Trump’s visit to Napoleon’s tomb in Paris yesterday is an irresistible invitation to compare the two leaders. Trendy as it is to focus on historical parallels with fascism, it’s worth thinking a bit about what we can learn from that other dude crazy enough to invade Russia in winter.
(Unavoidable aside: this may be the best graph of all time.)
Napoleon crafted a governmental system with the kind of personal power of which Trump clearly dreams. The 1804 Civil Code shored up some Revolutionary ideals (the end of feudalism, basic equality before the law), but also enshrined a number of principles Trump and our current GOP still champion. Napoleon’s regime ensured greater stability and prosperity for wealthy property-owners and former aristocrats. He significantly reduced workers’ rights and strengthened employers’ powers. Women lost the ability to file for divorce, own or sell property, or disobey their husbands (some of these rights even predated 1789). And, of course, Napoleon revoked one of the First Republic’s greatest progressive policies by reestablishing slavery in the Caribbean.
While Napoleon didn’t, to my knowledge, call out the burgeoning French press as an enemy of the people (that was more Robespierre’s style), he certainly wasn’t the biggest fan of freedom of expression. By 1800, he had decimated newspaper production in Paris. Over the next few years, he essentially brought back a full state censorship regime.
One of Napoleon’s big moves in solidifying his power was his reconciliation with the Catholic Church in the 1801 Concordat. Napoleon was not a man of strong faith, but he did believe in religion’s utility as a form of social control, and as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement. Here the echoes of an irreligious Trump promoting a set of Christian policies are unmistakable.
For all his conciliatory cuddling up to the Church when it served his needs, Napoleon had no patience for papal disapproval:
For the Pope’s purposes, I am Charlemagne… My empire, like Charlemagne’s, marches with the East. I therefore expect the Pope to accommodate his conduct to my requirements. If he behaves well, I shall make no outward changes; if not, I shall reduce him to the status of bishop of Rome.
One imagines Trump tweets of a similarly dismissive and threatening vein (though lacking lyrical historical allusion) in the aftermath of the Vatican’s latest scathing critique.
Finally, even Trump’s foreign policy mantra traces back to Bonaparte. Insisting that French silk manufacturers should not under any circumstances face competition his Italian territories, Napoleon declared,
My principle is France first… It is of no use for Italy to make plans that leave French prosperity out of account; she must face the fact that the interests of the two countries hang together. Above all, she must be careful not to give France any reason for annexing her; for if it paid France to do this, who could stop her? So make this your motto too—France first.
In the end, Napoleon might also be too hopeful of a comparison. Setting aside, for a moment, the annihilation of the rights of women, workers, and people of color, Bonaparte got some things right. Not least was his respect for the rule of law and power of institutions—and the importance of real education. We also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he was a pretty amazing military strategist—and a general who was well-respected by rank-and-file troops (and by the population at large). Trump’s current approval ratings certainly do not suggest that he’d be able to rally a personal army to his cause while marching from Elba to Paris (Mar-a-Lago to DC?) in 100 days.
All of this, of course, begs the question of what Trump’s Waterloo could look like. An over-confident, poorly planned, and ultimately disastrous Russia strategy may indeed play a role. Given the current trajectory of scandal, missteps, and own-goals, it’s not so hard to imagine a Trump exiled for his betrayals—surrounded by only his closest family and cheating at cards (or maybe Monopoly). But let’s all just hope that the parallels end there and we’re not faced with yet another would-be-emperor in 2048.
*Translations of Napoleon’s writings taken from Keith Baker.