Today, Nov. 9, is the 18th of Brumaire by the French Revolutionary calendar – the day in 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte led a coup against the revolutionary government, established himself as First Consul and set about redirecting world history as few men have done before or since.
Donald Trump is not Napoleon, but for those of us who have cast him as merely a comic-opera authoritarian, a parody of a world-historical figure, his very own 18th Brumaire is a time to reconsider.
He has won a truly astonishing victory and won it in spite of polls and experts and all the data nerds and get-out-the-vote consultants who labored tirelessly for Hillary Clinton … in spite of the opposition of the Republican Party’s past presidents and presidential nominees and most of conservatism’s intelligentsia … in spite of the media that had gleefully lifted him up in the GOP primary and then believed (reasonably, but wrongly) that it had torn him down … and finally, in spite of his own acts of self-sabotage, which seemed egregious but turned out to be insufficient to keep him from his destiny.
So here he is, soon to be the most powerful man on the face of the earth, with no popular mandate but a Republican majority nonetheless awaiting his direction, a court of hacks and flatterers around him, a bureaucracy and deep state unsure how to respond to him, an unstable world regarding his ascent with apprehension (or, in Moscow and Beijing, satisfaction), and none of the preparation that even the most inexperienced of modern U.S. presidents have brought to their lofty office.
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What happens next promises (and threatens) to make history as nothing has in America – not even the trauma of Sept. 11 or the election of the first black president – since the Cold War ended almost 30 years ago, or since the social crises of the 1960s and 1970s further back than that.
On the global stage Trump’s populism and nationalism make him very much a man of his times, with parallels to figures as diverse as Marine Le Pen, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, of course, Vladimir Putin.
But in the U.S. context he is like nothing we have seen before – a shatterer of all norms and conventional assumptions, a man more likely to fail catastrophically than other presidents, more constitutionally dangerous than other presidents, but also more likely to carry us into a different political era, a post-neoliberal, post-end-of-history politics, than any other imaginable president.
I retract none of the warnings that I issued about the likelihood of catastrophe and crisis on his watch. I fear the risks of a Trump presidency as I have feared nothing in our politics before.
But he will be the president, thanks to a crude genius that identified all the weak spots in our parties and our political system and that spoke to a host of voters for whom that system promised at best a sustainable stagnation under the tutelage of a distant and self-satisfied elite. So we must hope that he has the wit to be more than a wrecker, more than a demagogue, and that his crude genius can actually be turned, somehow, to the common good.
And if that hope is dashed, we must find ways to resist him – all of us, right and left, in the new chapter of U.S. history that has opened very unexpectedly.