of American largess, naiveté and namby-pamby leadership to rip us off. We pay “their” defense bills, keep “them” safe, and in return have to play on “their” rigged trade field.
Trump also claims that folks are treated as infants by politicians of both parties who never deliver on the promises that they make. Given that all politicians are fakers, Trump need not worry about detailing any of his promises: those who spell out assurances consistently break them anyway. As far as the intellectual class that hates Trump, we can almost hear his Napoleonic joking, “You don’t reason with intellectuals. You shoot them.”
Trump feels no pressure to offer specifics. We doubt that he even reads his own position papers very carefully, given his seeming inability to review their talking points in interviews. Who cares?
Napoleon’s genius in transmogrifying himself from an obscure lowly artillery officer to emperor of Europe was due to a similar intuition that in demoralized France, worn out from both revolutionary fervor and Bourbon reaction, he alone could offer something similar and yet different from both these despised opportunistic factions. Napoleon would reluctantly employ authoritarianism but put it in service to the proverbial people rather than the aristocratic landed class and ossified clergy. He could cut through bureaucracy and corruption in the fashion that he had sent a “whiff of grapeshot” though mobs of rioters.
Napoleon’s enemies were not just the corrupt royal class and the freebooters who had betrayed the Revolution, but ostensibly a gang of opportunist foreign countries like Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria that all wanted to take advantage of French chaos by stealing their borderlands or their trade, and their preeminence.
Napoleon also never spelled out an agenda on how to make France great again because his own spectacular success was prima facie evidence that whatever he had done for himself he could easily do for his country. Success need not be defined, simply professed.
Obviously the wheeler-dealer Trump is not the general Napoleon, and we are not France of 200 years ago at war with Europe. But he appeals to a similar depressed public that feels the chaos of continual economic and social upheavals — and lawlessness — can easily cease and be replaced by a new national triumphant consensus, if only led by a dynamic man on a horse.
For now, Trump’s bluster, promised action and boldness apparently inspire more voters than his incoherence turns off. He is a would-be Napoleon in similarly Napoleonic times that pundits and critics likewise cannot quite figure out — they are attracted to him even as they dismiss him as a buffoon. Yet a millionaire flamboyant reality-TV host is no more unlikely as a self-proclaimed savior of his nation than was an obscure Corsican artillery corporal promising to make revolutionary France “great again.” Unfortunately, republics, ancient and modern, do not have a good record of inviting in outsiders to save themselves from themselves.