By any measure, Donald Trump was trumped by Emperor Napoleon. Admittedly, the US President has a rather remarkable record for lies, distortions and paranoid visions; let us call it an imaginative nether view of the universe. On the other hand, there is a reason why Emperor Napoleon is remembered in the “colossal” category, as just about everything he did qualifies therein. A prime example is to be found in his celebrated Army Bulletins, issued before and after each major campaign. While Trump was exaggerating the size of his 2016 inaugural crowds in Washington, D. C., Napoleon had also boasted of his achievements during his Egyptian Campaign in 1799 and his failed siege of the Turkish-held fortress of Acre when he addressed his troops. “Having razed to the ground the fortifications of Gaza, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre—leaving not a stone standing, we will now return victorious to Egypt,” he said. But these soldiers who had been there knew they had done no such thing—not only was the great crusader fortress at Acre still standing, but it remains a major tourist site to this day. When Bonaparte’s secretary and companion pointed out the absurdity of his claims, stating that in fact he had been defeated there and that every stone of this landmark was still in place, the general just laughed and called him “a simpleton!”
On another occasion, on July 20, 1804, the newly acclaimed Emperor Napoleon arrived at Boulogne to review the powerful naval armada he was preparing for the invasion of England. Napoleon ordered Admiral Bruix to launch several hundred gunboats and transport vessels carrying thousands of men to demonstrate their abilities. Unfortunately, a terrible gale was churning up the Channel, making it impossible to do so. Admiral Bruix pointed out the obvious, adding that it would be foolish to risk lives. But Napoleon, who had come from Paris expressly to see his new naval force in action, insisted. Bruix refused, and a furious Bonaparte replaced him with Rear Admiral Magon, who immediately gave the order to proceed, despite inclement weather. Leaving the shelter of Boulogne’s newly constructed harbor, the vessels attempted to enter the Channel in the face of a howling southwester. Ships of the Royal Navy observing this catastrophe reported seeing dozens of boats smashed against the rocks and against one another, and counted over 400 corpses in the sea and on the shore.
The next morning, Napoleon related the event to Josephine. “The wind freshened during the night, and one of our gunsboats dragged its anchor, but we managed to save everything. The spectacle was grand. . . and the sea tossed with fury. At 5 A.M. it cleared up. Everyone was saved, and I went to bed with all the sensations inspired by a romantic, epic dream.”
Further, Napoleon announced that his mighty armada would “cross the Channel in six hours” and soon be in London! As it happened, he never crossed the Channel and never reached London. In 1812, at the battle for the Russian city of Smolensk, Napoleon assured Caulaincourt that Russia was defeated and that “in six weeks a peace treaty will be signed!” But Tsar Alexander II signed no peace treaty. Of the 600,000-man army Emperor Napoleon had set out with, he returned to France with only 8,000.
On another occasion, when he was accused by diplomats of deliberately launching another unnecessary war, Napoleon snapped: “I do not wage war as a profession; no one in fact is more peaceful than I.” Quite! (By the time of his defeat in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte’s wars had killed over one million French soldiers.)
Trade wars? Napoleon I invented them. His objective was to destroy England by destroying English commerce. After the annihilation of the French Navy at Trafalgar in October 1805, Napoleon was in no position to prevent annual British merchant fleets from bringing the riches and products of Índia and the West Indies to England. He, therefore, decided to close all European ports to English products. Issuing the Berlin Decrees in 1806, Napoleon followed this with the creation of The Continental System, ordering every European country to close their ports to all British ships and products. England retaliated in 1807 with the Orders in Council, placing the French Empire in a state of international blockade. If it deeply hurt British commerce, it literally destroyed commerce in France and throughout Napoleon’s continental empire. It utterly devastated the economies of Spain and Portugal. When Tsar Alexander II refused to close his Baltic ports to English goods in 1812, a vengeful Napoleon invaded Russia, losing first his Grand Army, and then France and his empire. No one wins trade wars, my friend, no one.
