The 18th Brumaire of Donald J. Trump?

December 5, 2016

Sam Miller and Harrison Fluss make the case that Marxists can look back to a classic work by Karl Marx to understand Donald Trump's victory.

IT IS not enough to say that America was taken by surprise the morning of November 9, 2016. The puzzle of how Donald Trump became president is not resolved, and one has to explain how so many could be swindled and held captive by the reactionary billionaire.

The task of explaining Trump's rise is not an easy one. It mirrors the political phenomenon of Bonapartism that Karl Marx analyzed in his political masterpiece The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Marx defined his task as showing how class struggle itself "created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero's part." In other words, how could the political circumstances of American society produce the monstrous prospect of a Trump administration?

The political parallels of 19th century France and 21st century America are striking and telling. Even the date November 9 corresponds to the 18th of Brumaire in the French Revolutionary Calendar. Both countries prepared the groundwork for the rise of authoritarian politics through the increasing desperation of poor and working people and a decimated left that subordinated itself to capitalist parties. In these outbreaks of common discontent, members of vulnerable groups found themselves lured in by the siren song of right-wing strongmen.

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Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was the great nephew of Napoleon who, through a modern advertising campaign, pretended to be the savior of a country bathed in blood from workers' struggles. He became not only president of France under the Republic, but within a short amount of time, overthrew the Republic to declare himself emperor.

LIKE TRUMP, Bonaparte found his base of support in the middle class, some sections of the working class, the rural poor and conservative elite elements. They exploited people's economic distress by planting seeds of nationalistic and racial anxieties in those who would listen to their messages of restoring political honor and making their countries great again.

Marx's descriptions of Bonaparte sound like echoes of Donald Trump's clownish media persona. Bonaparte is said to be "clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized--this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization."

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Even Bonaparte's speeches anticipate Trump's rally rants: "I am justified in repeating how great the French republic would be, were it allowed to pursue its true interests, to reform its institutions, instead of being constantly disturbed, on the one by the {socialist} demagogues and on the other by monarchist delusions...I promise you peace for the future." While in London in 1848, Bonaparte joined a special constabulary to combat Chartism and other socialist tendencies.

Similarly, Trump's line is very clear in singling out scapegoats instead of capitalism: "Mexicans are taking our jobs. They're taking our money. They're killing us." Trump has had a long history of racial scapegoating, even referring to his Black workers as "lazy." These points send a very clear message to struggling white Americans: the problem is "the Mexicans"; the problem is "the Blacks"--in the same way that Bonaparte's message rang clear to the peasantry: The problem is the urban proletariat and its socialist leaders.

As Marx's liberal counterpart, Alexis de Tocqueville argued, Bonaparte's rise was in direct proportion to the fear of socialism. Trump's rise, in comparison, is linked to white conservative fears of emerging social movements such as Black Lives Matter. In order to quell such fear, Bonaparte and Trump promised to restore law and order.

What this scapegoating does, quite simply, is turn people against each other instead of people turning against class society. Of course, nobody benefits from this except the authoritarian leader gaining support and praise through hate-speech and false promises. Like Trump, Bonaparte saw himself as the defender of petty bourgeois and rural elements against those who were hurting the French nation.

For Trump, it is shadowy global elites and international finance that fleeces America of its wealth and prosperity. This conspiratorial ideology was made clear in one of his final election speeches, loaded with anti-Semitic overtones.

How can it be that Trump is able to attack poor immigrants and rich bankers at the same time? Aren't they completely different groups? But for a fascistic political logic, these groups are identical, insofar as they represent foreign others that impose themselves on "ordinary folks." A phantasmagoria of racist imagery is used to displace class conflict in favor of a racial conflict.

BUT CLASS struggle isn't only suppressed by the right. Indeed, Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire is much more a self-criticism of the left's retreat from class struggle than a straightforward exposé of reaction. Before Bonaparte became Napoleon III of the Second Empire, French liberals and middle class forces suppressed workers' struggles in the bloody months leading up to the end of the Second Republic.

