The rise of Donald Trump has been described as “unprecedented, illogical, and incredible.” The latter two adjectives can be argued for and against, but unprecedented does not describe this ascendance. If anything, a political outsider like Trump dominating headlines and winning primaries is exactly what ought to have been expected. The Republican Party, a party that has defined and unified itself for the last eight years with an intense and vitriolic opposition to Obama and his policies, is facing an identity crisis now that their prime target is leaving office. The cracks in intra-party ideologies are beginning to surface, and the whole façade of an on-message party is fading. Amongst the wreckage has risen, phoenix-like and squawking louder than anyone else, Trump, using this disintegration to his advantage. Though many pundits have described this as unforeseen, history is rife with examples: perhaps most potently, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte after the chaos of the French Revolution. Donald Trump’s seizure of the perfect moment may seem like a case of bandwagon politics gone extremely haywire, but the popularity he’s garnering is illustrating a tectonic shift within the party. That is, Republican voters are tired of the political establishment, a sentiment felt on both sides of the aisle, and they’re willing to put their faith in a rancorous, divisive candidate.
On the night of Obama’s inauguration in 2012, as the President celebrated his win over Romney, Republican lawmakers met, in an almost clandestine manner, to strategize ways to once again challenge his presidency. The final plan, in simplest terms possible, was to “fight Obama on everything”; no compromising in the goal of obstructing every goal of his second term. This ideology, one of complete and unwavering opposition, has united GOP politics for the last four years and merged the Republican base into a block—a singular unit amalgamated under the motto of “NObama.” This plan worked well until the president became a true lame duck, and no longer had any elections to compete in, not even midterms. Without a generalized receiver of the party’s antagonism, a rift began as each candidate tried to pry a niche from the debris of the once-unified coalition. In turn, the party’s candidates for president in 2016 are “the most fractured in recent memory,” each catering to their specific base and hoping to generalize after primaries. The election began with 13 candidates on the Republican side, and has only recently whittled down to four contenders: a testament to the heightened sense of splintering in the Republican Party.
Emerging triumphantly from this cacophony of opinions is Donald Trump, the distinguished demagogue on an acrimonious crusade against establishment politics, political correctness, and progress. He’s rallied voters against Muslims, Mexicans, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and dozens of other identity groups. Many people claim that he came out of nowhere, running into the game from left field. But saying this ignores the reality that the Republican base is crumbling under the weight of itself and its lack of a single unifying theme. This crumbling has created a perfect niche for an unknown candidate, one not expected but not altogether unprecedented, to swoop in. The disintegration of the Republican party’s common goal, fueled partly by Obama’s impending absence and by a rise in hyperconservative factions like the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus, left an open wound in the GOP, and Trump’s otherness—the fact that he isn’t catering to the establishment or the fringes—makes him a tempting remedy to the party’s voter basis.
Besides, history is on his side. After the French Revolution, which liberated the French people from who they considered to be a despotic monarch, Napoleon Bonaparte, a popular military strategist, rose swiftly to power by calming the chaos that penetrated the entire country. Following the peak of the revolution, known as the “Reign of Terror,” the radical left continued to push itself further leftward. Former revolutionaries suddenly were seen as too centrist and were excommunicated as enemies of the revolution. Scrutiny and public paranoia became the rule rather than the exception.
In the midst of this chaos, Napoleon rose up the ranks through militaristic dominance. His command saw major wins, most notably during the Italian campaign. The Directory, which acted as the top tier of the post-Revolution government, rewarded his actions with more power. In 1799, however, Napoleon’s army suffered a devastating defeat in Egypt; they headed back to France, where Napoleon turned his sights towards a political career, determined to overthrow the Directory. In November of that year, he and two others performed a coup d’état against the government and established a new Consulate, of which Napoleon was the “First Consul,” with power consolidated in him. He, like Trump is doing now, capitalized on the people’s need for calm instead of calamity and relied on a flair for the dramatic and his own charisma to gain ultimate power. Unlike Napoleon, however, Trump has no military success on his resume, no public or elected service to speak to his prowess. Trump has a booming voice and a penchant for sensationalism; his fear-invoking and pathos-laden speeches can only go so far, though. His parallels to Napoleon are only one example, and not to be taken too literally. Trump’s rise is also frequently compared Hitler’s or McCarthy’s—two people history has not been kind to in remembrance, and for more than good reason.
While part of the discourse around Trump revolves around the complete incomprehensibility—which in the evidence of history seems less incomprehensible—of his campaign, the other part seems to focus on the fact that he is too divisive, too alienating, too extreme to actually be taken seriously. But polls tell a different story. Though he did not win the Iowa caucus, he came in second by 4 percentage points and then went on to win the New Hampshire primary with 35.3 percent of the vote, much higher than Katich’s 15.8 percent, and he came in second. It seems that no matter how extreme he seems to those outside his party (and even within it), Trump still is rallying support from voters who believe in the message he’s sending, as his further primary successes this month demonstrate.
His charisma and flair, his vilifying outcries and filter-free speeches—these are the qualities that make Trump a true individual within a political system dominated by repetition. He goes where no candidate has gone, and then the others follow, with tails between legs, once polls show that the people support Trump’s trek into the once unfathomable. His otherness, a marked separation from the GOP’s incessant internal squabbling, has left him unscathed from the toppling of the party, an implosion triggered by the forthcoming absence of the Republican antithesis, Barack Obama. As the “warring factions” of the GOP bicker between themselves in Congress, Trump stands tall and apart, offering decisive and simplistic—nonpolitical—answers that resonate with voters across the nation. Like so many before him, Trump has honed in on a characteristic shared by many and created a coalition based on a promise of escape from political tumult. A party divided has been utterly unable to send forth a candidate strong enough to coalesce enough of the vote to bring down the inevitable outsider, and his growing support signifies illuminates a major demographic shift, from following the establishment to readiness for near total political upheaval.