Tolstoy Welcomes the 45th President of the United States, Napoleon Bonaparte

By Robert E. Tanner

“It was evident that he had long been convinced that it was impossible for him to make a mistake.”

Leo Tolstoy did not write this about Donald Trump. But if the statement feels like a rhetorical introduction to our 2016 news cycle, perhaps this is because there is no literary character more similar to the President-elect than Napoleon Bonaparte as depicted by Tolstoy in War and Peace.

Each man is known by a single name (although not even the emperor of France’s brand is so crystallized as to demand the definite article), and Napoleon has such “childish audacity and self-confidence” that, even during the catastrophic 1812 French invasion of Russia, “…in his perception whatever he did was right, not because it harmonized with any idea of right and wrong, but because he did it.”

And, naturally, the parallel between emperor and future president would not be complete without the leitmotif that accompanies all of Napoleon’s gestures: his small white hands.

But there is more to gain from reading Tolstoy’s portrayal of Bonaparte alongside our experience of Trump than just the pique of analogous absurdities. The way Tolstoy juxtaposes these idiosyncrasies with the unlikely trajectory and dangerous impact of Napoleon’s megalomania offers uncanny echoes of our current conversations, and invites us to consider how Tolstoy’s tremendous insight can inform our understanding of our own would-be Napoleon.

Much as The Donald’s political inexperience aided him in the primaries and, later, the presidential election, Tolstoy credits Napoleon’s outsider status for his political rise, stating that “his presence there [in the seat of government] now, as a newcomer free from party entanglements, can only serve to exalt him — and though he himself has no plan, he is quite ready for his new role.” Bonaparte’s military progress also feels much like Trump’s unpredictable political campaign. Napoleon’s being “several times on the verge of destruction and each time…saved in an unexpected manner” brings to mind The Donald’s myriad escapes, which culminated (for the moment) in his wriggling away from his “locker room talk” of assaulting women when FBI Director James Comey announced Anthony Weiner’s involvement in Hillary Clinton’s email imbroglio. Of course, this was followed directly by Trump’s winning the presidential election.

Additionally, as if Napoleon were ensconced in a world of political flacks, ready to excuse his gaffes on the morning talk shows, “there is no step, no crime or petty fraud he commits, which in the mouths of those around him is not at once represented as a great deed.”

Tolstoy grants insight into what gives Napoleon the incredible ability to occasion this sort of reversal. He suggests that Napoleon is able not only to conjure and believe in his own alternative reality, but also to indoctrinate others in this reality, much as The Donald did when he conjectured that Hillary Clinton’s email server was hacked by “her financial backers in Communist China” and later, under questioning, clarified, “I heard that.”

In one of War and Peace‘s humorous scenes, the emissary de Beausset arrives at the French encampment and Napoleon tells him, “You are fond of travel, and in three days you will see Moscow.” De Beausset responds by bowing, “gratefully at this regard for his taste for travel (of which he had not till then been aware).” Throughout de Beausset’s stay with the emperor, Tolstoy illustrates the growing influence of Napoleon’s contorted reality. The emissary is next described as “de Beausset, who was so fond of travel” and then, simply and finally, as “the traveller.” This incident may be delivered with subtlety and humor, but Tolstoy is careful to show that Napoleon’s infectious delusions, scaled to the level of his ambitions, have dire ramifications. Our social media landscape has similarly scaled Trump’s delusions, and his election day victory illustrates his power over the millions he has invited to “travel” at his side.

Tolstoy has little sympathy for the emperor, as, we may imagine, he would have little sympathy for any strongman. Napoleon “alone — with his ideal of glory and grandeur … his insane self-adulation, his boldness in crime and frankness in lying — he alone could justify what had to be done,” Tolstoy writes, and we are reminded of The Donald’s assertions that only he can fix the country’s problems. Tolstoy believes none of this, however, and drives home the dangers of Napoleon’s stance with descriptions of the hardships — the frostbite, starvation, abandonment, and death — that afflicted the French soldiers on their campaign to conquer Moscow. But just as The Donald never apologizes, Napoleon, having watched his army succumb and witnessed the deaths of many of his men, is never shown to feel remorse. This leaves readers — whether in Tolstoy’s time or our own — with a truly chilling impression of the implications of following a leader who never once feels called upon to apologize.

Ultimately, Napoleon would die in exile on the island of Saint Helena, far from the country he once ruled. Tolstoy paints a rather bleak final portrait of the man, which perhaps suggests that, despite the horror we may now feel at the prospect of our next president, we should not be devoid of pity for Donald Trump. “Never to the end of his life could he understand goodness, beauty, or truth, or the significance of his actions, which were too contrary to goodness and truth, too remote from everything human, for him ever to be able to grasp their meaning. He could not disavow his actions, belauded as they were by half the world, and so he had to repudiate truth, goodness, and all humanity.”

Headshot of Robert Tanner

Robert E. Tanner is a novelist no longer living in Brooklyn. He started learning Russian nearly ten years ago in order to read Anna Karenina in the original, which he has yet to do.

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