The closest analogy for Donald Trump is Henry VIII — and Steve Bannon may not have his ear for long.
- By Emile SimpsonEmile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer.
Sick of 1930s analogies? Try the 1530s.
After all, it was Steve Bannon, President Trump’s own chief strategist, who compared himself to Thomas Cromwell in the Tudor court.
Trump, per the analogy, is King Henry VIII of England — though even Trump has some work to do to catch up with Henrician levels of notoriety. Executing two out of your six wives is only entry-level roguery if you aspire to be The Henry. To meet the required standard, you would need to have an international dispute with the pope about whether your late brother consummated his purported marriage to your present wife to get around Catholic divorce law, and when thwarted, make yourself head of your own church, forcing confessional change on your entire population, and thus happily hook up with Anne Boleyn. Then chop her head off. Those were the days.
But discount a few details and the analogy holds — just not in the way that Bannon would like. Henry’s reign is the story of a mercurial egomaniac who exploits a revolutionary networked movement to get power, only to hit the brakes as it spins out of control. Trump’s seems headed in the same direction.
Here’s a quick summary (with some @KingHenry tweets to give us a flavor of the time):
Early 1520s: Henry the showman enters on the European scene, co-hosting a massive diplomatic party at the Field of Cloth of Gold (which includes a good old homoerotic wrestling match with the young French king, which Henry loses then refuses ever to talk about). Desperate to be part of the establishment, and true to his basic conservatism, he pens a high-profile anti-Lutheran tract (including — ironically, as it would prove — a stern defense of the sanctity of marriage) dedicated to Pope Leo X, who honors the Tudor monarch in turn as “Defender of the Faith.”
@KingHenry: Thanks for the praise @PopeLeo! High energy. Very pious!
Late 1520s: New Pope Clement VII refuses Henry’s divorce.
@KingHenry: I think so called @PontifexMaximus is a very political person! Bad!
1530s: An information revolution, driven by printing, is in full swing across Europe, with Protestant networks spreading their message through large numbers of cheap books in the vernacular language spoken on the street. Conservative Catholics, including Henry’s old-school Chancellor Thomas More try to counter with established forms of polemic texts (long books in scholastic Latin, disputing points of doctrine), and fail badly.
Henry sees an opportunity to hitch himself to this networked Protestant movement, which will make him head of the church, give him control of all church property in England, and the divorce he craves.
@KingHenry: Make England Great Again #MEGA! Time to drain Catholic swamp! #CrookedMonks.
The #NeverLuther holdout More is eventually executed. Others bend the knee.
New Chancellor Thomas Cromwell oversees the dissolution of the monasteries, the biggest transfer of land to the English crown since the Norman Conquest. As part of Cromwell’s public relations campaign, this move is accompanied by widespread cultural iconoclasm to recover the purity of an imagined lost past.
@KingHenry: Bring God back to THE PEOPLE. #Originalism — smash those statutes of saints! They are not in the Bible!
Late 1530s and 1540s: Being at heart a conservative, and seeing the reformation becoming increasingly radical and spinning out of his control, Henry slams on the breaks.
@KingHenry direct message to @TCromwell: WTF! Pont.Max. just excommunicated me. Your alt-Lutheran views make me look bad. YOU’RE FIRED!
Cromwell is executed. Traditional Catholic doctrine on transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, and confession are reaffirmed. Henry turns against the Lutheran idea that each person is allowed to read the Bible for themselves, as new interpretations start to undermine his authority.
@KingHenry: DISHONEST Bible readers are leaking FAKE news about me. Sad!
Further crackdown on Protestants. Statute enacted that no one can read the Bible in private except high class people: The ‘lower sorte’ have so abused it that in future no ‘woomen nor artificers, prentices, journeymen, serving men of the degrees of yeomen or undre, husbandmen nor laborers shall reade…the Byble’ [SR, 34 Henry 8, 1542].
More executions of courtiers, a succession crisis, all the church money squandered on failed military campaigns in France, coinage debased, severe inflation.
@KingHenry: haters will always hate. I am forever #MEGA. They say my ratings are the highest of all time. Sorry @RLionheart!!
@Chancellor direct message to @Archbishop: Did u see? Rex is at it again. Which nutter reactivated his Twitter account? All had been OK since he went offline.
1547: Henry dies a paranoid, broke, and unloved king. A century of constitutional and confessional angst follows, which paves the way to civil war. But that’s another story.
Forgive me for having run roughshod over whole libraries of historical controversies in this compressed summary. But the core of the analogy — a story of how egomania can dress a conservative in the garment of the radical, but only for a time — is not inappropriate to our current, and future, predicament.
The basic story of revolutions — networked movements that upend existing power structures by promising radical change under the guise of restoring long-lost original virtue — is that they either spin out of control and eat their own children, or end in authoritarian rule, or often, both. (France had Robespierre’s terror before it had Napoleon crown himself emperor.)
The American experience is unusual, because its revolution ended in constitutional government under the rule of law, which is why even conservative U.S. politicians use the motif of “revolutionary change!” or “radical change!” as positive slogans — whereas in continental Europe, this has historically defined the rhetoric of the left.
Only much more recently has this language crept into the rhetoric of the British political right. It was above all Margaret Thatcher (agree or disagree with her policies, she was a political genius) who realized that successful modern political revolutions attack the status quo from the right, not the left.
That is the secret sauce: to combine in the same voice the steady confidence of ancient tradition with the risky passion of radical iconoclasm. Indeed, its judicial counterpart, the doctrine of originalism, contains both these elements — and, when taken to extremes, mirrors the liberal juridical activism it despises.
But to do it right you need to be a true believer and actually be prepared to break things in order to rebuild them.
You need to have political conviction that extends further than your own ego.
You need to go against those advisors of yours who are straightforward conservatives, who don’t buy into the whole radical passion thing, and would prefer that career professionals run the country in the way they know how to.
Because permanent revolution is exhausting, and requires permanent conflict against the internal enemy of a bitter sort that is not for mere showmen.
Thatcher could handle it. Henry VIII could not.
Trump’s power has depended on his control over his Make America Great Again movement. And that’s why he needs the Bannons of this world to keep pumping the zeal, in permanent campaign mode. But how long is it before the overthrow-the-world stuff that propelled a political insurgency starts to sound like tired regime propaganda uttered by tedious apparatchiks?
In Trump’s case, not long. We’re already seeing him dial down the ideological nonsense on most fronts — torture; Taiwan; the Mexico wall; trade wars; NATO; taking Iraqi oil; Russian sanctions relief in return for, wait for it, nothing — a trajectory indicated by the replacement of ideologue National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn with no-nonsense and widely respected heavyweight Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
No doubt there will be power struggles on the way, as there are in any court, and the ideological stuff will surface from time to time. Indeed, protracted fights over Muslim bans are exactly what Bannon wants, to keep the flame alive.
But is Trump a true believer? No, for that by necessity requires something to believe in beyond oneself.
He is Henry VIII. And Bannon is indeed his Cromwell.
Photo credit: Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration