History Corner: Donald Trump is Basically Napoleon

David Madill

First of all, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not talking about Napoleon Bonaparte, who conquered most of Europe, was exiled to Elba, returned, was exiled again…you get the point. I’m not talking about him. I’m referring to his lesser known nephew of the same name, Louis Napoleon III, who was emperor of France in the later nineteenth century. There are a lot of similarities between the two: both provided strong, if perhaps dictatorial, leadership after times of unrest and revolution. Both took measures to remain popular with the masses, appeasing different groups in order to keep at least a semblance of public support. And both used democracy to legitimize their reign.

Both, especially Napoleon III, also have a lot in common with Donald Trump, as we recently discussed in my AP European History class.

Let me be clear: I am not saying in any way that Trump plans to be a dictator or emperor. In fact, I’d like to cut through all the assumptions about him and look at him as we must look at anyone running for political office: we must hesitate to believe that he’ll do everything he says. It’s time we regarded him as a serious candidate for the Republican nomination. Does he lie? Yes. Does he say things he doesn’t mean? Surely. But what politician doesn’t? There has to be something in there that is appealing to people.

And by “people,” I do not mean only stupid people. I’m talking to you, intellectuals. You don’t have to be stupid to examine why people endorse Trump and consider him a legitimate candidate. We may not end up voting for him, but can’t we at least give him a fair shot before we dismiss him for things he’s said? Anyone who judges politicians based on what they say is disillusioned.

So here we go. This should be interesting.

Historians generally agree that Louis Napoleon III (henceforth referred to as Louis) made his rise to power mainly through name recognition. In the years since Napoleon I’s deposition, his reign had been romanticized and glorified by those who regretted how their country had fallen. Louis built off of this sentiment; his last name prompted recollections of a great and mighty France, which had controlled most of Europe and owned a promising stake in the New World. To the people, Louis was their best shot to “make France great again.” Sound familiar? From a name everyone has heard to a “commitment” to return America to its classic past, Donald Trump exhibits many of the qualities that made Louis such a popular candidate in France’s 1852 election. (Whether or not that “classic past” is better or worse than our current state is often a matter of party loyalty, but in general conservatives believe that America has gone down the wrong path socially and economically and is in need of restoration).

From there, Louis built on his popularity with the common man by sponsoring work projects (creating jobs) to rebuild Paris and improve infrastructure. In foreign policy, he inserted the French opinion into every metaphorical discussion, taking sides in the Crimean War and in Italian and German Unifications. The world should listen to France, he seemed to scream, and the French people liked him for it. After years of being looked down upon as petty, squabbling losers, France was, well, great again.

Donald Trump’s name could replace Louis’s in a lot of those scenarios. He promises to improve our nation’s infrastructure. (Hear that, Democrats? He actually wants to spend money on something). He is already sticking his nose all over the world, spewing ideas for various foreign policies, some of them more feasible than others. He is certainly not opposed to war as a way to achieve American purposes. In short, he gives Americans the feeling that, just perhaps, America can be great again. Maybe the nation that bailed out Europe in WWI and WWII can establish the same kind of peace in the Middle East. Maybe Russia should be scared of us. Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” is exactly the reason he resonates with so many voters. He doesn’t pretend that Congress can get anything done or that peace can be achieved without war. Instead, he seems willing to step in and take control of the situation, of any situation, much as Louis Napoleon III seemed to the French people. That’s why he polls so well.

Whether Democrat or Republican, or anywhere in between, we can all agree that Trump is doing better than we would expect from someone who so flagrantly violates the rules of political correctness. Should that say something? Just like the French people of 1852, many Americans today see our nation as being in need of fixing, and they don’t think a log-jammed Congress is the one to do the fixing. They want strong leadership. Whether he wins or not is beside the point; the success of his campaign so far has already shaped the way politics and elections will play out for years to come.

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