Is the conflict between Donald Trump and the GOP establishment for the heart of the Republican Party really like the French Revolution? Carl Icahn, in an interview with Neil Cavuto at the tail end of Super Tuesday, certainly suggested so. Ichan’s comments bear a ring of truth. Irritated Trump supporters are pursuing the model of the French Revolution while trying to cast the GOP establishment as the ancien regime. The French Revolution was undone by its excesses and its loss of restraint, both of which also characterize the Trump campaign.
Icahn asserted this election is the first time people in the Republican Party are finally speaking out in big numbers. He continued, “Now you have this establishment that says ‘We want to keep it here.’ It’s really like the last days before the French Revolution. And it’s sort of insane.” Historically speaking, Trump’s supporters are eerily similar to the sans-culottes, the common people of the lower class in eighteenth-century France who became radical militants of the French Revolution and sought to destroy the existing social and political order.
Trump’s promises to “Make America Great Again” and his clear criticism of the “establishment” have a very real appeal with many frustrated Americans who feel as if they have run out of means to redress grievances. These folks most certainly feel as if their best interests are not being represented, and they resent a perceived exclusion from political power. Trump supporters have very real gripes about the current direction of the country and the Republican Party’s shameful inability to stop the forward charge of the Obama agenda.
The People Have Grievances, Sure Enough
Laborers, the lower middle class, and many rural communities have seen stagnant wages, jobs moving overseas, and failed government solutions to their problems. Many Americans such as gun owners, churchgoers, proponents of domestic energy, or opponents of government-run health care are feeling marginalized and told their viewpoints are bigoted or ignorant.
They have been treated with hostile rhetoric by the current president and an administration that seems to be more concerned with illegal immigrants, more at ease condemning police officers, and notably lackluster in fostering racial reconciliation. Major health-care changes have been rammed down their throats, and the GOP seems to lack either the stomach or the ability to curtail deficit spending.
The fiscal incompetence of Washington DC closely parallels that of Louis XIV’s government, a regime on the verge of bankruptcy and seemingly incapable of halting its demise. Then as now, years of fiscal irresponsibility resulted in a period of economic difficulty. The French monarch’s debts were an estimated 8 to 12 billion livres for a population of around 20 million people, inherited mostly from the heavy military expenditures of the Seven Years War and the American Revolution.
The current U.S. national debt is more than $19 trillion, with an average debt per citizen of more than $59,000. The GOP establishment and the French ruling class did little to prevent such rampant spending, resulting in bread riots in France and bitter resentment in a large portion of the Republican electorate today.
The French Revolution was undone by its loss of restraint. French revolutionaries vainly struggled to create equality, foster fraternity, and abolish all laws and customs that did not comport with their utopian vision. Heads quite literally rolled down the guillotine if enemies of the nation were detected. Around 17,000 enemies of the state were tried, convicted, and decapitated at the guillotines in a grisly public spectacle. It is unknown how many thousands died in miserable prison conditions and never made it to trial.
Taking Justified Anger to Excess
Furthermore, the French Revolution was marred by the radical de-Christianization and anti-clericism of France. The reform from an established state church to a completely atheistic state was violent and far too sudden. The French Revolutionary Calendar, used from 1793-1805, was symbolically designed to omit any religious or royalist references. The revolutionary state confiscated the land holdings of the Catholic Church, turned the clergy into employees of the state, and required that clergy take an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, effectively subordinating the church to the state.
The Cult of Reason, a belief system that replaced the Catholic Church, emphasized reason yet demonstrated violently against nonbelievers, ransacked churches and synagogues, and eventually gave way to Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being. Both attempts to create a state religion focused only on utility, completely upended society’s institutional framework, and fostered unrest and depravity.
Much like the lead-up to the French Revolution, Trump’s campaign is marked by excess. Trump’s vague advocacy for a complete shakeup of the system and a return to our “winning” American ways are similarly threatening. His rhetoric has upended the traditional norms of political discourse. His opponents are “choke artists,” “losers,” or just plain dumb and ugly.
No matter what the man says, it doesn’t dent his poll numbers. The base of his support will continue to view him favorably, despite and possibly because of his unorthodox style. His comments alluding to the size of his genitals on national television, his poor track record with women, his consideration to eliminate Muslim immigration, and his sham of a plan to deport millions of illegal immigrants make a mockery of the race for the presidency.
The Real Violence Has Begun
Trump’s style is not what is needed to restore unity, order, or economic flourishing—it is divisive and unorthodox, just like the excesses of revolutionary France. Most newsworthy are the violent incidents surrounding the Trump campaign. His campaign has spiraled downward from an “unorthodox” and rude debate approach to fistfights.
A one-time altercation could be explained away, but Trump’s campaign is marred by increasing violence and his lack of true leadership in condemning it. This includes the brawl that broke out causing him to cancel a rally in Chicago, a cancelled rally in Kansas City, an alleged altercation between his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, and a protester punched in Fayetteville, North Carolina. It appears as if there is no end in sight.
Trump’s lack of restraint is particularly concerning now, especially that it is not just rhetoric. Bernie Sanders has called for a revolution, but perhaps Trump beat him to the punch. If Chicago is any indication, perhaps a Trump barricade in the streets akin to the barricades in Paris is not too far of a stretch.
Trump Is Not the Answer You’re Looking For
Despite the anger and resentment many Republicans feel today and their leadership’s inability to halt Obama’s agenda, voters should reject Donald Trump. Trump has already done irreparable damage to the Republican brand, even if he does not win the Republican nomination. In the future, it will be too easy to denounce the GOP as the party of Donald Trump, not the party of Lincoln, the party that freed the slaves, the party of Ronald Reagan, and the party that affirms the innate human dignity of every individual and individual rights that are inherent and independent of government.
Instead of being the political party that believes in limited government because of a commitment to the abilities and potential of people and communities, the Republican Party will become the party that just lambasts PC culture and lashes out at foreigners.
The French revolutionaries demanded an improved economic station, the abolition of political privilege, and a system that was more responsive to their needs. These elements can all be found in Trump’s appeal. By themselves, they are not dangerous. When vested in a dangerous and angry populist leader, they can undermine coalition building and fruitful political discourse.
Trump supporters have very real grievances against the current direction of the country and the Republican Party’s shameful inability to stop the forward charge of the Obama agenda. However, this country was founded on the principles of deliberation, restraint, and a rational approach to government. For the sake of the conservative movement, the GOP should not self-destruct by nominating Trump, but instead play by the rules of the current political system.
The problem with both the French Revolution and the Trump campaign is the acute loss of restraint. Trump’s equivalent of “Storming the Bastille,” a symbolic attack on a perceived evil, is his campaign against illegal immigrants, building a wall along the southern border, and his statements about Muslims. Although not yet quite enough to ignite a revolution, these early assaults have moved the conversation in a more radical and destructive direction.
His rhetoric, his lack of policy proposals, and his reliance on negative energy all have no place in a proper political discussion. To state it unequivocally, the rise of Trump points in the direction of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror.