Given that Donald Trump has been routinely compared to Hitler and Mussolini, contrasting him to Napoleon might seem a compliment.
Unfortunately for The Donald, he tends to match up with Bonaparte in all the wrong ways while falling short in the right ones.
Accordingly, while the superficial similarities between the French dictator and the American developer might encourage Trump’s followers to believe he’s the strongman they’re looking for, they likely will wind up frustrated.
Having studied Napoleon in some depth for my Ethan Gage adventure novels and my collection of his aphorisms, “Napoleon’s Rules,” I think it’s instructive to look at ways the two men are alike and – more importantly – how they differ.
Bonaparte did “make France great again” – for a while. He ruled for roughly fifteen years and was extraordinarily successful the first half of his reign. But then came disastrous embroilment in Spain and Russia. By the time Napoleon was finally exiled in 1815, millions were dead and French boundaries were back to their 1791 pre-revolutionary origins. Europe was so exhausted that it didn’t quarrel as catastrophically again for 99 years, until World War I broke out.
Now Trump wants to “make America great again” without any detailed policy prescriptions of exactly how. French politicians backed Napoleon in a coup d’état because they thought they could control him, while Americans have glued any qualities they wish into the vague and blustering businessman in hopes he can work a reactionary miracle.
But how much does the New Yorker truly match up to the Corsican conqueror?
Well, both were pugnacious as children and combative as adults.
Both went to military school, Trump as a teenage disciplinary problem and Bonaparte as a Corsican immigrant who graduated as a French second lieutenant.
Napoleon fought about sixty major battles, winning most of them and suffering wounds. Trump got an educational deferment and then a medical one during the Vietnam-era draft, his “bone spurs” magically disappearing once he had secured a high draft lottery number exempting him from military service.
Trump does mimic Napoleon’s ornate Empire style. His gilded Manhattan penthouse is very much as over-the-top as were some of Bonaparte’s palaces. But the general spent a lot of time on an iron campaign bed, dressed modestly, and led armies from horseback in bad weather. He shared his soldiers’ hardships.
It’s difficult to picture The Donald (or most modern leaders) camping.
Both expressed, or express, boundless self-confidence. Trump’s convention speech assertion that “I alone can fix it,” not only echoes Napoleon’s own certainty and vanity but also that of almost every strongman in history, from Julius Caesar to Vladimir Putin, and on down to the tin-pot dictators of banana republics.
But Napoleon came to power after two extraordinary military campaigns in Italy and Egypt that gave him not just military but administrative experience ruling conquered territories. Trump has never served in government at any level.
Both were outsiders pledging to reform a political system they perceived as broken. Napoleon was the general who would restore order to a France in chaos after the French Revolution, and Trump is the businessman promising to bring entrepreneur acumen to the federal bureaucracy.
Napoleon militarized France. Will Trump business-fy America, and if so what would that mean for employees, unions, public servants, and investors?
Both were opportunists, Napoleon seizing chance in the military realm and Trump in the business world. By the same token, their strategic planning was fluid, seeking power and success more than any philosophic plan. Neither has claimed much of a moral compass.
Both were or are vague about religion and morality while not hesitating to appear before religious audiences in hopes of using faith to their advantage. Napoleon was a deist who could act ruthlessly without concern for the afterlife, and Trump does not seem affiliated with any particular denomination or creed.
Both enthusiastically pursued women romantically and sexually but had a clumsy tendency to insult. Both expressed misogynistic disdain for female ability or achievement.
Both have boasted of their womanizing. Both have divorced.
Both were, or are, narcissistic, obsessed about themselves to the point of limited empathy for other people – be they battlefield dead on Napoleon’s part or immigrants and refugees on Trump’s part.
Both were obsessed with “building their brand.” In Trump’s case the use of his name has been a lifelong business strategy. Napoleon stamped his initial ‘N’ and his symbol the industrious bee across his empire, because he was acutely aware he was not of royal blood and needed acceptance of his family as a new dynasty.
Both had a curious combination of charisma and blunt offence. Reactions to Napoleon’s personality were as divided as opinions on Trump.
Both were masters of media attention. Napoleon wrote bulletins giving a positive spin to his actions, censored newspapers and plays, and relied on elaborate pageantry to excite the French about military culture and imperial rule. He invented modern propaganda, and renamed the Louvre the Museé Napoleon.
Both had or have a dizzying number of enemies. Napoleon dodged assassination and murder attempts. Trump is embroiled is 3,500 state and federal lawsuits and court cases, by the count of USA Today, many from unpaid contractors or employees. Napoleon admitted to few if any friends, and Trump appears to have no close friends either, outside his family.
Both could not resist a fight. Napoleon’s fatal flaw was his obsession with endless foreign enemies and his inability to know when to quit.
Trump doesn’t know when to stop tweeting.
For all their similarities, their differences are even more striking.
Napoleon was a voracious reader and persuasive writer, while Trump admits he’s not. Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of “The Art of the Deal,” told The New Yorker that the businessman contributed almost nothing to the book, while Bonaparte wrote a great deal (including his memoirs) and scrutinized any writing he commissioned.
The Frenchman was enthralled by science and got himself elected to the French National Institute of Sciences (the Academy) at a time of revolutionary discoveries. Trump dismisses science that he finds inconvenient.
While Trump embraces conspiracy theories, Napoleon wrote, “We must take things as we find them, not as we wish them to be.”
Bonaparte excelled at math, and had a chess-like mind that was brilliant at anticipating opponents and calculating likely outcomes, particularly on the battlefield. His ability to mass the most troops at the critical moment was the result of months of prodigious preparatory work, calculation, logistics, and self-discipline. He wanted ministers who could count.
He wouldn’t have tolerated Trump’s vagueness because he despised wishful or magical thinking by his officers. He would have demanded, “What kind of wall, at what length, height, and width, of which materials, at what cost, built by whom, maintained at what expense, manned by how many troops, for how long, to what measurable goal?”
Trump has a celebrity’s instincts, Napoleon those of the artilleryman. Trump knows how to dominate a news cycle; Napoleon dominated Europe.
Trump certainly has energy, but many colleagues have questioned his ability to concentrate long on complex subjects. Napoleon was the opposite, prying into every corner of his empire’s affairs and working closely on complex legal documents such as the Napoleonic Code. Like Hillary Clinton he was a wonk for detail: and like Clinton, sometimes too much so.
While Bonaparte was a curious mishmash of progressive and reactionary, he did claim he was exporting French revolutionary ideals with the bayonet, replacing heredity with merit. He envisioned a unified Europe under his command. He opened Jewish ghettos. He brought printing presses to Egypt to print the Koran. He courted intellectuals. He brought back the Catholic Church to France after the Revolution, while trimming its powers.
He was a builder of public works and a fiscal reformer.
Trump is a developer with large buildings to his credit. But so far, he has been more defined by the anger of his followers than a clear vision of an alternate America.
Of the two, Napoleon had by far the more extraordinary rise. Bonaparte’s father died when he fourteen, and his only help to his son was securing him a place in French boarding schools. Napoleon was a truly self-made man, a Corsican rustic who was a second lieutenant at sixteen, a brigadier general at twenty-four, dictator of France at thirty and self-crowned emperor at thirty-five.
Trump, 70, reportedly got a million dollars from his developer father to start his business and ultimately inherited another $40 million. Not only has his indebtedness led to repeated bankruptcies in his web of holdings, but the National Journal has calculated that Trump would have earned more by investing his inheritances in a simple stock index fund than he has as a real estate developer.
Superficially, Trump takes on some of the trappings of Napoleon. Substantially, his achievements and victories do not remotely approach Bonaparte’s.
Yes, the same could be said of Hillary Clinton. But she doesn’t make the strongman promise of being a sole savior, emphasizing instead the strength of unity. Dogged, earnest, and less charismatic than either man, she is deliberately and consciously the opposite of a Napoleon – except that, like Bonaparte, she perseveres.
What Trump would really do as president remains a mystery, given the impracticality and vagueness of his glib promises. But in terms of genius, work ethic, tenacity, experience, or achievement, he’s no Napoleon either.
He plays the role of the strongman, but with none of the credentials.