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The Emperor Trump

They were both brave men. I never saw this D’Hubert – a sort of intriguing dandy, I am told. But I can well believe what I’ve heard Feraud say of him that he never loved the Emperor. – From The Duel by Joseph Conrad

The Duel, even after reading it several times over the years, remains my favorite Conrad story placing it ahead of his better-known Heart of Darkness. Before we go further, a short summary of the plot leading up to the above quotation is in order. 

The Emperor referenced in the above quotation was Napoleon Bonaparte. The two fictional characters mentioned are officers in the French cavalry who fought a series of duels from 1799 to 1815 during Bonaparte’s rise and fall. The cause of the initial duel was so insignificant that their fellow officers would not have believed it had it been revealed. The actual cause involved a lady, as it so often does when men duel. D’Hubert was ordered to fetch Feraud from the salon of a French lady known for her elegance and discretion; Feraud claimed that D’Hubert humiliated him by doing so in public.

When questioned, the two duelists would only say that the cause was “a point of personal honor.” As each duel increased in violent intensity, the duelists became legendary throughout the French Army. Feraud, feeling that his honor needed bolstering, connected it to that of Bonaparte. At opportune times, he would state emphatically that D’Hubert did not love the Emperor. 

The antagonism between Feraud and D’Hubert strikes me as much Southern as French. Southerners have been known to raise a totem to family honor in the place where a minor slight once occurred and feud about it for years. Through Feraud and D’Hubert, Conrad created the perfect foils to study the conflict between an honor-obsessed hero worshipper bent on vengeance against a pragmatist who defends himself with reason at first but soon discovers that some people are, by their very nature, unreasonable. Perhaps Conrad’s story suggests a lesson for the Grand Old Party.

Being more policy oriented than personality driven, I have always avoided hero worship, especially in politics. I remember my mother’s admonition against putting my faith in seemingly powerful men. I think that she took that from the Psalms which she read daily. Along with targeting politicians, she took aim at the various and sundry television evangelists that were popular in the 1980’s. The populist tendency to idolize men far beyond their capabilities often spills over into politics with a religious furor.

Even when Ronald Reagan was still the name to invoke within conservative circles (as in Vote For Me, I Am A Reagan Republican) I avoided idolizing him. My avoidance was nothing personal against Reagan. I believe that he remains the best Republican president of my lifetime if only for two reasons: ending the Cold War and extending his legacy of conservatism well into the 2000’s, but that doesn’t make him immune from criticism. The Iran-Contra affair revealed a serious lapse of his judgment.  

Reagan understood the power of celebrity. Yet he resisted the destructive allure of fomenting a populist fanbase with the rhetorical power that he held to motivate them. He once said, “Yes, our country has its shortcomings, but there’s no moral equivalency between democracy and totalitarianism . . . There’s no moral equivalency between propaganda and the truth.” The fact that he and his followers understood the difference between propaganda – especially their own propaganda – and the truth makes me nostalgic for the days of the Great Communicator. 

Those days are gone replaced with the legacy of the Great Ex-Communicator. A legacy of rhetorical subterfuge. A legacy of exclusion, not just of young independent voters whose support Republicans need in the coming mid-term elections, but of fellow conservative Republicans who happen to not “love the emperor” as much as their more populist fellow party members. 

We need only look at last year’s “wedding hall” putsch against the duly elected officers of the Greenville County Republican Party to see the results of rabid exclusion. The officers who were forced to resign were perhaps the most conservative to have ever held leadership positions in the most conservative county party in the state, yet they were out-Trumped by those who claim to be conservative but who act like anarchists. Conservatives respect the rule-of-law whether it be at a county political party election or a presidential inauguration. 

Reagan won his second term over Walter Mondale after capturing 525 electoral college votes and 60% of the popular vote. Mondale carried one state. The similarities between Mondale and Biden are striking. Both were former Vice Presidents. Both were former Senators. Both were as tepid as watered-down sweet tea that has set out all afternoon. Biden was no stronger than Mondale. Yet Trump lost to Biden and not because the election was stolen. Trump lost because he never gained the confidence of young and middle-aged independent voters.

Now before you pick up a sword to run me through, compare the election numbers between the Reagan’s 1984 and Trump’s 2020 second-term elections (data from Cornell’s Roper Center): 

Male Vote –                 Reagan received 62%; Trump received 53%

Female Vote –             Reagan received 58%; Trump received 42%

White Vote –               Reagan received 66%; Trump received 58%

Black Vote –                Reagan received 9%; Trump received 12%

Hispanic Vote –           Reagan received 34%; Trump received 32%

Age 18 to 29 –             Reagan received 59%; Trump received 36%

Age 30 to 49 –             Reagan received 58%; Trump received 46%

Age 50 to 64 –             Reagan received 61%; Trump received 50%

Age 65 and older –      Reagan received 64%; Trump received 52%

Not only did Trump lose the confidence of age 18 to 29 voters as compared to Reagan by a margin of 23%. He lost confidence in every age bracket and on a cross-generational basis. When I voted for Reagan in 1984, I was in the age 18 to 29 category. When I voted for Trump in 2020, I was in the age 50 to 64 category. Trump had a 9% drop in support among my generation who had supported Reagan 36 years earlier.

If we compare Trump to George W. Bush’ s 2nd term election victory in 2004 over John Kerry, Trump lost the confidence of age 18 to 29 voters as compared to Bush by a margin of 16%. On the cross generational basis, Trump had a 7% drop in support among my generation who had supported Bush 16 years earlier.

Considering that the Republican Party’s core platform has not changed since 1984 and that we still hold the majority of state governorships and legislatures, we cannot blame the message. Nor can we blame the Democrats or some great conspiracy about massive election fraud. Biden was so weak that those things should not have mattered.

We have to blame the messenger, the Emperor, the Great Ex-Communicator. We have to blame Trump. A conclusion that Republicans hopefully will reach before the Emperor attempts his return from Mar-a-Lago in 2024.