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Donald Trump’s Ancien Régime

PRINCETON – Something like Donald Trump’s America has appeared before in history. Just think about it: Trump spends his time either in the Oval Office, which is now decorated with gold drapes; or at his Mar-a-Lago resort, which has a turret, guarded gates, and a princely, canopied bed. He is a modern-day Louis XIV, living in his own version of Versailles.

Like his historical analogue, the 45th president of the United States is obsessed with truths and lies, authenticity and fakeness. He has demanded to be carried down the Mall in a carriage procession when he makes his first official visit to the United Kingdom. And, not even 100 days into his presidency, he had issued an order for people to be killed in Syria while gushing about “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.”

History doesn’t repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain allegedly said, “it does rhyme.” Trump, too, rhymes with the past. But his presidency is not a replay of twentieth-century fascism, as Yale historian Timothy Snyder and others have argued. Rather, the TV-obsessed US president is recreating something much older, and more in keeping with a Disney fantasy: his own princely court.

This explains why Trump is preoccupied with appearances and regal roleplaying, and why his administration has reprised classic courtly archetypes, down to the court fool. He has a beautiful princess daughter who can do no wrong, and emasculated grown sons who linger in their father’s shadow. His foreign-born wife has a thick accent, and lives in a separate residence. Like a modern-day Marie Antoinette, she is often accused of profligacy and frivolity.

Beyond the family, Trump has a courtly entourage, complete with the evil adviser, Steve Bannon; the favored duke, Jared Kushner; a host of bankers; and, lest we forget, Sean Spicer, the jester. The only figure still missing from this cast of characters is the Rasputin-like mystic, whispering arcane advice in the king’s ear. America should be on the lookout for his or her arrival.

The fact that Trump’s presidency seems to have escaped from the set of a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century period drama is no accident. Europe’s Baroque court culture was built around immensely entitled men who knew very little about the workings of government.

This generated considerably insecurity, which manifested in striking ways. Their palaces were not just magnificent architectural structures, but also venues for maintaining social control. According to a contemporary description of Louis XIV, which could easily be applied to Trump, “[t]here was nothing he liked so much as flattery or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it.”

Leaders such as Louis XIV and the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa relied on close advisers to do the work they couldn’t possibly do themselves. At the same time, they played their advisers against one another, so that none would accumulate too much power. One contemporary observer’s description of Baroque court culture could be applied to the Kushner-Bannon relationship today: “The court is a place where no friend is ever close enough not to become an enemy later.”

Over centuries of practice, European courtiers learned much about what does and does not work in court life. Individual courtiers might come and go – whether fired, like Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, or beheaded, like two of Henry VIII’s six wives – but it wouldn’t change the dynamics of that world. Each character or action in such a world is a symptom, not a cause.

Courtiers also learned to avoid showing arrogance toward their opponents – this might alienate potential allies – and they thought little of using logical reasoning with their prince. And, given monarchs’s typical lack of any substantial governmental expertise, attempting to reason with them would only expose their ignorance, aggravate their insecurity, and often lead to a courtier’s fall.

Viewing Trump’s presidency as a new iteration of princely culture, doing for Washington, DC, what Disney did for the French chateau, is not only entertaining; it offers critical insight into how Trump’s power works. As such, it helps to prescribe a course of action that so far has escaped public attention.

In other words, while Trump’s princely court poses a problem for America, as a metaphor, it could also provide a solution, by stoking Americans’ natural suspicion of monarchy. Rather than describing Trump as the next Hitler, we should view him as an ersatz Bourbon, presiding over Mar-a-Lago as his exemplars presided over that much-hated French court.