L’état, c’est Trump?

Trump's golden penthouse

Louis XIV, the Sun King, led France in an age of diplomatic and military triumphs and state centralization. In a simpler age, he ruled personally, without a prime minister, and he mastered the French aristocracy. He is said to have declared, “L’état, c’est moi,” which would have been a ridiculous thing to say, except that he was a great king. His descendant, Louis XVI, isn’t remembered that way. As the well-known historian Allan Sherman wrote, he was worse than Louis XIII, he was worse than Louis XIV, he was worse than Louis XV, he was the worst since Louis I.

I’m not sure I can think of any American president who embodied the American state in the way that Louis XIV embodied France. That’s really by design, of course; the President is, as George Washington said, merely the “chief magistrate” of our Republic. But Donald Trump has always had an ersatz Louis XIV aesthetic, and I have no doubt that in his mind he does embody the nation. It’s easy to laugh at Trump’s tacky and grandiose style, until you read an argument like this from his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, in Trump’s Senate trial:

Now, we talked about motive. There are three possible motives that a political figure can have: One, a motive in the public interest, and the Israel argument would be in the public interest; the second is in his own political interest; and the third, which hasn’t been mentioned, would be in his own financial interest, his own pure financial interest, just putting money in the bank. I want to focus on the second one for just one moment.
Every public official whom I know believes that his election is in the public interest. Mostly, you are right. Your election is in the public interest. If a President does something which he believes will help him get elected—in the public interest—that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.

It’s one thing to be a Bossuet in the seventeenth century, when the idea of the divine right of kings was a new idea that served the interests of the nation against the old feudal aristocrats. But in 2020 only a toady can be an apologist for a theory that makes the personal interests of the President the same as the interest of the public and effectively puts the President above the law.

One of the very surprising things about the last few weeks has been the Republicans’ apparent lack of concern for the verdict of history. Which Republican senator wants to be remembered a hundred years from now for failing to protect the prerogatives of Congress and for putting up with a man who not so long ago they more or less universally said was a demagogue and a menace to the Republic? All of them, it seems.

9 responses to “L’état, c’est Trump?”

  1. Melissa Madrigal


  2. Antonio Fiorentino Di Stefano

    I came to this country with the illusion of the “Protestant ethic.” That such Protestants lived by an ethical-religious code that compelled them to do the right thing. As opposed to the Catholic culture from which I came, that among the laity seemed to have lost that moral imperative long ago. Now I know it is gone. Christianity simply another modality serving a fundamental private and institutional self-interest above all else. I envy the cultures of the East that still instill in the individual duty to their community and their people, It is paradoxical that the last manifestation and passion for that morality in the West was the philosophy of Communism, in spite of the fact that its flaws only promised political and economic failures. We are now a culture of no convictions other than private interest. It seems that those that founded this country have managed to form us all in their image. Alas life is short, and it is doubtful we shall see the dramatic changes in consciousness that are needed to ensure a secure future for the American people.

    1. Thanks, Antonio! The Protestant work ethic is alive and well in Boston, I am happy to say. I agree with much of your diagnosis of the national character. I would put it like this: we are short on civic virtue today.

  3. Conor

    Likewise. This sordid example of appalling behavior, coupled with imprimatur of the GOP in the Senate, makes me wonder where the bottom is.

  4. Mike

    Among all the other troubling impeachment arguments, this one jumped out at me too as breathtakingly cynical and dangerous.

    1. Welcome to 2020, Mike!

  5. […] And who would have thought that Mitt Romney would be the one to teach that lesson. A few days ago I wrote that apparently every Republican senator was going to endorse the abyss and excuse what just a few […]

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