Even though Donald Trump no longer dominates every minute of every media day, we are all too aware that he still aspires to. Our corporate/cooperative media loves to play up the “Emperor in Exile” angle, as if Trump were Napoleon and Mar-a-Lago were his Elba.
If I may remind, Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba in March of 1815, then gathered a new army and “reinstated” himself as Emperor of the French. In June of that year, his army would be crushed at Waterloo, leading to Napoleon’s second and final exile, on the isle of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Plagued by boredom and loneliness, he died there in 1821, claiming his captors had poisoned him.
Trump is like Napoleon was, not only in his delusions of grandeur but also in terms of his popular appeal. Consider this “Great Courses” profile of Napoleon, written of him in 2017:
Napoleon would become a great champion of the self-made man. He would become the idol of a great many people, commoners who saw in Napoleon the possibilities of what a man of talent, what a man blessed with ability, with ambition, could do if he were unfettered by the structures of the old regime.
Substitute Trump for Napoleon in that paragraph and ask yourself, was that not exactly how Trump marketed himself to America, boisterously and incessantly, on his way to becoming President and while he was President?
But such comparisons miss the mark in an important way. Napoleon Bonaparte gained his fame and power by military conquest; Donald Trump did so through demagoguery, drawing strength from the basest instincts of his base. Whereas Napoleon needed wars, Trump demanded audiences.
Trump found that the best way to draw the largest crowds was to expect nothing of them but instead entertain and pander to them. These were the messages Trump sent to them:
- It’s OK to be bigoted — but don’t let anyone call you one.
- It’s OK to say whatever you want, even if it isn’t accurate or well-reasoned, and even if it offends someone. In fact, offending people is kind of fun.
- It’s OK to be selfish, but you’re not selfish if you’re nice to your friends.
- Everyone else is trying to steal your hard-earned money.
- And it’s their fault if your life isn’t what you want it to be.
These messages resonated with millions of Americans who, at heart, do not want to bear any moral or societal obligation. Donald Trump became a kind of Bizarro Stuart Smalley for such “individualists”. He didn’t want them to be better people. He didn’t expect them to serve any cause except themselves. In fact, Trump rarely asked anything of his followers except to show loyalty to Trump. His message of affirmation for them was: follow me and you’ll feel good about feeling angry.
The MAGA mob knew it was OK to storm the Capitol if they did it in Trump’s name. They felt no obligation to the institution, the building, the authorities protecting it, or the lawmakers inside. Their savagery had no good or great purpose, but Trump would step forward to validate the angry marauders, using words that the “real” Stuart Smalley might say: “We love you, you’re very special.”
Trump was and is popular — he received 74 million votes! — because he asks nothing from people who want nothing to be demanded of them, most of all the need for them to be any better people than they are. That is the real source of Trump’s power. Trump may one day fade away — the permanence of his exile is still in doubt — but his “affirmations” to his self-regarding followers, his letting Americans off the hook from giving a damn about their fellow man, will, like Napoleon’s legacy, long and notoriously outlive him.
It may take a generation to restore what society has lost. I doubt that I will see those tens of millions of Trump’s followers re-enlist in the cause of mankind in my lifetime.