What Trumpists have intuited is an essentially illiberal understanding of authority, one based not upon the deliberative processes of electoral majorities but upon a romantic conception of a leader who embodies the essence of a nation.
Fine so far. But Walter then goes on to make what I think is a historical mistake, by comparing Trump to Napoleon.
For the former president’s loyalists, his claim to the G.O.P. nomination owes little to considerations about electability: It is a matter of justice, bound up in inexorable historical forces. . . .As I said, I think this is wrong. Napoleon's claim to the throne was not based on some misty connection with the Glory of France, but on an astonishing string of military victories, and a record of actual legal and administrative reforms that has few parallels in history. He was a Man of Destiny by virtue of his having achieved so much. Much of Europe was in awe of him, even many of his enemies.
His views on public policy were less important than what he represented in the minds of his supporters and detractors alike. What he promised was nothing less than the total destruction of the established political order (from which he boasted of profiting), a remaking of American institutions in his own image on the scale of Bonaparte’s permanent reforms — upending the legal system, administration, banking and tax collection.
There was also something decidedly Bonapartist in the attitude of Mr. Trump’s early partisans, who seized upon his rhetoric about “American carnage” with the same eagerness that supporters of Bonaparte welcomed an end to the chaos of the immediate post-revolutionary era. Mr. Trump’s avowal of socially conservative causes seemed to carry roughly as much conviction as Bonaparte’s rapprochement with the Catholic Church, but in both cases doctrinal purity was not the point. The consolidation of power was.
On this understanding, Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020 was merely a kind of exile, with Mar-a-Lago as his Elba. . . . “Stop the steal” was not a precise theory about voter fraud but an existential affirmation of Mr. Trump’s thwarted prerogative. Vive L’Empereur!
Trump, by contrast, has achieved nothing of note. If he were running on his record, everyone would laugh. No, the point to his campaign is the way he embodies the real America, the old America, the true America, which is threatened by nefarious forces: Chinese factories, giant tech companies, furries, unisex bathrooms, bans on tackle football. It is unclear how he will defend that old America, but everyone understands that he stands for it.
A better historical parallel for Trump is the Stuart pretenders to the throne of Britain. When Bonnie Prince Charlie invaded in 1745, thousands flocked to his cause. But not because he had any policy ideas; in fact he had none at all. He questioned nothing about Britain's government except the right of its Hanoverian kings to lead it. People rallied to him because of a sense that the Stuarts really were the rightful rulers, done out of power in a shady deal; and also because Britain was changing in ways they did not like. The King Over the Water represented a tie to the old, rural Britain fast disappearing amidst the rise of commerce, industry, and cities. To support the Stuarts was to protest the changing world. Opposition to the real woes of Hanoverian Britain played some part in this: poor farmers driven from their homes so the land could be mined for coal; rising mockery of religion; staggering corruption, which included dozens of sugar planters who had gotten so rich from the labor of their miserable slaves that they simply bought seats in Parliament. Not, as I said, that the Stuarts had any plans for making this better, but then neither does Trump.
Of course Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated, his army destroyed at Culloden in a matter of hours. He turned out to be an incompetent leader and a miserable general. That defeat ended the Stuarts as a real political force, but did not end love and longing for them. People went on holding their hands over their water glasses when they said "God Save the King" for two more generations, a gestural protest against the modernizing world. Such piety finally faded when a new British patriotism rose from the fire of war against Napoleon, and rebel dreamers shifted their allegiance from royal blood to socialism.
To me there is a sadness in thinking about Trump's fervent admirers. They feel left behind by history, and they are right. They fear that things they love will be swept away, and they are right. In 20 years, as age debilitates them, we may still hear them griping that things would be better if only Trump had remained in power. About that, they are wrong.
But just because change is inevitable does not mean it has no victims; even when many benefit, some also suffer. They will protest their suffering however they can, and if they have the vote they will give it to someone they think understands.