“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Because he already acts like he knows everything, Donald Trump will have never read this pithy observation from George Santayana. As the days between now and November’s Presidential election fall faster than staffers who disagree with him, Trump seems increasingly less likely to “tak’ a tellin’“, as my granny used to say. The byways of history are littered with wrecked egos bigger than ruined spaceships in “Independence Day“. But, instead of bulge-headed aliens getting their come-uppance, ordinary folk are suffering under autocracy that belongs in the Dark Ages.
But get one thing straight: ego and ambition are not necessarily evil. Few companies succeed, few countries prosper, few civilisations rise without ego and ambition in its leadership. The trick is to keep it all in balance.
“This too shall pass“
Wise leaders have kept this phrase in mind since an early Persian prince coined it. Its message helps retain a perspective, which those at the top find all too easy to lose. Though Abe Lincoln quoted it in a speech before he even became the 16th President. It seems unlikely the 45th president ever will, and not just because of pathological hostility to all things Iranian.
More successful leaders than Trump have kept such perspective. Truly great leaders—those whose people benefit from their rule much more than they do themselves—either exercised self-discipline or are guided by others they trust who know better. Elizabeth I of England was feisty, wilful and kow-towed to nobody, including the might of Philip of Spain. But she listened to Walsingham in matters of state and steered her country to the brink of global greatness. Even Henry VIII’s rampant self-indulgence was modulated by Wolsey, Cromwell and Cranmer, enabling profitable pillage from his personal reformation with impunity. Reagan was no Rhodes scholar. But he was smart enough to know he didn’t know enough…and so selected a cabinet who did, and thus created an economic boom, the legacy of which today’s Republicans can only envy.
Unlike those listed above, there is a special place in hell, reserved for leaders whose autocratic self-belief, opportunity for power and deafness to sound advice conspire to create one of history’s powder kegs. From Caligula to Mugabe, the hubris that gifts them glory is also their nemesis. Neither Charles I, nor Louis XIV could grasp they no longer ruled a medieval rabble of serfs, who were suitably awed by absolutism. Few of their courtiers, selected for obsequiousness, displayed the cojones to question policy. The absence of opposition could be catastrophic (c.f. Hitler; Stalin). This stifles ‘feedback’, and gives scant insight into what is actually going on in the principality/kingdom/empire.
The most egregious example of unbridled autocracy was Tsarist Russia. The last Tsar, Nicholas II, was ill-prepared for office, as his father (Alexander III) thought so little of his capability in affairs of state, he disdained to train him. When Alexander died at 49, Nicholas began a 23-year reign that was a catalogue of catastrophe caused by his remote autocracy.
However, the serfs of Russia were so downtrodden and the nobility so rarified that it would take three famines, two wars and three revolutions before Nicolas’ head rolled. The man was out of his depth, hen-pecked by a Tsarina with messianic conviction of ordained superiority, and advised by lackeys. Little wonder he drove his country to ruin and his people to despair.
“Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”
Trump will be no more familiar with Euripides than the Romanovs. He clearly believes he is part of a dynasty ordained to rule. Both Nicholas and Donald hand-pick their advisers, discarding any with ambition beyond loyally executing Delphic edicts from the master. Trump outdoes Nicholas in this, as he need not select from a narrow nobility. What sustained Nicholas’ messianic belief in untrameled power was a feudal system, lacking any middle class in which opposition, let alone democracy, could thrive. What sustains Trump’s is a two-party system, ossified into the same thing.
Imperial autocracy emanating from the White House is possible only because America’s much-vaunted Constitution depended on reasonableness. Trump has spent his life behaving the way he does: unreasonably, and winning. Born into wealth, he has lived in a self-serving bubble that might as well have been the Winter Palace. Against all expectations, he surfed into the White House on a tsunami of adulation, driven by platitudes and promises selected from a used car salesman’s manual.
But only once in office could he channel Nicholas properly. The Founding Fathers ‘balance of power’ was an early casualty. The first 44 presidents respected their lofty calling and exercised power in moderation. Then came Trump. With presidential powers exceeding any Head of State outside a dictatorship. IN theory, this was catnip to his ego.
Like Nicholas, Trump sees power as his natural entitlement, not a privilege. Exercising it with scant restraint is not just to satisfy that ego but is required to evoke public adulation necessary to sustain it. The remote Nicholas may have felt little need for mixing with the masses; he used Cossacks to sabre down protesters, an act justified to keep those serfs cowed, Trump needs to be more subtle. He uses the trappings of presidency—sound bites from his helicopter; a deluge of erratic executive orders; a blizzard of supine staff appointment—as he uses the bling and brand that blare from his empire: for show. Whereas Tsar autocracy was plumbed into Russia’s DNA, Trump must overawe a bolshy America public. To make his reach as regal, he uses a torrent of tweets to feed bombast past the media, who are kept off-balance with misdeeds, denials, foreign ‘foes’ and barbs at the media itself.
“Never make a defence or apology before you be accused”
Though he is clearly familiar with the more modern “Never explain; never apologise,” Trump has clearly learned from autocratic Charles I’s behaviour, if not from his quote. Such an attitude may not win friends. But it works in politics—as well as the cutthroat property business where Trump cut his teeth.
What brought Nicholas down was not imperious autocracy per se, but deafness to public outrage at its mismanagement consequences. Romanovs were always imperious—but usually learned how to rule. Alexander I lost to Napoleon at Borodino, but entered Paris in triumph three years later; His son, Alexander II after a trouncing in Crimea, reformed his army and swallowed up the Caucasus, Bessarabia and Poland. People forgive hardship/defeat, if given victory/plenty.
Nicholas’ disdain for the newly industrialised Japanese led to botched operations and humiliation in the Russo-Japanese War, triggering a revolution that nearly succeeded. Hen-pecked by his wife into more, not less, autocracy, the Great War was even more disastrous for Nicholas. The same fawning nomenklatura turned incompetence into disaster, for which soldiers paid in their millions. The resulting Bolshevik‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ became inevitable.
Which is not to say this fate will befall the USA. Like Nicholas, Trump may be insensitive and domineering, as contemptuous of Congress as Nicolas was of the Duma. Protesters in Portland were not ridden down by the 7th Cavalry.
Yet Trump is playing with fire. He is eroding the informal but essential amity and respect that makes politics happen in America. This miracle of a melting pot of 335,000,000 wildly diverse people from all over the globe, buying into the American Dream is precious, but fragile. Social stratification since the sixties has put that under threat. But it took Trump to campaign on polarising the debate with a divisiveness not seen since the Civil War. It is a vain effort to make Trump—not America—great again.
Even if his egregious self-immolation is on track to crater badly in November’s election, it will take a bigger, bolder visionary than Joe Biden to heal the rifts inflicted on the body politic. It will take serious examination of the Constitution and the degree to which presidential power can be abused and run counter to democracy. It will take some soul-searching by the American people.
It will take a woman.