February 17, 2019

Macron, France's Bonapartiste du Jour

“I have long been convinced that most people who reject liberalism do so not because they think it is false or immoral, but because it is boring. One reason for this is that American liberals have by and large abandoned what I have come to think of as the “imperial style” in politics.

Like the elephant, the imperial style is somewhat difficult to describe but utterly unmistakable in appearance. The gold-flecked parody of luxury exemplified by Trump Tower, the harem-like succession of the president’s wives and concubines, the restless White House alive with the whispers of sinister viziers and the gossip of palace eunuchs — all of it probably as close as many of us can come to imagining the life of an Oriental despot — this is the imperial style. So too is the rather pleasant image of Emmanuel Macron dining at Versailles with the CEOs of Microsoft, Snapchat, and JPMorgan Chase. In fact, for reasons that I shall explain, the French president seems to me the imperial style’s greatest living exemplar.

Probably the most important element of modern imperial politics is the self-identification of the politician with the nation and its people. This is a fantasy in which his or her supporters must half-knowingly collude. Then there is the totalizing rhetoric about one’s opponents. To the imperial politician, the opposition, whether it is a formal party or some vaguely defined cabal, is not a group with whom one has reasonable disagreements about prudential issues but an existential threat to the body-politic itself. There is also the romantic fiction of the hero-politician called to purge a threat to the nation on behalf of its people. In some cases this is presented as a simple matter of balancing the budget or freezing out so-called “special interests”; more often, however, it involves an attack on the existing machinery of the state — “draining the swamp” — or something even loftier. Finally, there are the obvious hallmarks — an emphasis on ceremony, a great deal of fuss about security and transportation, and, sometimes, a certain lurid suggestiveness about the private life of the imperial personality.”

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