During Donald Trump’s candidacy and the early days of his presidency, myriad comparisons were made between him and various other U.S. and world leaders. As time has gone on — and the days and news cycles with them — those comparisons have gone away and have been replaced with a general idea that our current moment is sui generis. But nothing in this world is unique, and nobody is entirely his own man.
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In early 1852, Karl Marx penned a lament. History had repeated itself before his eyes, and nobody had seen it coming. Paraphrasing a remark by the German philosopher Hegel, Marx writes, “All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.” Marx then builds on Hegel’s observation, adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx decries the politics that unwittingly created the current political moment of his day. Today, a hemisphere away, a different farcical president is well on his way towards his own illegal usurpation of power; yet nobody, least of all his political rivals, believes such a coup is possible.
The leaders of France in this period […] were totally blind to the paradigm shift that they were themselves unintentionally creating.
When Marx mentions a “tragedy” and a “farce,” he is referring to two specific historical events in which a Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the French government. The tragedy is the Coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799. This coup — named for the date in which it took place on the French Republican calendar — ended a string of revolutionary governments and installed Napoleon as first consul. This coup proved the death knell for the dream of a republican government in France until 1848. The farce, which had only happened a few months before Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire, was when the original Napoleon’s nephew — neé Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, recently known as Prince-President Bonaparte, and now Emperor Napoleon III — launched a successful coup of his own in 1851. Marx argues that this event is a farce, an absurd recreation of the original 1799 version.
Napoleon III: The Failed Emperor | Source: EmperorTigerStar/YouTube
Two factors make Louis Napoleon’s coup farcical: the man himself, and the political moment that made such a man’s ascendance possible. If one were casting an authoritarian populist for mid-19th century Europe, Louis Napoleon would not make the cut. He sported Civil War general-style facial hair with an oversized mustache and a long, pointed goatee; this look never had a moment in Europe like it would in America about a decade later. Napoleon’s head, often adorned with a ridiculous three-cornered hat, was too large for his body. He was a poor public speaker, which was only exacerbated because he spoke French with a German accent. He did have his name, but for the political and social elite, the name only served to accentuate just how poor a facsimile the Bonapartist nephew was of his uncle. He was elected the first ever president of France in December 1848 with a whopping three quarters of the vote, yet this was widely regarded as a protest vote against the whole political establishment of the day.
Even more farcical than Louis Napoleon himself was the fact that a figure so comical could end the French Republic and ensure that there would be no second president of France for the foreseeable future. Napoleon’s coup became possible, Marx argues, because of the comical incompetence of the entire political class. The shadow of the original French Revolution and subsequent French Republic hung over everything; every politician and political thinker — Marx included — was hellbent on reliving, reviving, revising, or reneging on the first, capital F capital R, French Revolution. Ironically, had everyone not been so conscious of history repeating itself, they could have and should have seen the coming second Napoleonic coup. The leaders of France in this period simultaneously did nothing to stop this farcical coup from occurring and were totally blind to the paradigm shift that they were themselves unintentionally creating.
A c. 1865 oil painting of Louis Napoleon, titled Napoleon III by Alexandre Cabanel | Source: Wikimedia Commons
Donald Trump most resembles Louis Napoleon in the degree to which he is a joke. The farcical traits of Donald Trump certainly have precedent in Louis Napoleon, but updated for the times. Both have overlarge heads, but yellow hair replaces the hat. The facial hair has been replaced by orange, faux-tanned skin. Poor speaking remains, but a New York accent replaces the German; both accents are foreign to the majority of the people whom the aspiring autocrat seeks to reach. Bluster and contradictions were also a tactic upon which Louis Napoleon relied; a series of political writings — on topics such as abolishing poverty and creating a popularly elected enlightened despot — located Napoleon all over the political spectrum and gave almost everybody something to like.
