Last summer, when a friend gave me a baseball cap bearing the slogan “Make America Great Britain again”, I didn’t really get the joke. Was it, I wondered, some oblique allusion to the resemblance between the Brexit referendum and the coming US election? I smiled, but didn’t laugh out loud.
Now I get it. For months I have been irritated by commentators on Donald Trump’s presidency drawing misleading historical analogies. On one side there are the hysterical academics who insist that Trump is Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini and we are on the brink of American tyranny. On the other are the feverish journalists convinced that Trump is Richard Nixon and this is their Watergate.
Clearly both analogies cannot be right: you’re not much of a tyrant if they’re planning your impeachment just six months after your election. In my view, however, both analogies are wrong.
Drawing the right analogy sometimes means leaving the overfamiliar 20th century behind. For Trump, despite his crass 1980s personal style, is not really a very modern figure. To understand his predicament — and ours — you need to appreciate that he really is intent on making America Great Britain again, though perhaps unwittingly.
It hit me last week: Trump, whose Scottish mother was a devout monarchist until her dying day, is a latter-day George III. Americans have believed for nearly 2½ centuries that they got rid of monarchy when they declared independence from Britain in 1776 and set about devising a republican constitution for themselves. They were wrong.
As the 18th-century US statesman Alexander Hamilton always understood, the presidency as an institution is in effect an elective monarchy. However, not until now did Americans elect an instinctively monarchical figure to hold the office of president.
Unaccustomed to studying monarchy, professional commentators on US politics have overlooked this strikingly obvious feature of Trump’s personality. They insist — tediously — that he should behave more “presidentially”, which in practice means subjecting himself to the forms and procedures of a White House that over the past half century has become almost comically bureaucratic.
They insist on judging him by the standards of previous holders of the presidency, shaking their heads and tutting at his gaffes. This is not to dismiss these gaffes as unimportant, of course. In the space of barely a week, we learnt that the president:
● Tried to persuade the then director of the FBI James Comey to drop the bureau’s investigation of the former national security adviser Michael Flynn
● Fired Comey against the advice of at least some of his advisers, who foresaw the ensuing media blowback
● Revealed to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador top secret intelligence relating to Isis, compromising the (probably Israeli) source of the information
● Objected vigorously to the appointment of the former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate connections between Trump’s election campaign and Russia.
Trump, who knows no history, is convinced that the media’s hounding of him is unprecedented. He is wrong. He is behaving — and the press is also behaving — exactly as if we were back in the late 18th century.
There are four characteristics of monarchy with which Americans urgently need to reacquaint themselves. The first is that the monarch’s personality and mood matter a great deal. In the case of George III the king’s personality had much to commend it — he was a conscientious ruler and a model husband (unlike his louche brothers) — but in later life he suffered from an increasingly debilitating mental illness.
Some historians believe he had porphyria, while others think the culprit was arsenic poisoning, possibly associated with the wigs of the period. In any event, in the final phase of his 59-year reign the “madness of King George” was a significant factor in British politics. In 1811 his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, took over from him as prince regent, though it was not until 1820 that George III died.
This is not to suggest that Trump is mad, though the claim has been made more than once. (The most ingenious theory is that the hair-loss treatment he uses to maintain his elaborate yellow coiffure has had deleterious effects on his cognitive abilities.) The real problem is that his sane personality is flawed. Friends of the president concede that, while they find him entertaining and even charming, “he doesn’t mean 70% of the things he says” and “lacks impulse control”. A great deal of the damage he has done to himself since his inauguration stems from these character defects.
The second distinctive feature of monarchy is that politics is not ideological but a matter of court faction and intrigue. Though they had acquired party labels by the 1760s, “Whigs” and “Tories” were still closer in their roles to the courtiers of the 16th and 17th centuries than to the ministers of the 20th century.
In his classic account of the Hanoverian House of Commons, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, Lewis Namier showed how ties of royal and aristocratic patronage mattered much more than ideology or political principle at that time. At court, what mattered was who was in favour and who was out.
George III’s prime ministers were not like their modern-day counterparts, devising manifestos and campaigning for election. The likes of Lord Bute and Lord North depended more on royal approval than on majorities in the Commons. The Whigs were just as much a faction of aristocrats as the Tories. Finding themselves excluded from power, they denounced the king, accusing his government of bribery.
The press, which had at its disposal some of the most talented and cruel cartoonists of all time, lampooned Bute, accusing him of having an affair with the king’s mother. The maverick MP John Wilkes published the savagely critical newspaper The North Briton.
Does this not sound familiar? The court of King Donald is, if anything, more Tudor than Hanoverian. (It is no accident that his chief strategist Steve Bannon has likened himself to Thomas Cromwell.) In the White House today we see all the pathologies of court politics. Courtiers fight for access to the royal presence, crowding into presidential meetings for no reason other than to avoid being stabbed in the back.
Factions — the Bannonites and the globalists — vie with one another in the corridors of power, maliciously briefing journalists against one another. The royal family is mixed up in everything, above all the king’s favourite daughter, Princess Ivanka, and her ubiquitously scheming yet mysteriously silent consort, Jared of Kushner.
