He was the best of candidates. He was the worst of candidates. He was regaled for his wisdom. He was reviled for his foolishness. He gave his followers hope, led his opponents to despair.
Donald Trump is not Paris, and no 21st century American political writer reminds anyone of Charles Dickens, but I invoke the opening of “A Tale of Two Cities” to illustrate the duality of hope and despair that the name Donald J. Trump elicits.
MAGA Republicans got their wish Tuesday when Trump announced his third campaign for president. So did progressive Democrats. It remains to be seen which of them will live to regret their luck.
Will ex-President Trump be able to harness the raw power of Candidate Trump circa 2016, the populist tornado who wrecked his opposition, or will he be a lackluster imitation who is motivated not by any desire to improve the nation, but by a puerile desire to salve his own ego?
It’s no secret that I’ve been a nearly unswerving supporter of the man ever since his famous ride down the escalator at Trump Tower in June of 2015. The one exception was a column I wrote in September 2017 when it appeared that Trump was about to surrender on the issue of illegal immigration. It is useful to recall that moment because it demonstrated what could be called Trump’s potential fatal flaw – an overweening desire to be liked. Trump is most successful when he follows his instincts and throws caution to the winds. When he curries favor with the political class, or follows polls rather than his heart, he can lose his way.
In that 2017 column, just half a year into the Trump presidency, I noted that there were troublesome signs that he might be co-opted by his political opponents and fail to deliver on his America First agenda:
Trump filled his cabinet and his administration with establishment Republicans and Democrats who could be expected to steer the president back toward the leftist, globalist agenda they supported. Bringing limousine liberals Jared and Ivanka into the West Wing was like inviting Hillary Clinton to share the Lincoln Bedroom, and banishing Steve Bannon was a guarantee that Trump’s nationalist campaign agenda was just a winning premise, not a promise.
But nothing that had come before prepared me for the shock I felt when Democratic Party leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, after meeting with Trump, issued their statement about a supposed agreement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that would have offered immigration amnesty to so-called “Dreamers.”
“We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides,” they said.
Amnesty? No wall? Impossible!
After facing a barrage of criticism, Trump insisted that there was no deal, then made matters even worse by tweeting (remember when he could tweet?): “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!”
“Yes, Mr. President,” his supporters shouted in unison. We did – and still do – want to throw out people who entered the country illegally. As “Angel Mom” Mary Ann Mendoza, whose police officer son Brandon Mendoza was murdered by an illegal alien, tweeted back at Trump: “You better not let my son down. You PROMISED a border wall, you PROMISED no amnesty…”
Trump listened when his base rose up and demanded that he honor the pledge he had made on the campaign trail, and after that he never again threatened to betray his core promises, which, of course, made him a dire threat to his political foes, who worked tirelessly to destroy his presidency.
In a sense they succeeded. Trump was forced to spend the first two years of his administration mired in the falsehoods of Russiagate, then endure the petty lies of the first impeachment when he should have been heralded for trying to protect the nation from the corrupt dealings of Joe Biden and family. After all the bad publicity he endured, it was a miracle that the 45th president came as close to winning a second term as he did, even if you discount the likelihood of election fraud (which I don’t).
So now for the past two years, Trump has been biding his time, hinting broadly that he would seek to duplicate the triumph of Grover Cleveland in returning to the White House after losing reelection and yet living a life in exile at Mar-a-Lago. In a sense, he has been Napoleon waiting in Elba for the opportunity to return to power, certain that he was born to lead and feeling unfulfilled by all the good he had accomplished during his time as emperor because something more awaited him.
Unfortunately, what awaited Napoleon was the catastrophic Battle of Waterloo and a return to exile. Now we wait to find out if Trump will meet a similar fate, or whether he can defy the odds and vanquish his enemies, who have impeached him, investigated him, subpoenaed him, and would no doubt like nothing more than to arrest and imprison him.
The comparison between Trump and Napoleon is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Although one is a democratically elected president and the other a military man who seized power, they both succeeded because of the brute force of their personalities.
Back in 2016, I wrote a column exploring the similarity of Trump’s character to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of Napoleon in his essay “Man of the World.” Emerson described the foundation of Napoleon’s popularity this way: “[H]is real strength lay in [the people’s] conviction that he was their representative in his genius and aims.” Those words certainly applied to Trump in 2016, and apart from the one aberration I have already cited, I think he continues to be a near perfect representative of the aspirations of the people.
Looking back at Emerson’s essay six years later, I now see there are even more hints of what makes Trump such a formidable adversary:
I call Napoleon the agent or attorney of the middle class of modern society; of the throng who fill the markets, shops, counting-houses, manufactories, ships, of the modern world, aiming to be rich. He was the agitator, the destroyer of prescription, the internal improver, the liberal, the radical, the inventor of means, the opener of doors and markets, the subverter of monopoly and abuse. Of course the rich and aristocratic did not like him.
You can always count on Emerson to cut to the quick, and it’s no accident that the essay on “Napoleon” appears in a volume titled “Representative Men.”
What Trump and Napoleon both exhibit in large measure is a force of personality that could shape a continent, or a world, and yet by doing so they can become both exhausted and exhausting. There is a reason why Donald Trump is both the most loved and the most hated man in American politics. As with Emerson’s description of Napoleon, “Men found that his absorbing egotism was deadly to all other men,” but without that ego, without that brute force, Trump would never have been able to charge the ramparts and the fortifications of the Deep State. He would never have withstood the assault on his character and his family by the juggernaut mainstream media.
If the rich and aristocratic classes are terrified of Trump returning to power, there is good reason. He is in their world, but not of it. If he resists their siren song of globalism and cheap labor, he just may be able to avoid the fate of Napoleon and enjoy a second act more powerful than the first.