Can we send Trump into exile? It worked (sort of) with Napoleon

Tolstoy describes sending a defeated leader with no "human dignity" far, far away — and it sounds like a great idea

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published January 28, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump on a deserted island (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump on a deserted island (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Judges overseeing the various criminal trials of Donald John Trump, our only ex-president with a mug shot, have repeatedly warned him that they'll have him removed from the courtroom if he cannot contain himself.

Most recently the judge in the second defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll — which just ended with a judgment against Trump for $83 million — struggled to deal with the toddler ex-president (presciently parodied in this classic video). When confronted by the judge, Trump petulantly declared he would “love” to be kicked out of court. 

For the sake of the rational citizens of the United States — still the great majority of us — not to mention the rest of the civilized world, don’t you think he needs to be removed a bit farther from view?

Is exile still a thing?

Does the civilized world need to send the uniquely charismatic and dangerous Donald Trump to his own Elba or Saint Helena? The thought kept occurring to me while reading "War and Peace," Leo Tolstoy’s massive novel following a few Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars.

Donald Trump and Napoleon Bonaparte? Really? OK, it's a stretch, but while reading Tolstoy I picked up on some obvious parallels.

There’s a class-inferiority complex, a hypersensitivity to criticism, a lack of concern for others and a demand for absolute power (and immunity) — to name merely a few personality quirks shared by Le Petit Caporal and the man we might call Les Petit Mains. As innumerable clinical psychologists have pointed out, both share megalomania and unbridled malignant narcissism. 

In Tolstoy's account, Napoleon ditched his Grand Army during the catastrophic retreat of the French from Moscow in late 1812, abandoning thousands of them to starvation and frostbite as he scampered back to Paris.

There are some obvious parallels between Trump and Le Petit Caporal: an inferiority complex, hypersensitivity to criticism, a lack of human empathy and a yearning for absolute power (and immunity).

That kind of disloyalty is a hallmark of Trump, who demands absolute loyalty from everyone around him but returns exactly none of it. Recently, he called on his supporters in Iowa to come out to vote in subzero weather, even if it killed them. He is notorious for stiffing people who work for him, and expects his followers to foot the bill for all his legal cases.

Contemporary mental health professionals might say that Napoleon, like Trump, exhibited "a profound inability to empathize."

In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy writes at length, almost obsessively, about how the “great man” theory of history is mostly a crock; so-called leaders are often just riding the waves of larger public sentiments and movements. They often are not even the forgers of history but merely its instruments. As for Napoleon, Tolstoy doesn’t mince words, about the man himself or his acolytes:

For Russian historians — strange and terrible to say — Napoleon, that most insignificant instrument of history, who never and nowhere, even in exile, displayed any human dignity — Napoleon is the object of admiration and enthusiasm; he is grand.

It is hardly necessary to note that Trump has “never and nowhere” displayed any human dignity. Indeed, to list the times he has proven himself to be without dignity or empathy would be near impossible. Such a list would sum up the life he’s led since his father taught him to be a killer and a king and his erstwhile father, the former Joe McCarthy sidekick Roy Cohn, taught him to hit back at any perceived slight 10 times as hard. Despite his utter lack of honor and morals — or, quite likely, because of it — he remains the object of admiration and enthusiasm for his cult followers, who whoop with glee when he demeans women and laugh themselves silly when he threatens people who see through one or more of his innumerable lies and cons. For them, the cruelty is entertainment. Moreover, for an authoritarian, as Adam Serwer noted back in 2018 in The Atlantic, the cruelty is the point.

To a large degree, Trump is the result of the Republican Party's incessant fear-mongering as it turned away from the hard work of creating policies that appeal to voters, not to mention the hard work of compromise. A grifting demagogue like Trump is what you get when propagandists, from Rush Limbaugh to Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, train Republicans for decades to hate their political opponents and use fear tactics to whip up their base while offering no workable solutions.

You might wonder if I see an equivalent for Joe Biden in “War and Peace.” Well, kind of. Tolstoy defends the aging Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, who is criticized from all sides for being old, for not being dashing and charismatic, and for not being decisive in ways others think he should be. But Kutuzov (at least according to Tolstoy, whose account seems to comport pretty well with history) has his vision for victory, based on his great experience and humility. It’s not flashy, but it works:

The source of this extraordinary power of penetration into the meaning of events taking place lay in that national feeling, which he bore within himself in all its purity and force…. This simple, modest, and therefore truly majestic figure could not fit into that false form of the European hero, the imaginary ruler of the people, which history has invented. 

You may object to the word "majestic" being applied to our current president (which is fair enough: we don’t expect that from our system of government), but consider whether you could do even a smidgen of what Biden does every day

I also note that back in 2020, when Trump was repeatedly comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln, our one truly majestic president, I thought that it was Joe Biden — a man from a modest, loving family background who has suffered great personal losses — who could make that kind of claim. (He would personally never compare himself to Lincoln.) Like Kutuzov, he has a vision — to prove that government and democracy can work when we work together — and will doggedly try to see it through, despite all the muttering about his age and bogus charges lodged by far-right extremists and aided by corporate media. No matter what Fox News propagandists claim, his administration already has a record of accomplishments in one term that any president would be proud to claim.

It is said that democracy is fragile (Benjamin Franklin warned us about that) and that, perhaps, authoritarian streams run alongside democratic ones because people yearn for things they don't have or for a past that never quite was, or because they just fear the future. Political theorizing aside, the real-world effects of a Trumpian dismantling of the U.S. government and our relations with our NATO allies would be devastating to both the nation and the world. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

As Salon's Andrew O’Hehir notes in the essay linked above, the irony of the MAGA faithful standing behind Trump is that their hero, and the party he took over, has no desire to re-establish the post-World War II economy they claim to yearn for. That era was fueled by reasonable taxation of the wealthy and big corporations, support for labor unions, and a core belief in expertise in government — all things that most Democrats, broadly speaking, still believe in. 

But there is another past that Trumpians dream of, one that Trump does support — another deep and dangerous current in America in which white men rule and where the standard is not the Stars and Stripes but the battle flag of the Confederacy. For these people, as Salon’s Lucian K. Truscott IV wrote back in 2021, the new Lost Cause myth is the Big Lie

Like Tolstoy's Kutuzov, Joe Biden has a vision — to prove that government and democracy can work when we work together — and will doggedly try to see it through, despite all the muttering about his age and bogus charges by far-right extremists.

Trump has made the refusal to behave properly and respectfully in a civilized society into his personal and political brand. He rejects any criticism of his actions, like a toddler who has had too much birthday cake and Hawaiian Punch, and makes it clear to his followers that violence is, at least potentially, an appropriate remedy for anything that damages him or limits his power. He ceaselessly lies about election results, further eroding the public’s trust in our system. In his rambling, angry, incoherent victory speech after the New Hampshire primary he was at it again, making numerous false claims, including that he had won the state in the general election twice. He lost New Hampshire in both 2016 and 2020 and the second time it wasn’t even close. (Trump also appeared to be sweating through his thick makeup, which reminded me of the beige paint I was trying to match in our kitchen this week.)

On both immigration and the economy, the two big issues of this election year, Trump opposes what most Americans, and even most Republicans, apparently want. As the economy continues to improve dramatically, he openly roots for economic collapse and a stock market crash. As the Senate finally approaches a workable compromise on a border and immigration bill, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says they cannot move forward because Trump doesn’t want a solution.

As everyone in this country, except MAGA cult members, has long understood, Trump doesn’t care about America or its people. Trump cares only about Trump. 

Hey, it turns out banishment is still a thing! Just look at this list of heads of government who have been sent away or have departed on their own to escape justice. One of the most recent, Jair Bolsonaro, the Trumpian former president of Brazil, exiled himself to Florida for a spell, possibly because he felt right at home with the repressive atmosphere under Ron DeSantis. I will note that Bolsonaro has been barred from running for office in Brazil until 2030 because he abused his power and pushed his own Big Lie about a "rigged" election — leading to a Jan. 6-like attack on the Brazilian capital last January. 

At what point will we realize that it will never be enough for juries to convict and sentence or fine Trump, or for the voters to reject him, since he will never accept either outcome? It's time to send him away to an island? We'll give him a golf course, so that “Pelé” Trump (as some caddies reportedly called him) can kick his balls back into the fairway, cheating at the very game that most relies on players' sense of honor. Even at 77, he is no more than an obstreperous child, and an unhinged and dangerous one at that. His endless claims to know more than anyone else on every imaginable topic stand as peerless examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and his mental faculties have clearly continued to erode.

Even if we found a way to send Trump away, we would no doubt continue to hear from him, in all caps. While Napoleon was in exile on Saint Helena, an island in the South Atlantic thousands of miles from Europe, the world still heard from him, even without social media. Tolstoy writes in his epilogue: “Napoleon in exile makes childish and deceitful plans for how he would have made mankind happy if he had had power.”

So it would be with Trump, as it is now: childish and deceitful plans. Let’s not even call it exile; it's a long overdue timeout. Is that island once owned by Jeffrey Epstein available?

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

MORE FROM Kirk Swearingen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Donald Trump Joe Biden Leo Tolstoy Media Napoleon Bonaparte Republicans War And Peace