Trump’s Napoleon Moment

When Crimes Become Blunders in an Acquiescent Court

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.


In 1804,

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