“A ruler sows destruction. He is brought down and punished according to the law and logic of his era. But then something terrifying happens. The disgraced ruler becomes even more powerful—precisely by trading on his disgrace,” a scholar wrote in the buildup to Trump’s first impeachment. “People of any era must be prepared for the terrifying possibility that even their clearest logic and their harshest legal punishments can’t always put an end to a good story,” he continued. “They might even amplify the story’s appeal for certain audiences. History shows, again and again, that once someone becomes the object of popular fascination they can mostly do what they like …”
There are, needless to say, nearly limitless differences between Trump and Napoleon—the latter, just for starters, ran a tight ship as a leader, even on the island of Elba after he was ousted as continent-conquering French emperor—but one overarching similarity is a certain audacity, the practically alchemic capacity to do what shouldn’t be able to be done, and to get away with it. In Braude’s 2018 book, The Invisible Emperor: Napoleon on Elba from Exile to Escape, Braude sketches the remarkable scene in 1815 in Napoleon’s almost daredevil march back toward Paris when he first encountered soldiers who had taken oaths to protect this territory from enemies—now including him. Napoleon walked unarmed to within 20 feet of the row of musket-clutching infantrymen.
“Soldiers!” Napoleon proclaimed. “Do you not recognize me?”
The response was silence. Ultimately, of course, Napoleon would be beaten again, at Waterloo, and subsequently sent to the far more distant island of Saint Helena, off the western coast of Africa. Here, though, a couple hundred miles inland from the Mediterranean, he walked closer. Closer. To within 12 feet.
He opened his coat.
His torso was a target.
“Do some of you,” he said, according to Andrew Roberts’ biography “want to kill me?”
A cold wind blew.
Nobody fired a shot.
Regardless of whether one interprets that spectacle as one of bravery, lunacy, bald grandiosity, a staggering sense of untouchability, or all of the above, Trump has been opening his coat for years.
Even so, since the election he lost, he’s done little but ratchet up his culpability and legal liability—refusing for weeks to concede, refusing to speak the name of his successor, refusing to facilitate the transition in any traditional fashion or so much as meet with Joe Biden, fomenting calamitous unrest with the prospect for more with his ceaseless, baseless talk of fraud, making mob-talk phone calls to election officials in decisive states to try unsuccessfully to alter the outcome of the results. He’s characteristically doubled, tripled and quadrupled down. On Tuesday, he called his speech before his supporters stormed the Capitol “totally appropriate,” the protests around the country for racial justice from last summer the “real problem,” and his re-impeachment a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”
“Unless you’re fully on the Trump train, you probably believe he helped incite insurrection. Which means you believe there should be some form of punishment,” Republican consultant Doug Heye told me. “He’s cratering with everyone that isn’t his most loyal MAGA base,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and a former adviser to Eric Cantor when he was the House majority leader.
“Up until now I had not thought that we could count him out. I’ve always thought it was possible that he’d make a comeback. But he crossed the Rubicon and suffered the Ides of March on the same day,” Jen Mercieca, a rhetoric professor at Texas A&M and the author of Demagogue for President. “I think the hammer is coming down on the guy for a lifetime of cons and bullying and he won’t be able to stop it. Even though he’s always stopped it before. His defiance was his fatal flaw. It helped him to get out of trouble a million times, but it smited him in the end.”
Not so fast, others told me.
“I think Trump’s influence in the party and the Trumpism of the party’s not going to change at all,” said Stuart Stevens, the top strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who wrote the book It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.
“I think with the majority of Americans it will be seen as a permanent disqualifier,” said Rick Wilson, the Florida-based Republican consultant and a key member of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. And yet: “I think trying to overthrow the legal government of the United States will be seen by his base as a badge of honor.”
Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Republican speakers of the House John Boehner and Paul Ryan who’s been straightforward with his criticism of Trump, said he thinks he’s “still far and away the most likely GOP nominee” in 2024.
Even if he’s not, though, that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t continue to hold significant sway within Republican politics and American life in general. “The lie outlasts the liar,” as Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian and the author of On Tyranny, recently put it. I heard versions of this again and again in the last few days in my conversations with longtime Trump watchers and political professionals and experts. History—Trump’s history, history period—suggests as much.
“The story can keep going without Trump,” said Braude, drawing on his Napoleon expertise. “The beast is going to keep going without him.” After we talked the other night, he sent me an email: “Napoleon’s unique skill was to take any event (or even non-event) in any way remotely connected to him and then make himself the central protagonist of said event, now presented as a gripping story. By protagonist I don’t exclusively mean hero. He could play the victim as well.”
Trump, judging from his whole life, not only could play the victim but has and does and will.
“He’s a grievance machine,” said Pete Ditto, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Victimization seems like a form of weakness, but it can also be a source of power.”
“What he represents to those who follow him,” said Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist, who’s known Trump for decades, “is a very simple phrase, which is: ‘Look what they did to us again.’ And Trump is the guy that says, ‘Look what they did to me—now help me finish them off.’”
This will be true, Sheinkopf said, regardless of whether or not Trump is still the president, regardless of whether he was impeached twice, and perhaps in some twisted way because he’s no longer the president and because he was impeached twice.
“He will continue to have this power,” he said. “Because to his followers, he will be a victim of the powerful, who are now turning this into a racially diverse, non-white-male-dominant, non-blue-collar environment. He will be the hero of the put-upon who have been stabbed in the back…by those who run government. Which is how shame and disgrace become honor and a battle cry.”
Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, speaking in defense of the president during Wednesday’s debate, made a version of this very point. He warned the Democrats, “even if you are successful today, and were the Senate to convict President Trump, yours will be a pyrrhic victory. For instead of stopping the Trump train, his movement will grow stronger, for you will have made him a martyr.”