Is Trump Our Charles de Gaulle?

The most frequent cliché about Trump from his detractors is that he’s the next Hitler, which is silly. Trump may be many defective things, but he’s not that.

De Gaulle 3 copyBut I wonder if he might be our Charles de Gaulle? Just to be clear, I think Trump is a pygmy compared to de Gaulle intellectually (there really can’t be any comparison between de Gaulle’s Edge of the Sword and Trump’s Art of the Deal), but there are some notable similarities between both men as political phenomena that point toward taking Trump and Trumpism seriously, and moreover as something fundamentally different from ordinary political categories.

Let’s start with a few “superficialities,” though I’m never sure that things we think are superficial don’t add up to something real and important. De Gaulle, like Trump, was physically imposing, and embodied something elemental or primal in his physical bearing and presence on the public stage.

De Gaulle could be thought of as the George Washington of modern France,—the indispensable military commander who was by turns the indispensible political leader during and after World War II. His war memoirs are remarkable reading for showing de Gaulle’s deep perception of the necessary unity of his military strategy and his understanding that France had to play a leading role in the conflict even if the capacities of the Free French army weren’t much, because it was essential if France was to emerge from the war as a great and proud nation rather than as a nation humiliated, divided, and diminished by its military surrender to Germany on the battlefield and in its political surrender represented by the Vichy regime. (And what’s one of the terms of derision used about Republicans in DC these days? “Vichy Republicans.” Not fair, I think, but it does help explain why only someone like Trump could be seen as a remedy.) This explains de Gaulle’s often overbearing manner with his superior allies in the war, which often infuriated Churchill and FDR. What are the terms most often used to describe de Gaulle? “Intransigent, obstinate, domineering,” etc. The man was simply outrageous at times, but often got his way by sheer force of will. If France was to be a great power, he thought, he must insist that it be treated as a great power. Full stop.

In politics de Gaulle was to large extent aloof from the fractious parties of the time (just as Trump is obviously aloof from either party or their ideological orthodoxies), because his idea of France was always larger than the schematic policy ideologies of any particular party, and his own personality was larger than any one party. It was precisely this self-cultivated image and towering willfulness that caused France to turn to him in the two subsequent post-war crises: the Algeria mess in 1958, and the near-revolution of 1968.

And what was his idea of France? See if the opening paragraph of his war memoirs doesn’t sound more than a little familiar:

All my life I have thought of France in a certain way. This is inspired by sentiment as much as by reason. The emotional side of me tends to imagine France, like the princess in the fairy stories or the Madonna in the frescoes, as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny. Instinctively I have the feeling that Providence has created her either for complete successes of for exemplary misfortunes. If, in spite of this, mediocrity shows in her acts and deeds, it strikes me as an absurd anomaly, to be imputed to the faults of Frenchmen, not to the genius of the land. But the positive side of my mind also assures me that France is not really herself unless in the front rank; that only vast enterprises are capable of counterbalancing the ferments of dispersal which are inherent in her people; that our country, as it is, surrounded by the others, must aim high and hold itself straight, on pain of mortal danger. In short, to my mind, France cannot be France without greatness. (Emphasis added.)

Seems to me that Trump, in his inarticulate rhetoric, sees things exactly this way. Moreover, in his 1931 book The Edge of the Sword de Gaulle wrote that “one does not move crowds other than by basic feelings, violent images, brutal invocations.” Yeah, that’s Trump, too.

There’s more I can say about other parallels, but it should be kept in mind that at the end of his life, de Gaulle thought he had largely failed in his aims. A cautionary tale about the limitations of political action, and more.

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