After the tide turned against his conquest of continental Europe, Napoleon was decisively defeated by a coalition of European powers in the spring of 1814. The French emperor was then exiled by the victors to the small island of Elba, off the western coast of Italy. As the coalition powers met to determine the postwar balance of power in Europe, Napoleon, conscious of his popularity in France, slipped out of exile, returned to Paris and, until his final defeat at Waterloo, resumed the imperial throne.
When the royalist government that replaced Napoleon caught wind of the former emperor’s landing in southern France, it deployed the military to stop his march towards Paris. Near the city of Grenoble, some of the royalist soldiers encountered Napoleon’s forces. Napoleon walked up to them and ripped open his coat. “If there is one among you who wishes to kill his emperor,” Napoleon supposedly said, “here I am.” None of the soldiers fired upon him. In fact, they defected, and joined with their emperor’s forces on his march towards Paris.
206 years later and one Atlantic Ocean away, Americans contended with their own emperor. The people have spoken, and King Donald I has been dethroned. Now that President Donald Trump will not occupy the Oval Office come Jan. 20, 2021, a civil war is coming. Not that kind of civil war, thank God — a civil war within the Republican Party.
Where does the GOP leadership go from here? Do they try to smother the Trumpian populist movement, drop the lame duck president like a hot orange potato, slowly distancing themselves from a disgraced Trump, in favor of a return to establishment normalcy? Or do they still champion Trumpism, allowing the outgoing president’s movement to continue to define the party?
“You know how to make America great again?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in 2015. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” Sounding like a Democrat, Graham continued by calling then-candidate Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” and defiantly pronounced that Trump “doesn’t represent my party.”
Graham, being the spineless shill that he is, later became one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in the Senate. But will he, and others in his position, now turn their backs on the president again? With Trump now trumped, what’s the expedient move?
It’s hard to predict the behavior of hypocrites like Graham, because hypocrites, being hypocrites, are unpredictable by nature. In the coming weeks, however, the rhetoric of these folks will be telling as to the direction of the Republican Party. But what will the two sides of the Republicans’ civil war be? And more importantly, who will ultimately win the soul of the GOP?
My best guess is the Old Guard — the Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy types — will slowly and surely distance themselves from Trump. Not an outright rejection, but a cautious, wakeless troll in the direction of normalcy. The problem — the futility, really — with this approach is that the party’s base, its soul and core, is so hopelessly anchored to Trump that to shed the naked emperor would be to shed its identity. Once Trump became the Republican Party nominee in 2016 and the likes of Graham decided to become his loyal minions, the GOP became married to Trump. Trump’s loss in 2020 will not mean a clean divorce. In fact, it won’t even mean a separation.
The New York Times’s David Brooks said it well in August 2020. Even in the event of a failed re-election, Trump will “still be the center of everything Republican. Ambitious Republicans will have to lash themselves to the husk of the dying czar if they want to have any future in the party. The whole party will go Trump-crazed and brain dead for another four years.”
With the exception of a few (and far between) principled stands against Trump’s lunacy (courtesy of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake), the GOP sold out to a bombastic charlatan who peddled lie upon lie upon lie for 48 straight months, and made “the greatest country on Earth” the dumpster-fire laughing stock of the world. Miraculously, Trump still remains highly popular amongst Republicans. Republican leadership — like everyone in their profession — are nothing if not self-preservational. So long as Trump remains popular with the Republican base, he’ll remain popular with the Old Guard that ultimately embraced him.
The toothpaste is out of the tube; Trumpism will triumph.
Donald Trump is not accustomed to being a loser. As he watches FOX News over the next year from his Elbas of Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, he will not be able to stand the United States’ recoveries from COVID-19 and economic downturn. He and his loyal supporters will not be able to stand, if even understand, the reality that his presidency was responsible for friction at home and embarrassment abroad, and that Joe Biden restored the professionalism and dignity befitting of a presidential administration.
We may think, or hope, that we have seen the last of Donald Trump, at least in the political realm. We have not. Give it a year or two, and Trump will leave Elba. And whatever they say and do in the meantime, so long as Trump’s popularity holds, the GOP will fall in line again when he reemerges. They will not dare shoot their returning emperor.
Max Steinbaum can be reached at email@example.com.
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