The American media indignantly complain that the president holds important meetings at private establishments such as Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, or at his New Jersey golf club. What do they expect? That’s what kings do — constantly blurring the line between the public and private because, as Louis XIV famously put it: “L’état c’est moi.”
The third feature of royal politics is that the most dangerous opposition to the court comes not from the press but from the country. The gutter press of London never tired of mocking the ministries of George III, but the stability of his rule depended much more on the provincial gentry. “Country gentlemen” do not sound a very threatening group and yet they had played a decisive role in the revolutions of the 17th century that twice overthrew the Stuart dynasty.
In the same way, Trump’s political future today depends much more on the small-town Republican voters in the “flyover” states that delivered the electoral college to him on November 8 last year: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Right now, according to Gallup, Trump’s nationwide approval rating has sunk back below 40%, close to the nadir of late March.
However, in a poll conducted a week ago (after Comey’s firing, but before the latest revelations) 79% of Republican voters said they approved of the job Trump was doing while only 16% disapproved. Only if those “country” voters turn against King Donald will there be a serious prospect of an early end to his reign.
The fourth and final point is that monarchs are remembered less for their domestic policies — who now remembers where George III left the British income tax? — than for their foreign policies. By that yardstick, most Americans would dismiss George III as bad as well as mad — after all, he presided over the loss of the 13 US colonies.
Yet this is to forget the much more significant achievement of the king’s reign, which was the defeat of revolutionary and then Napoleonic France in a protracted struggle that raged intermittently between 1793 and 1815.
Trump’s foreign policy has thus far gone much better than his domestic one. As I write, the president is embarking on his first foreign trip, beginning in the Middle East. There he will receive warm welcomes from all the members of the anti-Iranian coalition that his predecessor unwittingly brought into being, from Israel to Saudi Arabia.
If Trump can use his now so controversial relationship to the Russian government to isolate Iran completely and end the Syrian civil war he will do much to dispel the suspicions he is Moscow’s stooge.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Trump’s China gamble will work. At Mar-a-Lago in early April he essentially told his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping: “If you want a trade deal with us, as opposed to a trade war, you’d better do something about North Korea’s nuclear arms programme.”
The alternative, he clearly implied, would be unilateral military action against Pyongyang. One way or the other, a reckoning with Kim Jong-un is on the cards. If Trump pulls off success where the last three administrations failed, he may move from zero to hero faster than anybody today imagines.
Is Trump doomed to impeachment — or deposition, if you prefer a more monarchical term? I think not. True, his bitter foe Senator John McCain has mused that the Russia investigation is “reaching Watergate size and scale”; and prediction markets last week gave the president only a 71% chance of holding office until the end of this year. But this overlooks the profound differences between then and now.
It was no accident that both the Nixon and Bill Clinton impeachment attempts took place when the opposing party controlled Congress. In the case of Trump today impeachment would need to be initiated by the president’s own party — to be precise, by the chairman of either the House judiciary committee or rules committee.
If it got through committee, an impeachment resolution would then proceed to the full House where it would require a simple majority to pass (all 193 Democrats plus just 23 Republicans).
However, since the mid-1990s House Republicans have operated under the “Hastert rule”, which dictates that a Republican Speaker can call a vote on a measure only if it has the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. As 120 votes are needed for a caucus majority, it seems unlikely that Speaker Paul Ryan would reach that threshold.
Finally, the Senate would then have the sole power to try the impeachment and could remove the president, but only with a two-thirds vote to convict.
The second procedural path for removing a sitting president from office is section 4 of the 25th amendment, adopted in 1967, which allows the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet to remove the president if they deem him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. This is even less likely to happen than impeachment.
The amendment was passed in the wake of John F Kennedy’s assassination. As the debate at the time made clear, the original intent was to handle cases of medical incapacitation, not questionable presidential judgment. (Desultory talk of using it against an apparently senescent President Ronald Reagan went nowhere.)
In any case, Trump could pre-emptively fire any cabinet members whose loyalty seemed to him to be shaky. And, even if Vice-President Mike Pence and a cabinet majority took this step, removing Trump would also require two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress.
There is one simple reason why neither of these things will happen. If the Republicans go down either route, they will be dead men walking by the time they get to the mid-term elections in 18 months’ time. Voters loyal to Trump would conclude that the swamp had drained their man, rather than vice versa, and would boycott Republican candidates. It would be like 1974, when the Republicans lost 3m votes because of Watergate, only worse.
So Trump has time to improve his kingship — and Americans have got time to get used to monarchical government. All this was foreseen. In the musical Hamilton, the show-stopping number is You’ll Be Back, sung by a rather camp George III. (Incidentally, it is a cheap shot to play the king that way; the father of 15 children was anything but camp.)
You say the price of my love’s not a price that you’re willing to pay.
You cry in your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by.
Why so sad? Remember, we made an arrangement when you went away.
Now you’re making me mad. Remember, despite our estrangement, I’m your man.
You’ll be back. Soon you’ll see. You’ll remember you belong to me.
You’ll be back.
Who knew that Trump would make America Great Britain again? The answer is whichever genius came up with that baseball cap last year.