Die Revolution ist wie Saturn, sie frißt ihre eignen Kinder. (Revolution is like Saturn, it devours its own children.)
– Georg Büchner (1813–1837), German dramatist, revolutionary
This well known pronouncement occurs in the German dramatist’s play Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death), and refers to the rapid destruction of a succession of leaders of the French Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat, assassinated in his bathtub in 1793; Georges Danton, guillotined in April 1794; Maximilien Robespierre, executed in July 1794. It is sometimes applied to the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and the destruction of Grigory Zinoviev (executed 1936), Lev Kamenev (executed 1936), Nikolai Bukharin (executed 1938), Leon Trotsky (assassinated in exile, 1940), etc. Or it’s applied to the Chinese Revolution, and the political fates of Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Deng Xiaoping, etc. (These were not executed but merely purged; Lin was shot down over Mongolia in 1971 as he tried to flee to the Soviet Union.)
It’s too big and dramatic a concept to apply to the electoral triumph of Donald Trump (surely not a “revolution” in a world-historical sense but nevertheless a shock to the world) and its pathetic aftermath. Still, the passage keeps occurring to me as I observe the new president’s already conspicuous penchant for humiliating, insulting and dismissing his subordinates. Having no party apparatus firmly behind him, he sees himself as the leader of a mass movement whose dreams are embodied in his person, empowering him to act recklessly. One example: the sudden announcement via tweet that the U.S. military would no longer allow transgender people to serve, throwing the Pentagon which has unproblematically implemented the new rules has thousands of transgender people in uniform, into consternation.
(Surely there are generals who agree with Trump, and they love the free license he gives them to bomb Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria using their own discretion—because they are “wonderful”—but they way find it disturbing that the man makes these announcements without real consultation.)
(Breaking news: Joint Chief of Staff chair Gen. Joe Dunford just announced that JCS had not been informed in advance about the surprise announcement, and would in fact make no changes as a result of the tweet, until further instructions.)
Louis XIV is alleged to have declared, L’état, c’est moi. (I am the state.) Trump has said more outrageous things, like (in Jan. 2016): “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Just his strange sense of humor, you say?
The president is in any case ignorant of the bounds between his mind (due to those good genes he boasts of, and his awesome education) and the state. He seems confused about the division of powers established by the Constitution. His tweets support the thesis one psychiatrist has publicly asserted: he is not merely a narcissist, which is quite obvious to all, but a malignant one.
Trump’s attacks via tweets on Jeff Sessions, his own choice for Attorney General leave the latter’s survival in his post in serious doubt. He may well be replaced by someone who’s pledged personal loyalty to the president and agrees in advance to fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who’s investigating the “Russian election hacking.” Tim Wiener says this would produce a “Saturday Night Massacre” à la Nixon’s firing of Archibald Cox in October 1973.
Now, having brought in Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director, an appointment opposed by his press secretary, that tragicomical Sean Spicer, now driven out, replaced by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who cannot stay long at the job. SNL will savagely satirize her for taking up press conference time to read letters from 9-year-old boys to Trump, praising him. Scaramucci—not to be confused with the figure Scaramuccia (“little skirmisher”) in early modern Italian theater—is now openly revealing that the West Wing is divided, and that some people are leaking to the press. He even suggests Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, might be leaking.
Think of the prospect of the White House Communications Director driving out the White House Chief-of-Staff. What does this tell you about Trump the executive’s personnel choices? Does he hire people to fire them because it gives him pleasure? (Arguably that’s what his Apprentice reality show was all about. Him firing people, receiving mass adoration for his tough decision-making. A businessman, role model and hero for the humble! I liken the appeal of that show to the appeal of register counter tabloids which induce normal Americans to concern themselves with details of British royals’ lives. A fascination with power by the powerless, seeking some sort of mental escape.)
Meanwhile inter-familial conflicts are perhaps emerging. Both son Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared—vital props to Trump practically and psychologically, and with Ivanka the main mediators between him and the world outside the Tower—are being questioned about that June 6 meeting last year. Jared states he never read the email from his brother-in-law with so routine a subject line as: “Re: Russia – Clinton – private and confidential” but just attended the meeting at Junior’s invitation. What if their testimonies conflict? What if Kushner, unlike Don a White House official, comes under renewed scrutiny, forcing his father-in-law to fire him? How would his inseparable Ivanka respond to that?
What will Trump’s supporters think if the shriveling Trump Revolution devours his own children?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be happy if the Trump regime implodes due to its internal contradictions. I suppose it would be followed by an extremely unpopular Pence administration that will have even less support, at least from youth. In the meantime, a combination of factors have weakened the U.S. ability or inclination to wage war on North Korea, provoke confrontation in the South China Sea, ratchet up tensions with Russia in Ukraine and Syria, provoke Iran, or determine the futures of Afghanistan and Iraq (which have diversified their partnerships). The world would be a more dangerous place had Hillary won.
For the moment, let Trump be Trump. And let him devour his movement’s children in full public view. Two, three, many Spicers!
Some will love him all the more for this. (They will reason: it shows strength to fire people, even to drive out serving military because of their sexual identity.) Caligula and Nero were, after all, both popular among the Roman masses; they gave them games in the Colosseum, with lots of bloody spectacles, and infrastructure projects like public baths. You can be cruel and mentally ill and still maintain your political base.
But maybe more people will see his hiring and firing decisions, the bedrock of his media personality, as alarming and strange, indicating an unhinged, dangerous personality. 42% of those polled by Politico last week are already supporting impeachment, matched by 42% who oppose it. Most people respond instinctively against the abuse of power to sadistically intimidate subordinates. As the house of cards falls apart, more people will (perhaps) realize how delusional it was from the beginning.
The worst thing would be the ascent of a Napoleon in the wake of regime collapse, and righteous war on the world to “defend our freedoms” or something.