By Louis Conde
With the end of the Trump Era, many are wondering what the future will hold for the movement that had seemingly upended the Washington Establishment. With the inauguration of the Biden Administration, many are eager to conduct an autopsy of where Trumpism had gone wrong, and what could have been done to prevent such a failure. Indeed, many have claimed that it was not necessarily Trumpism had failed, but rather Trump himself had done so at an individual level. Many have long lamented the fact that having been swept into power in a historic set of circumstances, the man himself seemed paralyzed and incapable of acting out his agenda once in power. With the aftermath of the highly erratic and dubious 2020 presidential election, the final hope of millions of Americans was that Trump would finally, “Cross the Rubicon” and resort to open force against the machinery of the Deep State which had spent the past five years sabotaging him. With his failure to do so, many are left with the question of what is next.
One point of comparison to the failure of Trumpism is a neglected 19th Century figure by the name of Georges Boulanger. All but forgotten outside of France, and being a relative footnote in French historiography even to this day, Boulanger was at the center of one of the major political crises that rocked the French Third Republic to its core. Before the Boulanger Affair can be examined, it is necessary to provide the historical context that would set in motion the rise of a figure who some scholars insist was the harbinger of Fascism and Right wing Authoritarianism in the 20th Century. The creation of the French Third Republic was the result of France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which had toppled the Second French Empire and left Napoleon III a prisoner of war. After the suppression of the radical Paris Commune by demobilized POWs released by Prussia, France had parliamentary elections in January of 1871 which brought about a monarchist majority. However, the monarchist majority was split between the reactionary legitimists who supported the grandson of Charles X, Henri the Comte d’Chambord, while the more moderate Orleanistes supported his cousin Philippe the Comte de Paris, with a minority of Bonapartists. Despite this split, the Orleanistes agreed to support Henri as he was elderly and childless and the general consensus was that Philippe would be his heir. Henri’s intransigence had scotched the attempt at restoration, as he had famously refused to be crowned with the tricolor as the flag of France, among other generally anti-parliamentary sentiments. Because of this, the monarchists could do little other than try to wait out the death of the mule headed pretender. Over time, sentiments began to moderate as it seemed that the Republic was not doomed to inevitably repeat the previous cycle of Revolution, Republic, collapse, and restoration, and a faction known as the “Opportunists” began to coalesce in the political center. These were bourgeois, parliamentary liberal minded people who were not eager for another war with the new German Empire to reclaim the lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine. The Third Republic had numerous ministries, which persisted relatively briefly, and in the eyes of the public, seemed to accomplish little other than Imperialist ambitions and graft. The creator of the Nationalist Ligue des Patriots and future Boulangiste Paul Déroulède famously said, “I have lost two sisters and you offer me twenty servants.” The attitude of France was filled with ressentimentand revanchism, France had lost its greatness and was losing its place in the world with rising powers like Germany while corrupt politicians did nothing to rectify the situation and were pursuing their own narrow self-interests at home.
It was in this environment that a man had emerged on the scene with a seeming date with destiny – Georges Ernest Boulanger. Boulanger was a man from humble backgrounds in Rennes to graduate from the military academy in Saint-Cyr in 1856. He had served with distinction and with the Paris Commune he had been wounded three times and rose to the rank of General before the age of 50. By 1886 he had been appointed at the suggestion of his High School classmate Georges Clemenceau to the office of War Minister, where he would garner much prestige and popularity. Many French saw the general as the hero that was desperately needed to restore France to its proper state of honor, and in contrast to the corrupt Deputies in parliament, le brav général with his black horse appeared to be another Bonaparte in the making. With his irreligious habits and his successful resolution of a strike, Boulanger appeared to be a safe Republican figure, albeit ambitious and known to scheme. He ordered the expulsion of all former royals from France, despite the pretender’s uncle, the Duc d’Aumale promoting him to general and corresponding with him in private. He was intransigent in his demands against Germany, and issued some modest reforms that sought to modernize the French army. His ministry came to an abrupt end after tension over a spy scandal in 1887, and the public was outraged that Boulanger was sacked as Minister. Shortly after, in a parliamentary by-election, Boulanger had garnered over 100,000 votes in Paris as a write-in, which shocked the government. The government responded by sacking Boulanger, and relocating him out of Paris, in response to which a mob of 10,000 people blocked the train at the station in an attempt to prevent his departure. In December of 1887, the government was rocked by a scandal in which it was exposed that President Jules Grévy’s son-in-law, Daniel Wilson, was selling Legion d’Honneurs. Grévy was forced to resign in disgrace, creating a power vacuum. Boulanger’s supporters tried to use their influence to sway support for president to any figure in the Senate who would name Boulanger War Minister again, but this came to naught as Marie François Sadi Carnot was named President and did not appoint him.
In March of 1888, Boulanger was expelled from the army, and Daniel Wilson was freed from prison, enraging the Boulangistes who saw the Republic as rewarding corruption and attacking a man of integrity. However, this freed Boulanger to run for office, and he did in three different departments. Boulanger successfully won, and with the backing of the Royalist right, he had entered into the Chamber of Deputies with an impressive slate of Boulangistes with him, but not enough to have a majority. While in parliament, Boulanger did not distinguish himself as an orator or a statesman, and eventually resigned his seat. Boulanger then decided to run in multiple departments for by-elections, as a way to grow his support across the countryside and to build his popular support. The height of Boulanger’s movement was in January of 1889, when Boulanger ran for a by-election in Paris in a heavily Radical Republican leaning district, and successfully won. Unlike the previous elections Boulanger won, which were Conservative or Royalist leaning, Boulanger had successfully proven that he could shave off enough of the Republican Left’s votes to win in an electorate that was not majority Royalist. After the success, a mob of 50,000 had descended upon the café in which Boulanger was dining with his mistress and demanded for him to lead them on a march to seize the Parliament across the Seine. The evening waned, and Boulanger dithered. Boulanger faltered at the banks of the Rubicon, allegedly at the urging of mistress, and decided to wait for the elections later in the year.
Unfortunately, the hesitation provided the government the necessary breathing space to make its counterattack. A new interior minister, Ernest Constans, was appointed with a harsh reputation, and rumors began to emerge that Boulanger would soon be arrested. With this news, Boulanger fled the country to Belgium with his mistress. With this justification, Boulanger was expelled from the Chamber of Deputies and stripped of immunity, and a law against Secret Societies was passed that made Boulanger’s ally, the Ligue des Patriotes illegal. The electoral law was also amended to prevent a candidate from running in multiple districts, and many of Boulanger’s allies were also arrested. The elections of 1889 proved to be a disaster for the Boulangistes, and Boulangisme was crushed once and for all.
With the failure of both Boulangisme and of Trumpism, despite occurring nearly 120 years apart, we can see that both shared fundamental flaws. In fact, it is actually surprising how much they have in common.
- The failure of organization: Both Trump and Boulanger relied upon political institutions that were outside of their control. For Trump, he had waged an insurgency campaign against the Republican Party, and despite their opposition had managed to win the nomination, and while it appeared to be that Trump would “take over” the Republican Party, the party’s apparatchiks were successful in neutralizing him. Boulanger himself relied on the various Royalist committees and newspapers across France for support, which had a love-hate relationship towards him. Much like the Republican Party, before Boulanger’s rise, the Royalists were comprised of notables who spent all their time in the capital, reassuring themselves that their political convictions were just and superior, and pining for the days of a regime that had ended over 40 years ago. These groups were disorganized, often not aware of the fact that the Comte de Paris had formed an alliance with Boulanger, and as a result clashed with the plans of Boulanger and the Pretender. Boulanger had received media treatment in the way Trump did, with the newspapers constantly talking about him, either praising him or denouncing him. Some Royalists could not forgive Boulanger for his past Anti-clerical and Republican actions, and were disruptive much as the Never Trump faction of the GOP. Despite this, Boulanger’s partisans were different in that they had done what the Royalists never considered, engaged with the masses directly and took to the streets. Whereas Royalists complained about the fact that the Opportunist prefects and police would harass them, Boulangistes were more than happy to brawl and break the law in support of the general. For the first time since the Revolution, the right-wing had control of the streets, and peddlers went all across the countryside providing in unprecedented amounts colored photographs, posters, banners, even music sheets for music halls to sing songs about Boulanger. Much like the MAGA hat and promises to drain the swamp, rural towns replaced busts of Marianne with Boulanger and sang songs of le brav general sweeping out Paris with a broom. Boulanger himself tried to create his own parallel institutions with Boulangiste newspapers and a political committee called the Republican National Committee, but these attempts were stymied from the fact that his Royalist supporters did not want him to become independent from them.
- The problem of money: Ultimately Trump and Boulanger had to rely on a donor class for their support. For Boulanger, this meant that he had to curry favor with wealthy royalist aristocrats to bankroll him. This ultimately caused problems for Boulanger, who relied upon support from the Republican minded working class who supported Boulanger because they were disgusted by the corruption of the Opportunists, not because they clamored for the restoration of the monarchy. In the same way that Trump’s pivot in rhetoric and policy to placate donors in his re-election, Boulanger’s attempts to please the Comte de Paris meant doing about-faces on many things said previously. The tragedy of Trump is that he could have mitigated these limitations with his own fortune, but instead chose not to.
- The internal contradictions of the movement: Boulangisme was a mix of malcontent members of the French left, as well as the disorganized and beleaguered right. The Opportunist center was threatened by both flanks with Boulanger, who was the first to have stated, “neither left, nor right”. However, in order to keep this base, Boulanger was very vague about what he would actually do once in power. The Boulangiste motto was, “Revision (of the Constitution), Revenge (against Germany), (and in the later days, said sotto voce,) Restoration”. Boulanger thus was advocating for contradictory proposals to different audiences. To the Royalists and Conservatives, he promised that he would be a second Monck and restore King Philippe VII, and would content to either be Commander of the Army or as War Minister. In this capacity, he would rebuild France and restore its honor through diplomacy, offering to Germany colonial possessions for the lost lands of Alsace-Lorraine. To the Republicans, he advocated for a strong presidential system to replace the feeble and dysfunctional parliament that was directly elected by the people and not by a corrupt Senate. Boulanger would bring war, and seize Alsace-Lorraine and avenge the humiliation of 1871. Indeed, this causes much debate as to what Boulanger would have actually done had he seized power. Would he have restored the monarchy and ruled as a strongman behind a figurehead monarch like Mussolini? Or would he have become a French Caudillo in the mold of Franco? By the waning days of Boulangisme, the general’s conspiring with the Royalists became more and more apparent as it was revealed that the Duchess of Uzés was acting as a clearing house for the Pretender in her financial support of Boulanger. As a result, Boulanger lost his supporters among the left who saw him as nothing more than a cats-paw for a desperate attempt to force through the restoration of the monarchy by the back door. Trump’s betrayal of the white working class in a similar manner doomed him as well as the promises of an end to immigration and a revitalization of the industrial base took were replaced with talks of tax cuts, and an abandonment of the immigration issue to woo Establishment Republicans. For every Never Trump Republican gained, Trump lost more of the crucial blue-collar rustbelt voters.
- The failure of human capital: Both Boulanger and Trump were figures who created cults of personality. The downsides of this, is that they became to focal points of such and had very short coat-tails. Boulanger was not successful in translating support for himself into support for Boulangistes, indeed most of his successful slate were Royalists or Bonapartists who ran in safe districts. Left-wing Boulangistes were only put up when a Royalist stood no chance of winning and with lackluster enthusiasm among his Royalist financiers. Boulanger also had a short bench of people to choose to run, and as a result often ran crooks and cranks in the same way that the MAGA movement attracted people of dubious backgrounds. Trump and Boulanger were also lacking in the necessary skills to delegate and cultivate the necessary people with competency to carry out their agenda. With both showing moral cowardice in the hour of decision, the personality cults of Boulanger and Trump were shattered with little to remain. Boulangisme without Boulanger was nothing, just as MAGA became nothing more than keeping Trump in office.
- The lack of sufficient institutional power: Boulanger and Trump both were relying on leveraging the fact that their mass support could intimidate the power structure. For Boulanger, by either launching a coup or through a large enough bloc of Deputies, he would have demanded that the Senate be dissolved and that a direct election for the president be held (this was not done as the only time this occurred, Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was elected and later declared himself Emperor). Trump also relied on having the state legislatures dispute the election on his behalf, when they had no serious intention of doing so. However, as Boulanger never actually held office, it is even more tragic in that Trump frittered away what power he did have in desperate attempts to litigate in court, which now has been exposed as being entirely done by a legal team operating in bad faith.
With these points of failure in mind, we can examine the repercussions of the Boulanger affair in France and see what may portend for a Post-Trumpian America. For Boulanger, he came to an ignominious end. He spent two years in exile in Brussels with his mistress, who finally succumbed to tuberculosis in 1891. Several months later, Boulanger went to the Ixelles Cemetery, and shot himself in the head over his mistress’ grave. The Opportunist press gleefully reported the once scourge of the regime’s suicide, his supporters utterly humiliated. For the Royalists, Boulanger was the gravedigger of the monarchy and the crisis was the final blow in which they never recovered from. The Comte himself was dying, and his heir was not the engaged man of letters that he was, but rather a brash cad. The French center-right reconciled itself to living under the Republic, and the moderate Conservatives decided that they had to compete under the electoral playing field. The government would also engage in repression and surveillance of the right, as Affaire des Fiches of 1904 would reveal that the government was spying on military officers with the use of Masonic lodges to deny promotions to religious Catholics in an attempt to prevent another Boulanger from emerging (ironically, Boulanger was not pious). The Opportunists thus consolidated their control with this crisis, albeit the Third Republic would continue to be mired in scandal. It would be in 1894 that the Dreyfus Affair would occur, which would roil the Republic in an even greater crisis, and it is readily apparent that many of the former Boulangistes were among the Anti-Dreyfusards. Despite this, the Third Republic would only fall with the fall of France in 1941. As the royalist Arthur Meyer described Boulanger upon his death,
“Boulangisme: (…) ‘a vague and mystical aspiration of a nation towards a democratic, authoritarian, liberating ideal; the state of mind of a country that is searching, after the various deceptions to which she was exposed by the established parties which she had trusted up to then, and outside the usual ways, something else altogether, without knowing either what or how, and summoning all those who are dissatisfied and vanquished in its search for the unknown.’ (…) ‘General Boulanger was born out of this state of mind. He did not create the boulangisme, it is boulangisme that created him. He had the chance to arrive at the psychological and spiritual moment from which he profits.”
In many ways, this quotation could apply to Donald Trump and Trumpism. Trump did not create the ressentiment that was felt across the rustbelt in America. The movement which he claimed, rather seized upon him as their vessel just as the people of France seized Boulanger to be their savior. Although Trump succeeded in 2016 to actually gain power, it was readily apparent that he had no idea what to do once he was there. He was not directing the current of Trumpism, it had merely carried him along. The man, who would be Caesar, was nothing more than an idol with clay feet. While it remains too early to tell whether or not Trump will suffer the same disgraceful end as Boulanger, it seems improbable that he will successfully mount a comeback. Just as the Opportunists used the crisis to consolidate power, the Neoliberal Deep state has used Trump’s contestation of the election to demand sweeping changes in electoral law and a Domestic War on Terror to repress Trumpism once and for all. The talk of De-Trumpification is all over, and while it may not reach to Nuremburg trials in the way that hysterical catladies demand, it is very probable that the Republican Party will choose to hand crank the Overton Window back to where it was before Trump.
If the Democratic Party were smart, they might also attempt to cut the legs off of the Populist right by offering similar concessions, but they appear to be more intransigent and malicious than the Opportunists of France. While it can be said that the Opportunists were likely more talented than the Democrats, there is some hope that can be gleaned from the ashes of Boulangisme. Ultimately, the Republic could not resist the Revanchism of the French public and as a result Alsace-Lorraine was eventually returned to them (albeit at the price of World War I). Dissatisfaction of the dysfunction in the Third Republic ultimately did lead to a strong presidential system emerging with the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle. Some historians see Pétain and the Vichy Regime as a glimpse of what a Boulangiste France would have looked like, with many of the right-wing leaguesthat emerged in the Interwar Era can be traced back to Boulanger and his motto, “Ni droite, Ni gauche”. Gaullists themselves echoed this sentiment by refusing to sit on the right of the French Parliament, and in many ways Gaullism was a sanitization of the heirs of Boulangisme into the Postwar Order.
Trumpism may be successfully dead and buried, but it is nothing more than a clay vessel that has been discarded. The current which had been captured by Trump remains, like an underground river, waiting to emerge and cascade across the landscape. Just as France could not stand the loss of Alsace and Lorraine as symbolic of its decline, the decline of the United States will not be papered over with diversionary Wokeness forever. Ultimately another crisis will emerge, and by avoiding the mistakes of Boulangisme and Trumpism, a true victory may be finally had.