Trump: Tragedy or farce?

24 November 2016

As the world tries to determine what kind of President Donald Trump will be, Professor James Der Derian writes Trump's tale is not a new one for history.

Donald Trump

Trump made history from circumstances he inherited from Reagan. Image: Michael Vadon/Wikimedia Commons 

Donald Trump just made history, but what kind of history? Rather than furthering the false prophecies of our pundits, pollsters and official prognosticators, I suggest turning off your TV, going offline and picking up a book, preferably one about a historic moment that the experts got wrong.

A good place to start is The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx’s brilliant effort to comprehend how in 1852 the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte first became the elected president and then a few years later the self-appointed emperor of France. The opening paragraph eerily echoes our own times:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce … Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The trad­ition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Marx starts by finding fault with contemporary commentators who allowed “a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part”. Marx attacks the great Victor Hugo and his popular book Napoleon le Petit (small hands indeed) for relying too much on “bitter and witty invective” rather than historical and political analysis. By interpreting Bonaparte’s coup d’etat “as a bolt from the blue” and “only the violent act of a single individual”, Hugo makes “this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history”. The result is disastrous: the elevation to power of “a serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history”.

The disaffected rise up

Marx offers instead a class analysis. He focuses less on the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeois, for which his name would later become famous, but on an intra-class class conflict between the old landed aristocracy and new industrial elites that allowed Louis Napoleon to ride in as the “man on horseback”.

Promising to restore the glory of France, he was able to split the traditional parties of left and right and to seize power with the support of the disaffected peasants, petit bourgeois and lumpenproletariat, what Hillary Clinton might call a “basket of deplorables”.

Facing social unrest and a broken economy, Emperor Bona­parte III rebuilt the infrastructure (and destroyed much of old Paris), ushered in a period of order (and imprisoned several thousand dissidents) and restored splendour to France (as well as glamour — his wife, the fashionable Empress Eugenie, hired Louis Vuitton to make her handbags). He also engaged in a series of military adventures abroad, including an ill-fated intervention into Mexico. Napoleon’s reign ended with a disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 — followed by the revolution of the Paris Commune of 1871.

But, like Reagan, Trump tapped ‘‘cowboy capitalism’’, American exceptionalism and class resentment to build a new coalition of power.

Following Reagan's footsteps

To move from Napoleon to Trump, and from “La gloire de la France” to “Make America Great Again”, may seem a stretch. But perhaps less so if we consider how Trump’s path to power followed Ronald Reagan’s.

To be sure, it took Reagan somewhat longer than Trump to progress from television personality to unlikely politician (and from Democrat to Republican). Reagan did make more of a show of tearing down walls between enemies than building new ones between friends. Reagan also looked better on horseback (and on TV).

But, like Reagan, Trump tapped ‘‘cowboy capitalism’’, American exceptionalism and class resentment to build a new coalition of power. They also indulged in the kind of fearmongering Marx identified as the core of Bonapartism (“Rather an end with terror than terror without end!”): Reagan declared international terrorism would replace human rights at the top of the national security agenda; and Trump warned of “terrorist attacks that you wouldn’t believe”.

Trump made history from circumstances he inherited from Reagan. Whether history will repeat as tragedy, farce or tragicomedy, we best keep in mind Marx’s final warning: “The shadow of the coup d’etat became so familiar to the Parisians as a spectre that they were not willing to believe in it when it finally appeared in the flesh.”

The recent past may weigh on some as dream, and on others as nightmare. But we could yet awaken to even greater surprises than the election of Trump.

Professor James Der Derian is Michael Hintze Chair of International Security Studies and Director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

This article originally appeared in The Australian.

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)