By Peter Wentworth, Esq.
In their studies of world events, Karl Marx and his writing partner, Friedrich Engels, observed an unmistakable pattern. As Marx later summarized in his essay concerning the 1851 coup in France led by Napoleon’s nephew, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” In Marx’s particular example, he was contrasting the advent of Napoleon I, a world-historic personage who first seized power on November 9, 1799 (or the 18th day of the month of “Brumaire” under the calendar instituted by the French Revolution) with the later rise of the nephew. The coup of the first Napoleon shook the Western World for the next fifteen years and left us with reshuffled political systems and new maps around the world. (For our part, we got the Louisiana Purchase as a result Napoleon, a genuinely monumental event in U.S. history.)
Napoleon I’s nephew, however, wasn’t quite up to the standard of his uncle. He served first as President of the Second Republic and then, constrained by term limits, seized power in a coup in 1851 and declared himself Emperor, a position he held until his defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War followed by his death in exile. In the view of Marx, the nephew, as is often the case, was a farcical copy of the uncle.
The repetition of tragedy followed by farce is a prominent feature of history. A more recent Italian version of the phenomenon concerns two flavors of authoritarian leader, the tragedy of Mussolini followed, 50 years later, by the farcical Silvio Berlusconi.
Because the U.S. fought him in the Second World War, Mussolini’s story, at least in its broad outlines, is known to us. Mussolini ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943. A former socialist, he first came to power in a mostly legitimate fashion. By 1925, though, he set himself up as a dictator and became known as Il Duce. He was the founder of Italian Fascism and, we tend to forget, was actually a role model for Hitler who came to power many years after Mussolini. Hitler only later became the “older brother” in their relationship once the war began.
Mussolini was famously remembered for “making the trains run on time,” considered a marvelous feat in otherwise laid-back Italy. With timely trains, however, Italians suffered totalitarian rule in the form of a police state, horrific state-sponsored violence, and general gangsterism by Il Duce and his cronies.
With the war basically lost, Mussolini was dismissed from government, fled to a northern Italian German puppet state, and, on April 27, 1945, was summarily shot by Communist partisans as he was trying to flee to Spain via Switzerland.
Italy’s recovery from Mussolini’s fascism took a long time. Some argue that Italy has never really recovered from the tragedy of his rule.
Silvio Berlusconi, a long-time (and still) Italian political figure and its Prime Minister from 2008 through 2011 was in many ways the return of Mussolini as farce. He created the Forza Italia party which was organized around his personality much more than any program of governing. His reign was noisy, populist, scandal-filled, and, ultimately, ineffectual.
The parallels with Trump are unmistakable: he made his name as a businessman, founding the Italian media giant, Mediaset. He used the media to advance his interests, his name, and his politics. When elected, he reneged on his promise to sell Mediaset and, as a result, controlled most of Italy’s media, either through his own holdings or his effective control of state-owned media.
Like Trump, he was a big fan of Putin and was rumored to have an interest in a joint venture between an Italian energy company and Russia’s Gazprom. He was a constant defendant in the Italian courts, both in civil and criminal matters. Some even opined that his desire to stay in power was largely based on avoiding prosecutions for tax fraud that were always hanging over his head. He also faced one sex scandal after another.
When finally forced to resign, crowds in the streets of Rome sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and danced with abandon. Berlusconi was bad, but not Mussolini-bad. He did great damage to Italy and its reputation in Europe and throughout the world, but he didn’t leave it a hulking bombed-out ruin.
Berlusconi, in other words, was the opera buffo version of totalitarianism. In his heart, he probably wanted to be Mussolini, but couldn’t quite pull it off.
Which brings us to Trump and a critical question facing the United States: will he be Berlusconi – an ineffectual totalitarian who will be bad for the country, but probably not destroy us – or will he be Mussolini. (And, by the way, unlike others, at least at this point, I’m not even going to mention the H-word.)
Essentially every important Trump policy move can be subjected to an examination of whether it is a tragic descent into totalitarianism or just buffoonery. The recent travel-ban executive order presents a an almost perfect case study. On its face, it looks like a heavy-handed blind-siding of the American public intended to accomplish Trump’s darkest vision of his war with radical Islamic terrorism. In it’s application, however, it was botched, confused and ultimately found unconstitutional by the courts in fairly short order. It was Mussolini in motivation, but Berlusconi in execution.
If we’re in for all buffoonery all the time, it will be unpleasant (and horrible for the targeted groups), but the United States will survive. At this point, that’s about the best we can hope for. But it’s still way to early to know. And the fact that the New York Times is reporting on Senior Advisor Bannon’s love for obscure Italian fascist, Julius Evola, indicates that the question is still open.
Another open question, of course, is Trump himself. We’ve been pretty lucky with our Presidents for the past 226 years. Sure, they’re not all Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, but the run-of-the-mill have been decent enough. We’ve also had a few – Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Nixon – who were genuinely awful and/or dangerous. Maybe Trump is the farce to their tragedy, but the obvious parallels are absent.
Maybe this sui generis politician is the first of his kind. Sadly, that means get ready for the tragedy.