Is Trump Our Napoleon?
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?