The governing style of the two men also reveals similarities. Marx remarks in The Eighteenth Brumaire that “no one has ever sacked lackeys with less ceremony than Bonaparte his ministers.” Of course “no one” might sound false to Misters Acosta, Anton, Bannon, Bolton, Bossert, Coats, Cohen, Comey, Dearborn, Dubke, Flynn, Gorka, Hagin, Kelly, Mattis, McCabe, McEntee, McGahn, McMaster, Porter, Price, Priebus, Pruitt, Rosenstein, Scaramucci, Sessions, Shulkin, Sorensen, Spicer, Tillerson, Waddell, Zinke, as well as Misses Fitzgerald, Haley, Hicks, McFarland, Newman, Nielsen, Sanders, Walsh, et al. Louis Napoleon used cabinet firings to sow chaos and discredit the ideas of potential rivals; Trump’s tactics seem to have the same effect.
By rejecting and discrediting Republican leader after Republican leader, Trump’s authority and independence only grows.
Louis Napoleon, like Donald Trump, also had a series of past failures. He launched a coup in 1836 that basically involved him showing up in an artillery officer uniform and being subsequently hailed as emperor; it proved so incompetent that the French government of the time thought it was the death knell of lingering Bonapartism. In 1840, a second coup also failed spectacularly and led to Napoleon’s capture. A newspaper of the day, Le Journal des Débats, argued against his execution thusly: “One doesn’t kill crazy people, one just locks them up.” Napoleon spent the next six years in a luxurious prison, during which time he wrote those disjointed but popular screeds. In the two years between Napoleon’s escape from prison and the first French presidential election, Napoleon became the protest vote that everybody supported in the world’s most democratic election to that point.
The vacillating support of democratic elections by the politicians of the day played a huge role in the coup of Louis Napoleon, just as it would be key to a Trumpian coup today. France in 1848 instituted universal manhood suffrage and direct democracy. Most democratic countries still had property requirements at this point, implicitly if not explicitly. (Women were not allowed the vote anywhere at this point, with few exceptions. America had additional problems with people’s representative rights.) With 74% of voting-aged men supporting him, Napoleon enjoyed an enormous mandate unimaginable in American politics, then or now.
Louis Napoleon was elected president while the constituent assembly — the body tasked with creating the new constitution — had a huge republican majority. But by Napoleon’s election in December 1848, public opinion had turned decidedly conservative and against representative government. When the actual legislative assembly was elected in May of 1849, 450 of the 705 seats went to the conservative Party of Order. The Party of Order was conservative and autocratic, yet largely opposed to Napoleon despite his conservative and autocratic tendencies. The members were also largely opposed to each other beyond their mutual desire to elevate order and prevent change. The party was made up primarily of bitter monarchical rivals — Legitimists and Orleanists — with a few straggling conservative Republicans and Bonapartists.
What caused the French Revolution? – Tom Mullaney | Source: © TED-Ed/YouTube
Beyond the Party of Order, Louis Napoleon found more ideological rivals in the legislature. The minority parties, making up 255 seats of the 705 seat body, were the Montagne (the Mountain) — named after the party of Maximillian Robespierre that formed around the time Louis XVI had his head chopped off — and other committed Republicans. The Party of Order mostly opposed the 1848 revolution, and they were mostly looking for a way to direct the country away from the universal suffrage that had just elected them. Otherwise, they had no unified plans; they agreed on little besides a mistrust of the people. As for Napoleon, the Party of Order figured they could wait him out. The constitution limited presidents to a single term. In the meantime, they had themselves a stooge. A prominent member of the Party of Order, who would eventually become the second president of France in 1871, described the first president as a “cretin whom we will lead [by the nose].” To compare this legislature to the one that exists in the United States today, just imagine that congressional Republicans didn’t decide to support Trump and then were exactly as incompetent in 2017 and 2018 as they actually were.
