Trump at the White House in Washington, D.C., January 2020
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

“It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.” Rarely has one man earned this epithet from so many commentators for so many of his actions than has Donald Trump. Whether in reacting to the president’s sacking of James Comey as director of the FBI, his imposing of the Muslim travel ban, or his abandoning of the Kurds in northern Syria, pundits have found this line irresistible.

No surprise, then, that President Trump’s decision last week to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general in charge of regional operations, has again inspired columnists and editors to cite the words usually attributed to the French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand. George Packer led an article in The Atlantic with the quotation, while Jacob Heilbrunn channeled Talleyrand in the opening line of his column in The National Interest.

Historians are qualified neither to judge whether President Trump’s action was a crime nor to determine (at least right now) whether his decision was a blunder. For that matter, no one has asked historians to adjudicate whether certain crimes, such as bombing Iran’s cultural sites, as Trump has threatened, are worse than blunders. But we are qualified to do a couple of other, more modest things. We can, for example, correct the common mistake that Talleyrand spoke those words. Credit should, instead, almost certainly go to his fellow survivor of the French Revolution, the equally slippery and subtle police chief, Joseph Fouché.

More important, historians can describe the historical event that inspired the phrase—namely, Napoléon Bonaparte’s order to assassinate the Duc d’Enghien in 1804—and draw parallels between then and now. Of course, historical analogies are not logical proofs, and they can easily be misappropriated or misapplied. But they can also offer an important means for making conjectures and anticipating consequences. Keeping in mind the many differences between the two contexts, the causes and costs to Napoleon’s decision might help us to reflect on our current situation.

INSECURE RULER

In 1804, the most powerful ruler in the world was Napoléon Bonaparte. He had recently been named first consul for life by the French Senate—an institution filled with feckless figures who owed their status to Napoleon. At the same time, argues his recent biographer Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon was also the most insecure ruler in the world. This was partly a matter of origins: his native Corsica was as scorned by Parisians as, say, Queens is by Manhattanites. And while Napoleon soon lost the “u” from Buonaparte, the name of his status-hungry family, he never could lose the thick accent that colored his French. No matter how powerful Napoleon became, aristocrats always considered him a Corsican upstart, just as they scorned his family and court as a collection of grifters and goons. One can easily imagine a Thomas Rowlandson caricature gone viral of a gaggle of European rulers mocking Napoleon behind his back.

The French ruler’s self-doubts also stemmed from his political illegitimacy. He had not, of course, lost the popular vote or benefited from the machinations of a foreign country. To the contrary, the several plebiscites Napoleon held during his reign reflected a broad and enduring popularity that escapes our current president. But he had reached power by extraconstitutional means and spent the years of his rule in an ultimately vain effort to institutionalize the empire he had founded. (It was resurrected later in the century by his nephew Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, whose Second Empire lasted twice as long as his uncle’s.)

Napoleon’s insecurity was compounded by royalist conspiracies and foreign plots against his life. In 1804, Fouché told Napoleon that the “air is full of daggers.” Napoleon, as a result, decided to arrest the Duc d’Enghien, a direct descendant of the family overthrown by the revolution. The problem was that d’Enghien was living not in France but in the neighboring German state of Baden. Moreover, though the young aristocrat despised Napoleon, there was not even, well, razor-thin evidence that he was plotting to assassinate him. As the French police learned, d’Enghien was guilty of nothing more than offering to join the British war effort against France. Nevertheless, at Napoleon’s command, French troops crossed the border, seized d’Enghien at his home in Ettenheim, and hauled him back to Paris. Following a mockery of a trial and despite the warnings of his advisers, Napoleon then had d’Enghien summarily executed by firing squad.

Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps (1805)
Miquel Gonzalez / laif / Redux

By way of justification, Napoleon claimed the right of self-defense and, tellingly, refused to use the word “assassination.” Yet while he sought to put an end to royalist conspiracies, he instead gave their cause an invaluable martyr. Equally crucial, Napoleon’s action, smacking of Corsican vendettas, confirmed his impulsive and unpredictable character in the eyes of Europe. Not only did this alienate liberals and moderates in France, most notably Benjamin Constant, but it also led to the collapse of Franco-Russian relations and the eventual outbreak of war between the two countries. Napoleon himself acknowledged that his action had been unpopular. In a meeting with his State Council just after the execution, he rambled from one justification to another, “frequently interrupting himself” and “lacking coherence.” When his jumbled reflections met complete silence, Napoleon abruptly left the room. The meeting came to an end, but not the repercussions of the event that led to its being called in the first place.

To these possible parallels between then and now, there is one more to add. The execution of d’Enghien, on Napoleon’s order, preceded by a few weeks Napoléon’s execution of the remnants of the French Republic. The soil on d’Enghien’s grave was still fresh when, in late March 1804, Napoleon bowed to the Senate’s declaration that he might have to destroy “other institutions” in order to safeguard the nation. “Great man, finish your work; make it as immortal as your own glory,” the Senate intoned. Shortly after, Napoleon decided upon the title of “emperor” to mark this new phase in his career.

COMPROMISED COURT

“History is a set of lies that people agree upon.” While Napoleon made this quip, he did not believe it. As an avid reader of Thucydides and Polybius, Livy and Tacitus, he understood that history, far from a set of lies, is instead a set of events that those who study the past agree upon and infer from. By this light, it is easy to make too much of Napoleon’s order to assassinate d’Enghien. In the complex play of factors behind Napoleon’s rise and fall, the judicial assassination of a French aristocrat might not have amounted to more than a hill of beans. Perhaps historians will one day conclude the very same thing about the execution of Soleimani, who was an infinitely nastier and more dangerous piece of work.

On the other hand, they might come to the opposite conclusion. In the case of Napoleon, historians from different political backgrounds have disagreed over the causal significance of d’Enghien’s assassination but agreed on its symbolic importance. The conservative politician Adolphe Thiers thought that Napoleon was “wisdom incarnate” until 1804. D’Enghien’s murder marked a turning point, after which the man who would become emperor “lost all sense of proportion” and could no longer “bear to be contradicted either in his own circle or in France.” The liberal literary critic Hippolyte Taine instead insisted that Napoleon was a narcissist who was “morally blind” and whose “scorn for men led him into stupid blunders.” The d’Enghien affair merely revealed Napoleon’s gift for staining the reputations of the few advisers who had until then retained a degree of independence.

While the time and place have changed, Trump’s court strangely resembles Napoleon’s. By 1804, republican generals such as Hoche, Dumouriez, and Joubert—all of whom would have spoken their minds to Napoleon—were gone. By 2020, Republican generals such as Mattis, McMaster, and perhaps even Kelly, who would have done the same with their commander in chief, are gone as well. Taine’s final words in regard to the judicial murder of d’Enghien apply to the targeted killing of Soleimani: it happened because Napoleon “surrounded himself with servants instead of collaborators.”