Trump is not a fascist.
Nor is the system that he’s attempting to gain executive control over. I’m not the first to point this out.
Trump isn’t even a Bonapartist, which is perhaps a better term for someone attempting to gain a cult-of-personality to go with power in a republic.
But it is certainly closer to the latter than the former.
There has been material disputing the idea that the United States is Weimar Germany, and this is mostly true in terms of the economy—though socially there are parallels that are more difficult to ignore.
But Weimar Germany itself was a reflection of the Belle Époque that was birthed in the Third French Republic on the bones of the Second Empire, in which Bonapartism in its modern form lived and died.
And though these pieces looking back at the past are always fraught with problems, they are worth considering if nothing else because as much as we like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers immune to the outside, we are all prisoners in the movement of history as it spirals ever forward, yet touching on similar themes as it rotates forward.
In traditional American historiography, of course, we might be able to throw the analogy out completely from here. But is it not an absurdity to claim that ours is the same republic that Washington, the slave-owner, presided over? Is it not counter to reality to claim that Washington, who thought a large standing military was, “dangerous to the liberties of a Country,” could imagine being the Commander-In-Chief of a military that stands upon every inhabited continent on the planet?
It is with a similar eye we must regard the the transition of the Second Republic in France, born from the removal of the bourgeois court of Louis Phillip, to the Second Empire.
In this mood, King Louis Philippe, from an old established family surrounded by bourgeoisie advisors well liked by the bourgeoisie themselves, had found himself in a quagmire involving the Muslim areas that he had invaded.
Sure, Louis Philippe on the surface won, in large part because of the overwhelming force of the French military. But there were problems. Not the least of which being that the court’s officials had dubious ties with investment companies and other businesses that seemed to exploit the military action to line their own pockets.
Despite being from a liberal western position, the administration had to run its Islamic conquests like a military dictatorship with only the pretense of liberal thought, even going so far as to force torture upon the Muslim locals. A new opposition based on radical forms of Islam rose up to oppose the occupying forces. But things were about to change.
Louis Philippe had the support of the bourgeoisie, the wealthiest people in France, but the economy was falling apart. Wages collapsed for the working people while the wealthy gained more money. Louis Philippe abdicated the throne after having destabilized the Islamic areas France invaded and as the economy collapsed.
The Second Republic, like the United States today, was obsessed with the symbols of the previous republic and their legitimacy as an unbroken system. The nation’s flag was draped upon everything, the founders spoken with reverence, and law tied to an older system that made sense in theory. And everyone more militantly than perhaps ever before, though without much of a show of force.
The people that had brought forth the Second Republic were from various backgrounds mostly working together. In rhetoric, it sounded absolutely revolutionary. The huge financial gulf was to be fixed, the same bourgeoisie actors in the background of the last administration were to be punished, the problems among the conquered and resisting Islamic populations abroad smoothed over. With this, the most radical sections of the population stamped the new administration with their approval and promptly fell asleep.
But the old powers still remained. Those without power were poorly informed, the wealthy that ran things under Louis Phillipe continued in positions of power, despite the revolutionary rhetoric. In Marx’s seminal work on the period he says:
In no period, therefore, do we find a more confused mixture of high-flown phrases and actual uncertainty and clumsiness, of more enthusiastic striving for innovation and more deeply rooted domination of the old routine, of more apparent harmony of the whole of society; and more profound estrangement of its elements. While the Paris proletariat still reveled in the vision of the wide prospects that had opened before it and indulged in seriously meant discussions of social problems, the old powers of society had grouped themselves, assembled, reflected, and found unexpected support in the mass of the nation, the peasants and petty bourgeois, who all at once stormed onto the political stage after the barriers of the July Monarchy had fallen.
But now the United States differs slightly from its French forbearer. In 1848 the proletariate of Paris, always the leftwing guard for Europe to that point, rose and lost. The 1848 Risings in Europe, the Springtime of the People, and the June Days Uprising in particular, reflect a far more grim reality than the rising of the left in 2011.
There is a common thread in the romanticization of the process, however. Both Occupy and the June Days are perhaps met in-between by Ireland’s Rising of poets and rhetoric that was restrained with armed policemen. The results, arguably, were the same. The New York protestors and their nation-wide sympathizers were isolated, alone, while the aristocracy of finance, the bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty shop owners, the agents of law, the limped proletariat, many of the intellectuals, the clergy, and the rural populations condemned and mocked the actions.
From there on out in France of 1848, every effort put forward by the left was defeated with greater and greater ease. The left made an alliance with one group, only to be thrown aside in haste after it had been used.
The right, however, seemed to have learned from these lessons and a militant spirit took hold, one that arguably showed that the republic needed someone strong in charge to hold the center.