Today’s Republican party certainly had its flirtation with trying to lead the cretinous Trump by the nose. The Republican primary loyalty pledge, teleprompters, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Javonka, and Chief of Staff John Kelly were some of the attempts to turn Donald Trump into less of an impulsive ass. Obviously, the tweets and the cruelty-for-cruelty’s-sake policies have continued. Yet the widespread belief that Trump is a pawn has not gone away. The two Supreme Court appointments have simply been elevated to the be-all end-all of the Republican agenda. Today’s Republican party elite certainly fear Trump, ostensibly like him, and often share his policy goals if not his priorities. Nonetheless, they no more view him as a reasonable or reliable leader than the Party of Order did Louis Napoleon.
How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump | Source: © Vox/YouTube
Just as Trump has seemed to reward Republican elites — see especially the aforementioned Priebus — so too did Napoleon reward Orderists. Marx explains:
On acceding to the presidency, Bonaparte at once formed a ministry of the party of Order,” thus staffing his cabinet with the best and brightest of that reactionary party. This was, in large part, because, “The Bonapartist representatives of the people were too sparse to be able to form an independent parliamentary party. They appeared merely as the mauvaise queue [evil appendage] of the party of Order.
– From The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx
There were not enough Bonapartists qualified to staff his ministry, so Louis Napoleon made do with members of the Party of Order. Donald Trump faced the same problem with his own cabinet; an insufficient number of true Trumpians exist, so regular Republicans had to do. This process, in fact, contributed to the idea that Trump was being led by the nose. In this way, the following Marx quote about Napoleon could just as easily apply to Trump at the beginning of his presidency:
Behind this ministry he had seemingly effaced himself, surrendered governmental power into the hands of the party of Order.
Cabinet appointments, as previously established, have been far from permanent in the Trump administration. Trump has dismissed a string of officials for increasingly loyal (read: sycophantic) ones; the dismissal process also discredits the dismissed. As that same Mr. Priebus and so many others can now attest, nobody has left the cabinet in a better place than they were joining it. With each dismissal, the President is bolstered in a particular way: he no longer seems so controllable. Trump becomes more of his own man with each “adult in the room” who is dismissed. Yet again, the same process finds precedent in Louis Napoleon. Marx writes, “he dismissed [cabinet officials] in order to declare his own name independent of the National Assembly of the party of Order.” By rejecting and discrediting Republican leader after Republican leader, Trump’s authority and independence only grows. The Republicans — superficially Trumpian allies — are as oblivious to this process as the Party of Order — superficially Napoleonic opponents — was before them. Both Republicans and Orderists have bigger priorities: eroding democracy.
The vacillating support of democratic elections by the politicians of the day played a huge role in the coup of Louis Napoleon, just as it would be key to a Trumpian coup today.
In 1850, the Party of Order passed a law that required citizens to prove three years of unchanged residency in order to vote. Such permanence would be less common among younger, poorer, and more urban citizens — all groups that were and are more likely to be liberal. This law, as Marx explains in The Eighteenth Brumaire, “struck at least three million votes off the electoral rolls” — a full 30% of the electorate. In one fell swoop, the Party of Order attempted to remove a large segment of the electorate that they believed least likely to support them.
Donald Trump came into office claiming widespread voter fraud in the election he had just won. In order to investigate all this fictitious illegal voting, Trump set up a very real Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity; that agency’s leader, anti-democracy advocate Kris Kobach, belied the integrity of that name. This commission fizzled out, but many other Republican efforts to roll back the universal right to vote have not. Voter purges have become commonplace in states with Republican Secretaries of State; these purges, like the one used by the Party of Order, effectively disenfranchise many voters who have recently changed addresses. While Trump’s conspiracy theory of widespread illegal voters depends on a fantastical and unreasonable number of people being in on a secret (or just Google?), disenfranchising otherwise eligible voters is a tried and true election tactic in America that Republicans are embracing in the largest numbers since Jim Crow. Closing voting stations in minority communities, limiting transit to polling places, purging voter rolls, and many other techniques to disenfranchise are used in every election. But this time around, fighting against such tactics might be impossible. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) — the body in charge of policing elections — is currently one member short of a quorum and basically unable to conduct any business whatsoever. The remaining commissioners are working past their regular terms already. Donald Trump seems perfectly content to not appoint another election commissioner, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems even less likely to allow a vote to confirm one. Meanwhile, Trumpian efforts to gain electoral help from all corners of the globe continue unabated. The foxes are guarding the henhouse. At least when they’re not away on vacation, definitely nowhere near Prague.
