Wednesday, 23 December 2020

The 18th Brumaire of Donaldus Trumpus II


Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: "Once as tragedy, and again as farce".

Karl Marx

Since the elections are over and the time of transition is nearing, many are trying to place the outgoing President of the USA in his proper historical context. And there's constant rumours about how he might launch a coup to stay in power that makes it seem much more exciting than usual.

To be honest, recently I've become struck by how eerily close Donald Trump is to Napoleon III nephew of the more famous Napoleon, one time President, coup plotter and Emperor of the French. Once I saw a connection I started seeing it more and more. Like Napoleon III Trump is a heavy handed autocrat with a power base built on nepotism and favourites, like Napoleon III Trump became President despite being seeing as an outsider and a bit of a joke, they also even shared hostile intentions towards Mexico, though Napoleon III felt insulting them and fortification building wasn't enough and actively invaded the country and occupied for a time before a revolt drove his forces out. 

Of course they aren't mirror images, Napoleon III greatly expanded the French Empire, whereas Trump has allowed his to stagnate to the point some "anti-imperialist" groups openly admire him. Napoleon III redeveloped Paris while Trump's big infrastructure project the monumental border wall has stalled and delayed. Also Napoleon III managed (eventually) to pull off a successful coup and crown himself an Emperor, at time of writing the talk of a Trump lead coup, successful or otherwise are just rumours.

But the greatest resemblance of the two for me lies in their most incongruous features, both have reputations as populist outsiders who battled uncaring and corrupt elites, despite their own obvious elite status and corrupt practices. They also share the same reason for how they were able to pull this magic trick off. 

Both men faced opposition from the official representatives of their nations governmental systems, and yet despite being elected bodies and having a diverse ideological composition, these institutions were so nakedly corrupt and hostile to their own citizenry that they kept giving their opponents many opportunities to polish their "man of the people" credentials. At the time of Napoleon's coup in 1851 the French republic's political establishment were so openly oligarchic that their attacks on civil liberties and political rights and the organised workers movements (by massacring them) and left wing of the republicans meant that Napoleon III despite establishing a militarised dictatorship was able to grant the ordinary people of France more liberty and freedom than they had enjoyed during the final days of the second Republic. He established universal (male) suffrage, legalised unions, funded many charitable and educational ventures, and invested heavily in urban redevelopment.

In a strange and indirect way Napoleon III is responsible for the founding of the International Working Men's Association (IWMA) or First International of the labour movement. The IWMA was born when a group of French unionists attended the Universal Exhibition in London 1862, while there they met with English Trade Union leaders and the two groups agreed on the idea to build and deepen links between the two and the labour movements in other countries. The IWMA would be founded after two years of preparatory work in 1864. The funding for the trip came from a grant from the French Empire. 

This was all possible thanks to the actions of the elected opposition, Napoleon III couldn't grant universal suffrage if the Republic hadn't passed tighter and tighter restrictions on the franchise to squeeze out the more troublesome classes. He couldn't portray himself as the paternalistic protector of the workers of France if they hadn't been battered by force of arms and smothered with repressive legislation. The republicans even made General Cavaignac their candidate in the 1848 Presidential elections against Napoleon III, this same Cavaignac had just that same year massacred thousands of workers in Paris during a campaign to put down an insurgency. Shockingly none of this endeared him to the electorate and Napoleon III won comfortably. 

By the simple act of not indiscriminately murdering the workers of Paris, and by reversing some of the most offensive of the republican legislation Napoleon III was able to achieve some popularity in working class areas. 

Trump while he hasn't had much success building a base amongst American workers has been able to tap into popular anger and disgust with the more long term politicians, all with even more tokenistic gestures such as the castigating of Congress for its stinginess with financial support during the COVID19 pandemic. 

Of course this comparison makes Napoleon III look pretty great, he wasn't of course, he became so unpopular thanks to the never ending revelations of scandals and the adventuring abroad that got many in the army killed and had a high rate of failure. In the end he had to bomb proof his carriage because so many of his subjects lobbed explosives his way. He also had a lot more time (1848-70) to mess about and had multiple failed attempts at seizing power before he finally made good in 1851, Trump stumbled into it on his first attempt. So in all Trump is the farce to the tragedy of Napoleon III.

Also to finish I'd like to remind everyone that Steve Bannon, a key Trump administration and campaign strategist (before their falling out) is obsessed with Napoleon I, perhaps Trump got confused while listening to Steve blather on in a meeting?

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