We Americans love to trumpet our exceptionalism; for some in the Republican Party, not proclaiming it from the rooftops is akin to treason. The election of Trump makes it clear: America is not unique, either in contemporary politics, or in history. For proof, we can look to Europe, where far-right movements are on the rise, or we can look to history. In our time, we see antecedents of Trump’s emergence in the election of another blowhard, enemy-chasing, fear-mongering, foul-mouthed, and sexist, Rodrigo Duterte, as president of the Philippines. In the saga of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, in the uncanny similarities between the French tyrant and the new American autocrat, we can observe the U.S. repeating a gory history. It is unexceptional, and exceptionally dangerous.
In the mid-1800s, France was in the throes of legitimacy crises induced by the 1789 Revolution and continued through the Napoleonic Period (1791-1815) and the Restoration of the monarchy in 1830. Although the revolution had been prosecuted in the name of the people, it merely substituted a new ruling class: the bourgeoisie, whose factions―the industrial segment and the financial class―jostled for legitimacy as the true representatives of the new order. These factions were driven by economic interests and grasped at whatever political ideologies ― from republicanism to monarchism ― that would give them the upper hand against each other. The crisis became acute with the overthrow of the monarch again in 1848, which saw the restoration of the Republic. But the republic was not to last. It was supplanted by a coup d’état in December 1851, as Napoleon’s not-too-smart but rather clever nephew, Louis Napoleon, began his farcical replay of his uncle’s reign.
Despite the century-and-a-half that separates them, there are three points of convergence between mid-nineteenth century France and early twenty-first century America ― between the rise of Louis Napoleon and the ascent of Donald Trump. First, the state of the electorate.
By the time Louis Napoleon executed his coup d’état in 1851, the electorate was already sufficiently alienated from the ruling class, and had been internally divided for long enough that its capacity to resist any pretender was significantly attenuated. Similarly, the contemporary American electorate has been degraded enough in the course of the last thirty years, beginning with the all-show, little-substance regime of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and ending with the relentless badgering, battering and efforts at undermining Barack Obama’s presidency over the last eight years.
The situation has not been helped by the assault on truth and objectivity. On the right, the culprits are talk radio, Fox News, and think tanks that are geared always to muddying the waters on objectivity. On the left, it is a particularly virulent form of nihilism sponsored by less careful post-modernist popularizers. In an environment in which truth now comes with inescapable bylines, and criticism is no longer regarded as coming from fact-based, objective standpoints, it was an easy transition to a campaign where then-candidate Trump could boast that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”; where a candidate, Trump, lied routinely, peddled conspiracy theories and embraced his inconsistencies without shame; but it is his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with a lifetime of public service, who was deemed untrustworthy.
Louis Napoleon’s base of support was in the peasantry in a yet-to-be industrialized France dominated by Catholicism, and in the lumpenproletariat, the omnibus category Karl Marx created for the castoffs of society: thugs, vagrants, prostitutes, etc., who were always available as hired hands for causing mayhem, especially in political struggles among the various classes in society.
In the present case, Trump’s base in white rural America mimics the description of the French peasantry offered by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1869). “The Bonapartes are the dynasty of the peasants, i.e., of the mass of the French people. The chosen hero of the peasantry is not the Bonaparte who submitted to the bourgeois parliament but the Bonaparte who dispersed it.” Trump may not be able to disperse the Congress, but there is little doubt that, during the campaign and transition, he was dismissive of Congress and of the elite of his party. Certainly, his standing with the base of the Republican party and with America’s rural whites who came out in historic numbers to hand him the presidency, owes everything to his dismissive attitude towards the “establishment” and “political correctness”.
Although she walked back her comments, Hillary Clinton did hint at the lumpenproletariat equivalent in her “basket of deplorables” characterization of Trump’s supporters.
The second striking parallel between Bonaparte and Trump: the character of the candidate. In the aftermath of France’s turbulent social dislocation, Marx wrote, “historical tradition produced the French peasants’ belief that a miracle would occur, that a man called Napoleon would restore all their glory.” Historical tradition in the United States has engendered a similar belief in white America. Our country has not lacked social dislocation, either. The malaise of which Jimmy Carter spoke, the crisis of confidence that doomed his presidency, produced the miracle worker, Ronald Reagan.
The economic collapse of 2008 and the anxiety of the white lower classes that they were being left behind, pushed from the pedestal they had hitherto occupied in the American structure, kindled in Americans the expectation of a miracle. In 21st century America, as in 19th century France, an individual, Trump, turned up who pretended to be that man. Republicans and Trump’s other followers’ obsession with the second coming of Reagan coincides with Trump’s obsession with being America’s savior from what he called in his Inauguration address, “the carnage”.
From Reagan’s “it’s morning again in America” to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, the pangs of nostalgia, a yearning for what in the French situation was the many configurations of Restoration—monarchy or republic, it didn’t matter—the country has found its candidate who “would restore all their glory”.
Trump, too, has had no difficulty claiming leadership of that class in which he finds what Marx called “a mass reflection of the interests he himself pursues” as he “perceives in the scum, the leavings, the refuse of all classes the only class which can provide him with an unconditional basis.” Recall his declaration: “I love the poorly educated,” he enthused after winning the Nevada Republican Caucus.
We are beginning to see the outlines of a possible usurpation—NATO exit, unilateral imposition of tariffs, negotiating trade agreements, removing sanctions on Russia. Again, the similarities between Trump and Bonaparte are quite instructive. Both desire to usurp power. Both behave “like misunderstood genius[es] proclaimed by all the world to be simpleton[s].” And Trump’s ever-present threat of unleashing his Twitter hordes on the opposition must not be discounted now that he is president.
Then, the third chilling similarity: the situation of the ruling classes in Bonaparte’s moment and in Trump’s. Bonaparte rode to power as different ruling class factions jostled for power and on the opposition’s diffidence at alienating the masses that supported him. In Trump’s case, Republicans and Democrats alike cowed before “the angry white, largely male, voter”. The Republican Party helped create this incubus, the Democratic Party feeds it while beggaring its minority constituencies—think of its scandalous running away from Obama’s record in the 2014 midterm elections—and the American media pander to it.
Of course, for all the chilling similarities between Bonaparte and Trump, there are obvious differences. No doubt, we do not expect Trump to crown himself “Emperor”. And we know that American institutions may have the resilience to survive the shenanigans of a narcissist Commander-in-Chief. We should, however, not be too sanguine about how battered and compromised those same institutions have become in the last thirty years. And therein lies the wisdom of sleeping with only one eye closed while our current pretender sits in the Oval Office.
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign ended with a humiliating military defeat at the hands of a new power, the emergent and recently unified Germany. At home, the Paris Commune led an insurrection and a new era of instability was inaugurated that lasted decades. How Trump’s reign will end, and how many people will suffer in the meantime, and in the aftermath, remains to be seen.