In the American example, instability showed when the Federal Government had to allow ranchers to ignore the government, taxes, and outgun authorities.
And continued with the government mostly remaining impudent as domestic terrorists invaded another state that asked to defend itself but was declined permission for several weeks.
Though completely and publicly impotent, the right came to believe that the left survived in great power and had to be fought against.
The French Second Republic continued to be in similar trouble. Part of this had to do with how the constitution had been built and maintained. The trouble abroad, the imperialism that the Second Republic was born having to deal with, had its consequences. The budget of the republic took on ever inflated significance with the wealthy who opposed their charges, often with much popularity. The system itself turned upon communism and socialism as agents that needed to be destroyed in order for the system they had made tow work correctly.
This system itself had issues stemming from blocking out the ideological left of which it claimed, in part, to represent. Security concerns for the country didn’t match with the foundation of the republic, in short. Various agents of finance and security were grouped together to be more powerful than any one should have been behind the scenes, and the laws passed to protect the republic undermined it.
For instance, though there was universal suffrage, this only included citizens, which were narrowly defined and controlled. The organization of local governments and national governments became cosmetic in many ways and became more federalized when security was made an issue. Rights guaranteed like liberty, speech, assembly, and others were constrained by the need for national security or other laws made to try and create a public harmony.
This all set to underline the problems of the French Republic. In the foreground of these issues were 750 representatives that made up the National Assembly that was legally where this power was supposed to stop in regards to treaties, war, peace, and virtually everything else.
On the other side was the institution of the President, which could appoint and dismiss ministers, held the military, could pardon criminals, run the National Guards, and various other powers that seemed to overlap upon the National Assembly.
When election came up, Louis Napoleon III stood against an unusually wide array of other contenders to president.
Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, a ruthless jerk that seemed more reasonable than he really was:
Nicolas Anne Théodule Changarnier, a reactionary that violently opposed the very idea of a secular republic:
Alphonse de Lamartine, a career politician that had impeccable credentials and believed in a toleration of Muslims; Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who seemed to many to side with the left; but coldly condemned the left whenever politically viable to do so:
François-Vincent Raspail, an unaligned socialist and hero to many on the left:
Louis Napoleon was more difficult to pin down. He was frequently called a, “Turkey pretending to be an eagle,” and routinely mocked. But he was also famously, “all things to some people.”
One of the main things that Louis Napoleon used was the public spectacle to get elected. In big public displays, Louis Napoleon would project himself as a powerful leader for the age of the mob. He put himself out there as the leader of a powerful country that was on the decline unless be could save it and guarantee a peaceful, prosperous, and huge future.
Matthew N. Truesdell goes through, in detail, Louis Napoleon’s use of symbology—staging, costumes, symbols, everything made into propaganda to project himself as a strong savior of France. At the rallies, there would be retribution imposed for people trying to destroy his narrative.
Louis remained a political outsider, despite his famous last name, and was able to coast on both to get public support. He placed himself at the center of everything he did, and in doing so was successful in people projecting upon him what they wanted.
Due to the seeming importance of many of Louis-Napoleon’s appearances, even relatively hostile newspapers often had to cover them…despite the fact that Paulin, the editor of L’Illustration, the most important illustrated journal of the period, was no Bonapartist, he included illustrations of most of the ceremonies…Paulin attempted to show his disapproval by depicting Louis-Napoleon as a very small part of a much larger scene. But only an extraordinarily perceptive reader could have read disapproval into the lavish, full-page illustrations Paulin often included, many of them portraying Louis-Napoleon in a very flattering light; with enemies like Paulin, Louis-Napoleon hardly needed friends.
In this way, Trump is a Bonapartist figure.
But the comparison ends there with the Napoleon III and Trump. They are both different men from different parts of history. Perhaps most importantly, while this may describe Trump’s enthusiastic supporters, it in no way predicts a future where Trump will win and proclaim himself Emperor of the United States.
But the comparison is useful, if nothing else, on the study of power and the state of the republic. Even now in the background of the United States are the foreign and domestic problems that we know need to be solved, but are instead of brushed aside with assurances to do the same.
Trump offers a way forward to his followers, he tells them to be proud of the torture to the Muslims in the countries that we’ve invaded, and that the economic issues stem from stupid people doing stupid things that only he can personally fix.
Like Bonaparte, he looks back to a largely fictionalized time before universal voting, when popular imagine made things seem better for everyone.
And he stands at the heads of rallies. It does not make him Hitler; it does not even make him Louis Bonaparte. It makes him a politician in a particularly fragile time for a republic when neither the moderate right nor the moderate left has been able to propose viable solutions.
The conclusion to draw is your own. But history affects us today.