I’ve looked for parallels in US History, in particular US Presidents, to find a comparison to DJT. I couldn’t find any, nor could my historian colleagues. So, I had to go elsewhere, and behold, I found a parallel in … Russia.
Of Romanov dynastic roots (think Peter the Great, and Catherine [also] the Great), Nicholas I was the Emperor of Russia from 1825 until 1855. Along with his efforts to expand Russia with his peasant armies and micromanaged generals, he is known as a political autocrat. Repression of dissent, economic stagnation, poor administrative policies, and a corrupt bureaucracy were his hallmarks. While there were successes in warfare, he’s the one that handed Russia the horrific defeat in the Crimean War of 1853–56.
Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality
In 1833, Nicholas I controlling norm became "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality." This slogan grew from his reactionary policies based on orthodoxy in religion and autocracy in government. Under Nicholas I, if you were Russian, free or slave (serf), you were to prove your loyalty to the unhampered rights of the tsar. Compare such events to the then current, opposing cries heard in Western Europe of “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” as citizens tackled social reforms underway since the earlier French Revolution. Post-Napoleonic France’s outlook led to more freedoms while and Tsarist Russia’s led to greater repression, especially its intellectuals.
Furthermore, the arrangement of the words, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” made it clear to any Russian, peasant or aristocrat, the Russian Orthodox church (on the left) was unquestionable, and Russian culture (on the right) was the only worthy culture. Meanwhile, Tsar Nicholas I would rest in the middle -- God, Tsar, Country, the middle being the one holding it all together.
Nicholas I's Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality was wrapped in a blanket ideology called "Official Nationality" that was proclaimed in 1833. It was a concept that was rather new then, and remains largely undefined. Official Nationality is a mixture of self-interests in which one's own nation is seen as separate from other nation’s interests (“We’ve nothing in common”). However, it includes a focus on folk idioms, local history, and art of a nation. Sounds good? Not really. It is the view that the absolutist government demands. Under the mandate of the autocrat, Official Nationality tries to convince its denizens that they are a chosen people, will save humanity and prevent social decay. Call it forced romanticism of a despot’s idealized people and veneration of their ruler. What stirs the pot is not so much the inward-facing nostalgia of one’s own culture via nationhood, but the outward anger at other nationalities, cultures, ethnic groups and beliefs. It is a form of extremism: whatever is inside is good; whatever is outside is bad by definition.
Official Nationality = MAGA
Likewise, Trump’s “MAGA,” his own brand of nationalism, is full of anger at the world and fears that foreign interests and trade will overshadow local interests. MAGA represents Trump’s “call” for America to stand up to various social decline by looking inward and “backwards” for ideals. Yet herein MAGA, also like Official Nationalism, lacks real meaning. No Trump follower can define MAGA. What again? When was it great? How so? It is a meaningless slogan rooted in Nationalism and fear of global social and economic tides.
Without clearly defining their motto, Trump’s followers manifest their own understanding of MAGA in their unique and extreme patriotism. Regrettably, Trump and Trump’s follower’s use of “patriotism” in the current polarized US politics automatically places the speaker on the defensive, as if to maintain some uncertain sense of status quo. By design, Trump muddies the meaning of MAGA further to include pledges of loyalty which he presses onto his followers, equating national interests with Trump personally (accent on allegiance).
As Tsar Nicholas I started his reign, he immediately began protecting the “status quo” by ridiculing anything non-Russian. He maligned it as "pseudo-knowledge." (Trump’s favorite term is “fake news”). Fearing more revolts and upheavals from the intelligentsia and promotion of Western freedoms, Nicholas I censored universities, academies of fine art, and the like as he monitored them. If he did not like the works of the artist, he bullied and humiliated the person. As Nicolas I lacked a spiritual and intellectual deepness, Trump’s blockhead intellect also lacks anything transcendent. Nicholas I defined himself as a paternal autocrat ruling his people by whatever means necessary. He set up a network of spies to squash any dissent and potential rebellion. Already, Trump has a cove of PAC’s that pay for attacks against even his own party members (RNC) who do not “tow” the Trump line. Nicholas I censored books, authors (e.g. Turgenev) and basically any intellectual and/or reformers. Trump, too, through social media, berates any expression of free speech that does not align with his own views and he threatens to sue if otherwise. Furthermore, Trump has lobbied to change libel laws to permit him to sue more speakers. Tsar Nicholas I created an official view on government, “Official Nationality,” to hound those opposed to his conformist methods. Likewise, Trump uses his MAGA slogan to deride those who do not support him, as he alone is making America “great.” (If you’re against Trump, you’re not making America great).
Nicholas I had a penchant for glitter, gold braid, and lavish dress, all the way down to his horses. He aspired to create an obedient people who did not ask questions. He promoted his friends, mostly soldiers, who were more loyal than talented, more devoted than intelligent. In his inner circle, he opted for fidelity. He liked to say he needed loyal advisors, not smart ones. They pranced in their showy cavalcades, but were hopeless in battle. Nicholas I’s reign wore thin and finally it was seen through as an ineffective, corrupt administration. Historians frequently conclude that Nicholas I’s reign was an utter failure, at home and abroad. Do we see the parallels in Trump’s life even before the Whitehouse?
What Have We to Learn?
Almost two centuries have passed since Nicolas I’s Official Nationalism, and we’ve learned great lessons post WWII, that as nations bind together and trade with each other, so they would compete commercially and not resort to war. International trade stabilizes a shaky world. Yet, under Trump’s brand of MAGA, as he pushes for more centralized power, Trump’s nationalism (nee Bannon’s ideology) will destabilize and bring his own form of repression of dissent, economic stagnation, poor administrative policies, and a corrupt bureaucracy.
Again, I observe twins - Trump and the noted Russian tsar, Nicholas I, their chief equivalent being how each, Nicholas I in his Romanov dynasty, and Trump, in his narcissistic prison, sees himself standing squarely in the middle: between God and Country. Trump, like Nicholas I, idealizes ultimate power, authority and unquestioning loyalty, traits which are far more dangerous in a democratic Republic, than a two hundred year old dynasty.
However, as Trump continues in the Whitehouse, our fate (just as Russia’s was) is straightforward: Trump’s own brand of nationalism will fail, at home and abroad. He will seek more adulation, “apologies” from his critics, and greater limits on free speech (more attacks on academics). He will spread his form of Official Nationalism, that is, MAGA, and further divide the American voters in extremist ideologies.
In the end, after Trumpism is dead, as it cannot subsist, and to speed civilization’s recovery, Trump’s followers should understand that human cooperation and cooperative societies (as they compete peacefully) will survive and characterize positive change and adaption, not this old brand of nationalism draped in a “Trump wrapper” of MAGA.