Poor judgement, or the “leap before you look or think mentality,” combined with egotism and overconfidence in one’s position and abilities, can bring even the most powerful ruler to fall flat on his face. Napoleon Bonaparte, reputedly Europe’s greatest soldier, lost his Egyptian campaign, his attempt to invade England, his Spanish-Portuguese campaign, and his Russian campaign, not to mention a few disastrous battles including Trafalgar, Leipzig, and Waterloo. As if that were not bad enough, he knowingly committed France to two simultaneous wars in Spain and Russia in 1812, even though he was already greatly in debt, lacked the finances, manpower (he was conscripting 16 and 15-year olds), and military equipment for even one of these campaigns. The result: he lost both of them. Having failed to study the consequences of such a war before he committed himself, Bonaparte foredoomed himself and France to disaster.
Wishing to emulate Bonaparte, his great hero, Donald Trump, it seems, is having a try at something similar for the USA. Leap before you look. The U.S. President pulled US troops out of Syria (without consulting anyone), undermines NATO, alienates all our traditional allies, such as Great Britain, France and Germany, withdraws unilaterally from a variety of international treaties and commitments, from trade to environmental issues, deregulates pollution restrictions, attacks the FBI, the CIA, the US judicial system—even sitting judges, insults distinguished military officers, and denigrates the office of the presidency and the good name of the United States! If the Kremlin had placed its own man in the White House, he could not have done a better job of weakening, dividing, undermining, and gravely harming our country! Relations between the White House and Russia have never been more congenial and satisfactory. Your copain Vladimir is giving you rave reviews, well done!
On Loyalty: Marshal Jean Lannes, one of Napoleon’s oldest friends and colleagues, remarked just before his death: “He [Bonaparte] only loves you by fits and starts, that is only when he needs to use you.” Et tu, Brutus?
Napoleon Le Grand did not take to public criticism, especially from the press, and in France he had all critical newspapers suppressed, with some publishers even imprisoned for challenging his actions. Trump would also ban all meddlesome media if he could, and of course, began expelling a CNN journalist expelled from the White House press conferences. Bravo, mon ami, Napoleon, would have given you his blessings. Fortunately, the President has not gone as far as Bonaparte did when he ordered the kidnapping and murder of a German publisher named Palm, who was selling pamphlets critical of the Emperor.
Trump believes in racial barriers, and has even closed down the entire government of the United States of America to achieve that, depriving 800,00 families of federal workers of their paychecks, until funding for a wall between US and Mexico is provided (as of this writing, the government is back at work, pending the outcome of Trump’s discussion with the Democrats). Thinking along the same lines long before the President was ever born, Napoleon reintroduced and legalized slavery in May 1802. My dear fellow, why go to all the expense of building a wall, and closing down an entire government in the process, when all you have to do is to enslave the Mexicans migrants?
Have a political opponent you want to silence, DT? Napoleon found the solution: murder them. That is what he did to the defiant German publisher, Palm, as already noted. He also had the Duc d’Enghien kidnapped in Germany and murdered at Vincennes. He ordered Admiral Villeneuve killed, after his defeat at Trafalgar. And he had the English diplomat, Sir George Rumbold kidnapped in Hamburg and assassinated in France, and the list is a very long one. Death, after all, ensures silence. On the other hand, kidnapping CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and executing him in the Trump Tower might attract some attention!
There were instances when even Napoleon Bonaparte could not execute all his opponents; in those cases, he limited himself to incarceration. For instance, in 1808, he wanted to add Spain to his growing empire and place brother Joseph on the throne. Enticing the Spanish royal family over the frontier to Bayonne, the Napoleon kidnapped King Carlos IV, his wife, Queen Maria Luisa, their son, Fernando and their henchman, Manuel Godoy. He then emprisoned them; Carlos, the queen, and Godoy in the château of Compiègne, and Fernando at Talleyrand’s estate of Valençay. And when Pope Pius VII had the effrontery to excommunicate him, an angry Napoleon kidnapped him in Rome and locked him up at Fontainebleau. (Trump might consider putting his opponents on a commercial plane for Afghanistan! Out of sight, out of mind.)
