Thursday, November 17, 2022

Trump as Bonnie Prince Charlie

Catholic writer Matthew Walter has an Op Ed in the NY Times titled "To His Loyalists, Trump is an Emperor in Exile." Walter starts from Frazer's notion of the divine king who embodies the land, who is the rightful ruler because of his mystic connection to the place and its gods. I believe there is something to this. I believe that while democracy has a deep emotional appeal, so does monarchy; that while "we should all talk this out as equals and respect each other" resonates in part of our souls, we also have feelings for what just is, because it is, and therefore should be. Political leaders who can tap into this sense of how the nation ought to be can get great power from it; the best recent example I think is Ronald Reagan. Trump has succeeded with some segment of Americans in linking himself to what America was and should be, not at a level of policy but in a deep stratum of feeling. The more people like waving American flags, the more they like Trump:

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. . . .

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!
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.

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.


David said...

I think an essential point is that Trump's kind of politics, however much it is rooted in nostalgia for the past, is so radical that it in effect promises stark, unprecedented changes in American life. This is something we've seen before: a reactionary spirit so radical and overemotional that it demands violent change. A lot of what Trump's supporters hate is by now quite old and rooted: some dates to the sixties (the obvious things, but also especially the current immigration regime), some to 1945 (most of what they hate about US foreign policy), some to the thirties and the progressive era (government agencies established to solve problems), some to the nineteenth century (e. g., the power of doctors).

One line of Walter's is, imo, absolutely right: "What he promised was nothing less than the total destruction of the established political order." And one of Trump's effects has been to, in practice, make the Democrats a party of stability and respectability (i. e., conservatism). Really, what you've got now is a middle faction of Americans who support things more or less as they are--the real conservatives--and two extremes; but with Trump the most powerful Republican, Democrats are liable to attract a win-by-a-whisker majority of that respectability vote.

(This might make Trump analogous to BP Charlie in a different way; by Charlie's time, the Whigs were the comfortable establishment in British life, and the Britain they had built was almost 60 years in the making.)

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.