Why American voter registrations are disappearing | Source: © Vox/YouTube
In France, the Party of Order trusted in their shrunken electorate to allow the conservative and reactionary hold on power to continue. They saw Louis Napoleon’s actions as more that of a gadfly than a true threat, even as he systematically usurped legislative authority with executive. The constitution contained a single term limit for the president. Napoleon could not run for reelection — why, that would be illegal! — and so they could clearly wait him out. In 1849, Louis Napoleon committed a military action that acted against the expressed wishes of the legislature. In no uncertain terms, Napoleon’s military intervention in Italy was the French Mueller Report moment. The liberal Montagne party saw this as the illegal action that it was, and so they called for impeachment proceedings. Then — as now — the vast majority of the legislative leaders rejected these calls. Napoleon’s illegal military action subsequently doubled as a political victory against democracy itself. Marx explains:
[The Montagne’s] defeat was therefore a direct victory for Bonaparte, his personal triumph over his democratic enemies.
– From The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx
The political party that was most strongly defending democracy in the parliament was defeated, and with their defeat came a defeat to the letter of the law as well; if one part of the constitution can be ignored, why not another? Why not all of it? With the Montagne’s defeat, dedicated republicans simply joined the Party of Order in their efforts to wait and watch the calendar. The single term limit became a panacea for almost all of the French legislature’s fears in the lead-up to Napoleon’s coup. Everyone saw election day as their savior in the distance, and they celebrated the election that would one day come to save them. Marx writes:
It was enough to hear the complacent yelps of victory with which the democrats congratulated each other on the expectedly gracious consequences of the second Sunday in May, 1852. [Day of elections — Louis Bonaparte‘s term was expired] In their minds that second Sunday of May had become a certain idea, a dogma . . . [they] believed the enemy to be overcome when he was only conjured away in imagination, and lost all understanding of the present in an inactive glorification of the future.
– From The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx
There was no contingency plan, nor was there fear of consequence for that absence. Of course, election day never came. “December 2 [the date of the coup that brought down the Republic] struck them like a thunderbolt from a clear sky,” said Marx.
Louis Napoleon had no democratic option to stay in power because the constitution barred him from seeking a second term. Therefore he turned to extra-democratic means. Marx succinctly explains:
Articles 45-70 of the Constitution are so worded that the National Assembly can remove the President constitutionally, whereas the President can remove the National Assembly only unconstitutionally, only by setting aside the constitution itself.
– From The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx
The legislature that subverted the constitution by ignoring laws, purging voters, and rejecting democracy had also put their faith in the term limits prescribed in that same constitution. Of course it failed them.
Everyone saw election day as their savior in the distance, and they celebrated the election that would one day come to save them.
Today, the opposition to an authoritarian and farcical President has intentionally placed all of its hopes in the events of November 3 (13 Brumaire on the French Republican calendar), 2020. Nobody with the power to do something has heretofore shown any willingness to actually use that power to do that something. A proper coup in the United States seems impossible, but 230 years of civic religious observance means that elections are sacrosanct. For example, Democrats and Republicans alike spent the week leading up to November 8, 2016 decrying Donald Trump’s persistent claim that the election was “rigged.” As it turns out, he was right. We elect the President of the United States with a hackable, manipulatable, sluggish, centuries old, anti-democratic two-tiered system. Yet every single anti-Trump hope has been placed on that date, the 13th of Brumaire. Hope that Donald Trump decides to respect the Constitution.