Threats. Traditionally, the Secretary of State, usually in conjunction with the White House, is responsible for articulating U.S foreign policy. But Trump has not only failed to fill the many dozens of empty ambassadorial posts across the world, but he has also bypassed the Department of State altogether. Instead of negotiating thorny, sometimes very sensitive international problems, our man in the WH, consulting no one, threatens military action. If the Turks harm our former Kurdish friends in Syria, POTUS vowed to take “destructive” measures against Ankara. If Kim of North Korea does not cooperate and disarm his nuclear arsenal, good old Donald would blast that country off the map. Most of his senior advisors having resigned, an isolated and paranoid Trump shoots from the hip, no questions asked. We must get out of NATO, we must abandon our international obligations regarding global changes in the environment, we must break our trade treaties with Asia, Mexico, Canada, and Europe. Don’t think, don’t study a situation and all of its ramifications before you make a decision, just pull out that trusty six-shooter and blast away. Don’t think, just let them have what for! Napoleon, on the other hand, had a brilliant, mature, and highly respected foreign minister in the person of Charles-Maurice Prince de Talleyrand, who did his best to guide the Emperor away from some of his more extravagent gestures and warlike tendencies. But Talleyrand had been unable to discourage Napoleon from his fabled attempt to invade England in 1805, and from declaring war on Prussia and Russia in 1806 and 1807, respectively. In 1808, Napoleon ordered Portugal, the House of Braganza, to close their ports to the British commerce and diplomats, which the brave Portuguese refused to do. “The House of Braganza will not be reigning in Europe two months hence!” Napoleon threatened, a man after Trumps’s heart. “I will no longer tolerate a single English envoy in Europe. I will declare war on any power that has one! … In ten years I will have crushed England!” Bravissimo! Diplomacy by threats! Brilliant. That is using the old family noggin. And when it came to preparing the peace treaties with Russia and Prussia at Tilsit in 1807, after French armies had overrun Prussia and Poland, Talleyrand was excluded by Boney. The result was a series of fatal errors by Napoleon. Tsar Alexander II of Russia was forced to give up Moldavia and Wallachia (today’s Romania). Still smarting half a century later, Russia invaded and reoccupied those very provinces setting off the Crimean War, resulting in the deaths of 95,000 Frenchmen.
Moreover, Napoleon also seized the Duchy of Warsaw for himself, outraging the Russians who considered Poland their special preserve, while implicating France in all the endless problems of this region for decades to come. Napoleon’s greed got the better of him. In addition, at Tilsit Napoleon seized one-third of Prussia and over four million Prussian citizens. In 1870, Bismarck finally avenged that act, invading France and seizing Alsace and Lorraine. Napoleon, a poor chess player, just did not think out the consequences of his acts, any more than Donald Trump does today. He lacked judgment once again and had refused even to listen to Talleyrand. When later in 1812 Bonaparte ordered Alexander II to close his Baltic ports to English commerce and shipping, and the Tsar refused, Napoleon—without Talleyrand at his side to advise him—launched a 600,000-man army into the Russian Empire to teach the monarch a lesson. The result: Napoleon lost his entire Grand Army—including 400,000 dead, hastening the way for his downfall at Waterloo two and a half years later. If only he had listened to Talleyrand. If only Trump would listen to seasoned diplomats at the State Department and think things through before he acts.
Every time a ruler or head of state governs by threatening other countries, it inevitably leads to tragedy. Someone must later collect the pieces and pay the consequences. If you had only studied history, it would have saved a lot of grief.
There it is, Trump’s full armory of mistakes and tragedies—directing the United States of America with lies and distortions, lamentable trade wars, general ignorance in every sphere, poor judgment on the international plane, immature manner of dealing with criticism, racial prejudice, attempts to silence, insult and crush any and all forms of political opposition, and of course, his distinctive trademark (borrowed from the mafia), threats: do this, buster, or suffer the consequences! When during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 the Tsar refused to surrender, Napoleon’s reply was: “He will regret it!”, just as he had earlier threatened the prime minister of England, the king of Prussia and the Austrian Emperor.
My dear fellow, do stop your abuse of opponents, employing the language and mentality of an illiterate gangland thug! Come now, don’t you think the USA is worthy of something better? Demonstrate your real love of our country. Make America great again, and vacate the house on Pennsylvania Avenue!
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian, Strauss-Schom is the author of 11 historical books, including several about Napoleon Bonaparte. His latest book, “The Shadow Emperor: A Biography on Napoleon III,” turns the lens on Napoleon Bonaparte’s overshadowed forbear, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte.