The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald W. Bonaparte

by Rafaël Newman

Honoré Daumier, “Paquebot napoléonien” (1848)

It’s November 9 – what Europeans, with their rational, smallest-to-greatest date format, might call “9/11”, if that particular shorthand hadn’t already been otherwise coopted for the 21st-century world’s symbology. At the same time, Europeans, particularly Germans, would be hard pressed to say which of the several events to have taken place on that date in their history would best qualify for such an abbreviation. Americans in 2001, after all, merely had to overwrite Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état on September 11, 1973, no great feat of neighborly oblivion.

November 9, meanwhile, is at once the date:

  • in 1918, on which Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, and the German Republic, later known as “Weimar”, was declared;
  • in 1923, on which Adolf Hitler staged his failed Beer Hall Putsch in Bavaria;
  • in 1938, on which Nazi agitators instigated the nationwide pogrom that has come to be known as “Kristallnacht”;
  • and, of course, in 1989, on which the Berlin Wall was opened, and the German Democratic Republic began its brief descent into non-existence. (The unfortunate occurrence of this generally felicitous happening on the same date as those earlier, far more sinister events is what kept it from being made the national day of German unification in 1990: see my remarks on this coincidence here, and, on calendrical accumulation more generally, here.)

At the head of all of these recurrences, however, there is an even more fateful November 9: the day in 1799, known at the time in the newly adopted Revolutionary Calendar as le 18 Brumaire an VIII, on which Napoleon Bonaparte led the coup that installed him as First Consul, and paved the way to his ultimate establishment as Emperor.

Apart from its signal importance in the subsequent unfolding of the French Revolution-cum-Empire, and thus in the making of modern Europe, that “original” November 9/Eighteenth Brumaire has acquired rhetorical significance through its use by Karl Marx in a long essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, published in a New York-based, German-language magazine: a report on the events of December 1851, in which Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, seized power over the Republic in a coup d’état. Marx opens his essay, which has become a foundational work in the modern study of authoritarianism, with a breathtakingly breezy reference: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” – the sort of “thesis statement” that would have college teaching assistants scribbling furiously in the margins: “Requires a footnote, Mr Marx!”

Undeterred by such niceties, Marx goes on to use Hegel’s putative authority to elaborate a theory of bricolage, or DIY, in political affairs: the notion that, at moments of truly revolutionary novelty, the relevant actors may paradoxically be found reaching back to an earlier age for their tropes, their language, their staging; as if the uncertainty of the new called for the reassurance of the old. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” writes Marx. “And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” Thus, according to Marx, when Louis Bonaparte, then President of the Second French Republic, staged his coup, on December 2, 1851, and eventually had himself crowned Emperor, he did so in the name of his uncle, the first, self-crowned French Emperor, even going so far as to time the coup to coincide with the anniversary of the first Napoleon’s coronation. Napoléon III, as Louis Bonaparte styled himself, was then to preside over the Second French Empire for some 18 years, ultimately brought low by defeats in Mexico and, of course, at the hands of the Prussians. Marx did not yet know about this humiliating outcome at the time he wrote his report on the coup; for the German economic historian, the reactionary manœuvring and slapstick scheming required to bring off Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 coup, and in particular the mediocre character of “the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon” were enough to brand the inception of the Second Empire a farce, an aping of the nobler but equally baleful tragedy of 1799, from which flowed the massacre of millions throughout Europe in the name of an imperialism still capable of exciting admiration.

Meanwhile, in the United States today, about which Marx (in 1852) said that its “feverish, youthful movement of material production, which has to make a new world of its own,” has left it unable to deal with the past in the manner of its Old-World cousins, a new enactment of the old production is nevertheless underway. In this current, American case, the “world-historic facts and personages” making their appearance include a president of the republic – a Republican president – who seems intent not only on repeating the past, but on drawing inspiration for his particular rerun not from the original tragedy of faith broken and majesty deposed, but from its farcical replay. In other words, not a restaging of the noble defeat and “gracious” concession of George Bush, senior, the last one-term Republican president – which was itself an echo of the rejection of George III in 1776, the foundational parricide of the American republic and the source of its constant, guilt-ridden quest for father figures – but of the “slow-motion coup” that instated George Bush, junior – “W” – as president 20 years ago, when the election count and recount dragged on for weeks and had to be decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled of course, infamously, against the popularly elected Al Gore.

Thus the still sitting American president, who has been at pains during his term to appoint, in veritably Napoleonic fashion, as many of his kin to high office as possible, is implicitly emulating the last Republican dynasty, in an effort to make the Empire great again; but finds himself merely proceeding from farce to farce: or perhaps, in his own case, most charitably, from farce back to tragedy, having already been declared the loser of an election he appears nevertheless intent on contesting.

Yet what are the historical elements that are otherwise available for this president’s rhetorico-political bricolage? He seems the most unlettered of men, having volunteered himself, during his first election campaign, as the author he most regularly consults, thus going Sarah Palin one better in the winging-it sweepstakes (the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate had notoriously told an interviewer, who asked what newspaper she favored, that she enjoyed reading “all of them”). In fact, the still-president has seemed to subsist on a media diet composed entirely of television (Gary Shteyngart has gone so far as to suggest that the 45th president is television). His cultural imaginary is evidently composed of the most rudimentary artifacts – the Bible; Mount Rushmore; hypertrophied neckties as a guarantee of alpha manhood: all apparently relayed to him at second hand. He appears to be innocent of the most basic lessons in history or civics, and to have eschewed perusing, even as a work of literature, the New Testament, whose orotund, Jacobean cadences have so reliably underlaid the oratory of America’s public speakers, whatever their personal spiritual sincerity.

In the end, perhaps, the still-president, threatening, through his surrogates, a flood of lawsuits commencing on the first business day following the announcement of his defeat, is simply being true to his own solipsistic creed, his threadbare account of himself as a self-made man, by staging his final farce – it is to be hoped – on the anniversary of his own initial triumph, and his country’s tragedy: November 9, 2016, in the early hours of which day the now renegade Wisconsin finally gave him enough electoral college votes to proclaim himself president.


A note on nomenclature

I stand by the pledge I made on New Year’s Eve in 2016:

And were we not forewarned, to wit,
To take this new Mein Kampf as writ:
By chroniclers of force advised
That we should scarcely be surprised
If what he swore when on the stump
Were said not just to make them jump,
Those bien-pensants who scorned a shlump?
Nor cast his ev’ry vote a chump
Who might like some things, others lump;
And he himself no trifling bump
In Freedom’s Road, no simple slump
Upon a market round and plump –
But that he’d make a bloody rump
Of parliament; an angry frump
Of Liberty; a lousy sump
Of sacred lands; of dreams a dump.
(Petty, I know, but, absit omen,
I’ll only rhyme, not write, his nomen.)