“Make America Great Britain Again.” Last summer, when a friend gave me a baseball cap bearing that slogan, I didn’t really get the joke.
Now I get it. To understand the Trump presidency you need to see that he really is making the United States Great Britain again, albeit unwittingly. Forget the Nixon parallels. The right analogy is that Trump is George III. (No, not George as in Bush. George as in King.)
Americans have believed for nearly two and a half centuries that they got rid of monarchy when they declared independence from Britain, in 1776. Wrong. As Alexander Hamilton understood, the presidency as an institution is effectively an elective monarchy. It’s just that no previous president actually behaved like a king.
There are four characteristics of monarchy with which Americans urgently need to reacquaint themselves. The first is that the monarch’s personality and mood matter a great deal. In the case of George III, the king’s personality had much to commend it, but in later life he suffered from an increasingly debilitating mental illness: probably porphyria. In the final nine years of his reign, his son had to take over as regent.
This is not to suggest that Donald Trump is mad, though that claim has been made more than once. (The most ingenious theory is that the hair restorer he uses to maintain his elaborate yellow coiffure has had deleterious effects on his cognitive abilities.) The real problem is that his sane personality is flawed. Friends of the president concede that, while they find him entertaining and even charming, “he doesn’t mean 70 percent of the things he says” and “lacks impulse control.” A great deal of the damage he has done to himself since his inauguration stems from these character defects.
The second distinctive feature of monarchy is that politics is not ideological but a matter of court faction and intrigue. Though they had acquired party labels by the 1760s, “Whigs” and “Tories” were still closer in their roles to the courtiers of the 16th and 17th centuries than to the ministers of the 20th. At court, what mattered was who was in favor and who was out.
In the White House today, we see all the pathologies of court politics. Courtiers fight for access to the royal presence. Factions — the Bannonites and the globalists — vie with one another in the corridors of power, maliciously briefing journalists against one another. The royal family is mixed up in everything, above all the king’s favorite daughter, Princess Ivanka, and her ubiquitously scheming yet mysteriously silent consort, Jared of Kushner.
The third feature of royal politics is that the most dangerous opposition to the court comes not from the press but from the country. The gutter press of London never tired of mocking George III’s prime ministers, but the stability of his rule depended much more on the provincial gentry. “Country gentlemen” do not sound very threatening, and yet they had played a decisive role in the revolutions of the 17th century that twice overthrew the Stuart dynasty.
In the same way, Trump’s political future today depends much more on the small-town Republican voters in the “flyover” states that delivered the Electoral College to him last Nov. 8. According to Gallup, Trump’s nationwide approval rating has sunk back below 40 percent, close to the nadir of late March. However, in a poll conducted a week ago, 79 percent of Republican voters said they approved of the job Trump is doing, while only 16 percent disapproved. Only if those “country” voters turn against King Donald will there be a serious prospect of an early end to his reign.
The fourth and final point is that monarchs are remembered less for their domestic policies (who now remembers where George III left the British income tax?) than for their foreign policies. By that yardstick, most Americans would dismiss George III as bad as well as mad — after all, he presided over the loss of the 13 American colonies. Yet this is to forget the much more significant achievement of the king’s reign, which was the defeat of revolutionary and then Napoleonic France in a protracted struggle that raged intermittently between 1793 and 1815.
Trump’s foreign policy has thus far gone much better than his domestic policy. The president is on his first foreign trip, to the Middle East. He has received warm welcomes from the key members of the anti-Iranian coalition that his predecessor unwittingly brought into being, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. If Trump can use his controversial relationship to the Russian government to isolate Iran completely and end the Syrian civil war, he will do much to dispel the suspicions that he is Moscow’s stooge.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Trump’s North Korean strategy will work. At Mar-a-Lago in early April, he essentially told his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, “If you want a trade deal with us, as opposed to a trade war, you’d better do something about North Korea’s nuclear arms program.” The alternative, he clearly implied, would be unilateral US military action against Pyongyang. One way or the other, a reckoning with Kim Jong Un is coming. If Trump pulls off success where the last three administrations failed, he may move from zero to hero faster than anybody today imagines.
All this was foreseen. In the musical “Hamilton,” the show-stopping number is “You’ll Be Back,” sung by a rather camp George III. But who knew that Donald Trump would fulfill that prophecy by making Americans British again? The answer is whichever genius came up with that baseball cap last year.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.