For Marx, "the proletarian party" was not independent, but "appeared as the appendage of petty-bourgeois democracy." While socialist ministries were created, French liberal forces gutted them of any power or funding, and when workers went to the streets to demand their rights, they were gunned down and slaughtered.

With the French liberal tragedy comes the American liberal farce. If the party of order represented the interests of French capital at the expense of French workers, then the Democratic Party did everything it could to absorb and neutralize any expression of left militancy. After the DNC crushed the Bernie Sanders' campaign and the corporatist war hawk Hillary Clinton won the nomination, the Democratic voter was stuck with Wall Street's favorite ruling class candidate.

Trump's victory in the Electoral College signified the reaction of white middle America against the urban centers. As with Trump, the sociological spine of Bonapartism was rooted in the country as opposed to Paris. For Marx, "suffice it to say that it [Bonaparte's election] was a reaction of the peasants, who had had to pay the costs of the February revolution, against the other classes of the nation, a reaction of the country against the town."

Thus, Bonaparte's base was the French peasant. Marx explained that peasants technically did not constitute a real class, since they were "incapable of asserting their class interests in their own name, whether in Parliament or in a convention." The members of this "class" had a purely local connection to each other, but no national association or political organization.

The French peasantry had to look for political representation beyond itself, and found it in an authoritarian leader who "must appear to them both as lord and master and as a ruling being of unlimited power who protects them from the other classes and sends down rain and sunshine from above." Their political existence was thus subordinated to the grace of an executive authority.

Of course, the interests of the peasants did not lie in the blind following of a strongman. The best course of action for them would have been to align themselves with the proletariat, had the proletariat not been broken and crushed by middle class parties and the French liberal bourgeoisie.

TRUMP'S ELECTION followed a parallel course. Before the Democratic Primary race intensified between Clinton and Sanders, Trump denounced the latter as a socialist and a "maniac communist." But Trump quickly changed his tune when he noticed Sanders' status as a sympathetic underdog, and proceeded to exploit Sanders' message for his own purposes. Trump unleashed his own Bernie strategy, citing the same statistics from Sanders' speeches to audiences that would have possibly voted for the Democratic candidate if he won the nomination.

Trump admitted that he had differences with Sanders, but the one thing they agreed on was "trade," protecting American workers from competition overseas, and discontent for the status quo. Trump mimicked Bernie's economic protectionism and message to working class Americans in the Rust Belt.

Moreover, he explicitly attacked the DNC machine as corrupt and rigged against Sanders from the start, and identified with Sanders as an anti-establishment candidate. When it came to Sanders' own criticisms of Clinton in the primaries, Trump repeated them for the general election.

Bonaparte had sympathy from proletarians and the petty bourgeoisie, who hailed him as the "scourge of Cavaignac"--the general that violently suppressed working class revolts and was a candidate of the Party of Order. Likewise, the disaffected white elements of the rural poor, workers, and middle class voters saw in Trump the scourge of Clinton's neoliberal agenda.

Trump has not established a military dictatorship in America--at least not yet. Though he has fascistic potential, he can't be considered a full-fledged fascist either, even if his hardcore supporters come from the political gutter. However, Trump's campaign exhibited Bonapartist features, or the desire for a Bonapartist state.

According to George Novack's definition:

Bonapartism carries to an extreme the concentration of power in the head of the state already discernible in the contemporary imperialist democracies. All important policy decisions are centralized in a single individual equipped with extraordinary emergency powers. He speaks and acts not as the servant of parliament, like the premier, but in his own right as "the man of destiny" who has been called upon to rescue the nation in its hour of mortal peril.

It took Louis Bonaparte a couple of years before he could overcome the French Republic to establish the empire. His presidency did not fully reveal itself as completely authoritarian until he crowned himself Emperor.

Only class struggle and time will tell if Trump is able to succeed in establishing American Bonapartism.

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