What American liberals could learn from France's neo-Bonaparte

On Emmanuel Macron and the imperial style in politics

Emmanuel Macron.
(Image credit: Illustrated | LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons)

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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It is easy to understand the appeal of the imperial style. It speaks to a tendency, universal in history, to equate the well-being of a nation — and by extension that of its people — with the personal qualities of its ruler. It is also a welcome reprieve from the tedium of caring about the actual business of modern politics: getting bills through committee, Congressional Budget Office estimates, the demands of lobbyists, and so on. The imperial style offers us the illusion of an omnicompetent, more or less benevolent despot who takes care of that sort of thing, allowing the rest of us to escape into the dubious refuge of private life.

Although the imperial style is not the province of any particular tendency or ideology, its greatest practitioners have been liberal revolutionaries of one kind or another. Napoleon Bonaparte's maxims are, along with Carlyle's Life of Frederick the Great, the closest thing we have to an Imperial Politics For Dummies. The Corsican's romantic conception of France as a nation distinct from the private fortunes of an endless succession of powdered toffs named Louis — one whose potentiality only he could realize — was his greatest strength; it was also his doom. (One ironclad rule of imperial politics is that it eventually ends in sublime failure, which is part of its Goethean appeal.)

Which brings us back to Macron. The genius of the French president is his ability to put a neo-Bonapartist ideology — the improving, totalizing but intensely personal vision of the emperor — in service of neoliberal centrism. Like his great predecessor, Macron believes that "The people must not be counted upon" and that "a proper direction must be given to them, and proper instruments employed to effect it." This is why it does not matter to him in the slightest that lower-middle-class workers disagree with him about climate change and burn cars in the street to protest his fuel taxes. "I am a monarch of God's creation, and you reptiles of the earth dare not oppose me."

To a reactionary the fact that France's second largest employer remains La Poste, with its antique design principles and caste-like hiring system, is delightful. To Macron it is a symbol of decay, one that must be destroyed alongside the other effluvium of the post-war ancien régime. Macron's France is a nation not of unionized pen manufacturers and recalcitrant farmers but of technologists and bankers served by cheap foreign labor. His ambition is the final victory of sophists, economists, and calculators over Christian democracy and old-fashioned humanism — it is, in other words, America, albeit with better food and a more discreet approach to reporting about the private lives of her leaders. It is also, rather romantically I think, somewhat more chivalrous. Who could possibly oppose his recent decision to ban cat-calling?

Like all imperial politicians, Trump and Macron have certain things in common. Witness for example their shared delight in military parades, which in Trump's case is taken as a sign that he is contemplating a military coup but in Macron's is considered somehow old-fashioned and quaintly "continental." We have taught ourselves to cringe whenever our moron president talks about "the swamp," but read what M. Macron has to say in his book Revolution:

Hundreds of structures exist [in the French government] that should disappear. Agents carry out useless tasks. Rules invade everything, because it is more convenient to write a law or a decree than to set a direction. Bureaucrats find in all this a rasion d'être and politicians an opportunity to justify their privileges … The country lives for the administration and not the administration for the country. [Revolution]

What these men share, including their hardly inexplicable friendship, is far less significant however than the important areas in which they diverge. For Trump the enemy is the higher liberalism of the Clintons, The Washington Post editorial page, and tech companies. His highest ambition would seem to be a revival of the 1950s as they exist in the popular imagination: Norman Rockwell clichés about family life, plentiful manufacturing jobs, sentimental patriotism. Meanwhile Macron hears ancestral voices prophesying a moderate decrease in debt-to-GDP ratio and has set himself squarely against the consensus of both major French political parties. (It is worth pointing out that the economic platform of his opponent in the 2017 presidential election, Marine le Pen of the far-right National Front, was well to the left of the Democratic Socialists of America.)

This is why I think that Macron, whatever the ultimate fate of his government, deserves our attention and, in a disinterested sense, even our admiration. His project is of much greater relevance to American politics than the microwaved nationalism of the European far right. He has shown that it is possible to reconceive the whole range of settled elite opinion on every subject from neoclassical political economy to same-sex marriage to African birth rates as something as radical as Jacobinism. This "new alchemy," as the French billionaire Xavier Niel has described it, is the intoxicating ideology of which meritocratic liberals in all climes have dreamed.

That there exists a strong appetite for the imperial style among liberals and would-be liberals in this country is impossible to deny. This is especially true, I think, among people of my own generation. I cannot be the only person my age whose first cinematic experience was The Lion King, a film that might have been written by disciples of Ernst Kantorowicz and his curious little book The King's Two Bodies. A good essay might be written, too, about the influence of Harry Potter, with its theme of an enlightened Chosen One who will bring about a final victory over the forces of darkness (explicitly identified by the author with the reactionary past), on the political views of people now in their 20s and early 30s. Then there is the popularity of all things related to the Windsor family.

This points to, among other things, the reason I suspect Bernie Sanders will never be president. His style is hopelessly, and intentionally, plebian. For the Teen Vogue editorial intern reading the latest news about Princess Meghan, Bernie is about as compelling a political figure as Calvin Coolidge. Complaints about the misogyny of so-called "Bernie bros" are a convenient way of eliding the resistance of a certain kind of principled leftist to the anti-egalitarian tendencies inherent in the American liberal imagination.

If American liberalism hopes to survive the populisms of the right and the left alike, it must fearlessly adopt the imperial style. This is why it should be heartening for older liberals to see all the fuss made about "Queen Bae" and the quasi-royal treatment afforded to members of Obama's family. But woke monarchism in itself is not enough. Hillary Clinton's comments about "deplorables" were the beginning of a process that liberals should hope to see culminate in the disenfranchisement of the "red" states, perhaps via the disestablishment of the Electoral College. Whether imperial liberalism is successful in the short term — in 2020, say — is less important than its prospects in 12 or 16 years, when another generation reared on Lemonade and Daenerys Targaryen comes into its own politically. Perhaps some of them will even be self-aware enough to appreciate the role played by Trump himself if his undermining of procedural norms and indifference to old-fashioned liberal gas about "facts" makes way the path of Her Highness Queen Michelle II.

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