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COLUMN: Is Trump Emerson's 'Man of the World'

| February 13, 2016 7:13 PM

I have already invoked the words of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once to describe Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate whose “self-reliance” has given him the courage to speak his own mind and risk contradicting himself or being “misunderstood.”

Emerson’s 1850 essay on Napoleon Bonaparte, subtitled “Man of the World,” provides even more illumination of Trump’s sudden rise on the political stage, and why he is equally adored by the common people and detested by the denizens of the halls of power.

The portrait Emerson draws of Napoleon is by no means without its dark side, but yet Emerson is broadly sympathetic to the “little corporal” who turned his small fortune and personal magnetism into an empire whose sway has remained heavy on the public imagination for 200 years since its fall.

As Emerson notes, “Bonaparte was the idol of common men because he had in transcendent degree the qualities and powers of common men. There is a certain satisfaction in coming down to the lowest ground of politics, for we get rid of cant and hypocrisy.”

It is just such a rebellion against the “cant and hypocrisy” of the political class that has fueled Trump’s presidential campaign, and has astonished the establishment, who are apparently getting a sense finally that they may be dis-established if Trump prevails.

The point about Trump isn’t that he is to be compared to Napoleon in regards to ambition or accomplishment, but that they both represent “the mass of the people” of their time and place. For Trump, like Napoleon, “his real strength lay in [the people’s] conviction that he was their representative in his genius and aims.”

At this point, of course, Trump is only part tested and whether his strength will prove to be national or parochial remains to be seen, but his war against the elites is certainly reminiscent of Napoleon’s own battle against entrenched power.

Emerson divided Napoleon’s world into the conservative and the democratic classes, but it must be understood that those words are not used in the sense we take them today. Rather, the conservatives were the entrenched elites who wished to maintain their hold on their wealth and power, and the democratic class consisted of “the young and the poor who have fortunes to make.” It was to this latter group that Napoleon appealed like a force of nature, a man who “inspire[d] confidence and vigor by the extraordinary unity of his action.”

And it was the same trait which terrified the elites, the kings and the governors of Napoleon’s day. As if describing Trump’s effect on the talking heads and political pundits of our own day, Emerson said of Napoleon, “He had a directness of action never before combined with so much comprehension. He is a realist, terrific [terrifying] to all talkers and confused truth-obscuring persons.”

Build a wall on the Mexican border? “Why not,” says Trump to the snickers of the chattering class. “I am a builder. That is what I do. If I can build a wall around a golf course, I can build a wall around a country.”

So, likewise, expansionist Napoleon was encountered with an obstacle that the rest of the world told him was impassable — the Alpine mountains between France and Italy — yet he found a way to build a road system through the obstacle. “‘There shall be no Alps,’ he said; and he built his perfect roads, climbing by graded galleries their steepest precipices, until Italy was as open to Paris as any town in France.”

Perhaps that is the appeal of Trump — his vision of just how much is possible, how much is achievable — while all around him the talking heads speak of surrender, capitulation and impossibility. “Whatever appeals to the imagination, by transcending the ordinary limits of human ability, wonderfully encourages us and liberates us,” Emerson wrote.

Why vote for anyone who tells you there are no solutions?

Trump keeps it simpler: “Make America great again.”

Again, this dichotomy of encouragement and exhaustion is an echo of Emerson’s analysis of Napoleon: “It is the belief of men to-day that nothing new can be undertaken in politics, or in church, or in letters, or in trade, or in farming, or in our social manners and customs; and as it is at all times the belief of society that the world is used up. But Bonaparte knew better than society; and moreover he knew that he knew better.”

In other words, innovation happens when someone comes along who doesn’t wait for permission to bring about change. It happens when someone leads rather than follows.

Was it Trump or Napoleon who said this? “I have conducted the campaign without consulting any one. I should have done no good if I had been under the necessity of conforming to the notions of another person.”

It might as well have been Trump, who is beholden to no one and who kicked out the one consultant he had after Roger Stone told him to stop being Trump. Napoleon cannot stop being Napoleon, and Trump cannot stop being Trump. Nor, I suppose can the establishment ever understand the power of will wielded by such people.

“History is full, down to this day, of the imbecility of kings and governors,” wrote Emerson. “They are a class of persons much to be pitied, for they know not what they should do... But Napoleon understood his business. Here was a man who in each moment and emergency knew what to do next.”

The imbecility of governors? Could that explain the bloody battlefield left behind in Trump’s wake? Governor Scott Walker? Governor Bobby Jindal? Governor Rick Perry? Governor Chris Christie? Each and every one of them was supposed to vanquish the unpolished citified rube known as Trump, but the rube is still standing, and the governors have fallen victim to his cunning instincts. How much longer till Governor Jeb Bush and Governor John Kasich join them, crying about the foolishness of the masses and the danger of the “demagogue”?

We shall see what we see. Trump is not invincible anymore than Napoleon was, but based on what we have seen so far, as Emerson declared, “woe to what thing or person stood in his way.”

Frank Miele is the managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana.