The Trump Crisis is America's Tolstoy Moment

Napoleon Bonaparte at a feast

Our brave battle against Trump's fascist coup is strengthening. We the people are getting stronger and more sure of our steps every day. This is no easy fight and our ultimate victory is still in doubt, but we can take heart that a massive outbreak of nonviolent civil disobedience is rising up. I've been saying since election day that strident popular resistance is our most indomitable defense against tyranny, and I've been saying since election day that we will ultimately win. I know this because I read a lot of Tolstoy.

2017 is a Tolstoy year. The ongoing Donald Trump debacle is being compared to many works of literature: George Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games. But there's one essential literary Trump reference point we haven't heard about much: Count Lev Nickolayevich Tolstoy's monumental epic Vojna i Mir, or War and Peace, which chronicles the Russian peoples' severe, painful and ultimately successful resistance to Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion in 1812.

War and Peace is not only monumental for its heft or difficulty (it's actually not very difficult to read at all, once you understand that it's a couple of bittersweet love stories wrapped around the Napoleonic Wars) but also for its distinct moral influence and authority. This book is the voice of an invaded land defying a pompous tyrant. No book is more relevant for the USA in 2017.

This novel reaches its epic culmination as the glorious French military genius Napoleon rolls towards Moscow. He's already conquered all of Central Europe, and his military power cannot be stopped. The defenseless Russian people cower in shock and fear as they face the realization that they are about to lose everything. But the Russian people will not give in to a tyrant at any cost. War and Peace is Tolstoy's proud tribute, written a half-century later, to the courageous masses who never gave in. When Bob Dylan sang the words "you won the war after losing every battle", he might have been thinking of War and Peace, because that's the story this novel tells.

It's a story we need to hear today, as Trump's Republican appeasers in Congress permit him to appoint one corrupt and poisonous crony after another to his cabinet. We feel we are losing every battle, but we cannot stop fighting, and we must know that we will eventually win. A powerful few cannot dominate the masses — not if the masses are awake and alive. Political power ultimately comes from moral strength, and it is moral strength that will sustain us. This is not the moral strength of a single person but a collective moral strength, which Tolstoy correctly estimated to be a powerful and often neglected force in human affairs.

Tolstoy presents Napoleon Bonaparte as the arrogant epitome of individual force and power — a celebrated hero who lacks the wisdom to understand that individual power inevitably succumbs to weakness. War and Peace subtly mocks Napoleon's smug pride, as in this anecdote that presents the French dictator at the height of success, nodding in dull pleasure as his pathetic minions prostrate and even kill themselves to seek his vain favor:

On the thirteenth of June a rather small, thoroughbred Arab horse was brought to Napoleon. He mounted it and rode at a gallop to one of the bridges over the Niemen, deafened continually by incessant and rapturous acclamations which he evidently endured only because it was impossible to forbid the soldiers to express their love of him by such shouting, but the shouting which accompanied him everywhere disturbed him and distracted him from the military cares that had occupied him from the time he joined the army. He rode across one of the swaying pontoon bridges to the farther side, turned sharply to the left, and galloped in the direction of Kóvno, preceded by enraptured, mounted chasseurs of the Guard who, breathless with delight, galloped ahead to clear a path for him through the troops. On reaching the broad river Víliya, he stopped near a regiment of Polish Uhlans stationed by the river.

"Vivat!" shouted the Poles, ecstatically, breaking their ranks and pressing against one another to see him.

Napoleon looked up and down the river, dismounted, and sat down on a log that lay on the bank. At a mute sign from him, a telescope was handed him which he rested on the back of a happy page who had run up to him, and he gazed at the opposite bank. Then he became absorbed in a map laid out on the logs. Without lifting his head he said something, and two of his aides-de-camp galloped off to the Polish Uhlans.

"What? What did he say?" was heard in the ranks of the Polish Uhlans when one of the aides-de-camp rode up to them.

The order was to find a ford and to cross the river. The colonel of the Polish Uhlans, a handsome old man, flushed and, fumbling in his speech from excitement, asked the aide-de-camp whether he would be permitted to swim the river with his Uhlans instead of seeking a ford. In evident fear of refusal, like a boy asking for permission to get on a horse, he begged to be allowed to swim across the river before the Emperor’s eyes. The aide-de-camp replied that probably the Emperor would not be displeased at this excess of zeal.

As soon as the aide-de-camp had said this, the old mustached officer, with happy face and sparkling eyes, raised his saber, shouted "Vivat!" and, commanding the Uhlans to follow him, spurred his horse and galloped into the river. He gave an angry thrust to his horse, which had grown restive under him, and plunged into the water, heading for the deepest part where the current was swift. Hundreds of Uhlans galloped in after him. It was cold and uncanny in the rapid current in the middle of the stream, and the Uhlans caught hold of one another as they fell off their horses. Some of the horses were drowned and some of the men; the others tried to swim on, some in the saddle and some clinging to their horses’ manes. They tried to make their way forward to the opposite bank and, though there was a ford one third of a mile away, were proud that they were swimming and drowning in this river under the eyes of the man who sat on the log and was not even looking at what they were doing. When the aide-de-camp, having returned and choosing an opportune moment, ventured to draw the Emperor’s attention to the devotion of the Poles to his person, the little man in the gray overcoat got up and, having summoned Berthier, began pacing up and down the bank with him, giving him instructions and occasionally glancing disapprovingly at the drowning Uhlans who distracted his attention.

For him it was no new conviction that his presence in any part of the world, from Africa to the steppes of Muscovy alike, was enough to dumfound people and impel them to insane self-oblivion. He called for his horse and rode to his quarters.

Some forty Uhlans were drowned in the river, though boats were sent to their assistance. The majority struggled back to the bank from which they had started. The colonel and some of his men got across and with difficulty clambered out on the further bank. And as soon as they had got out, in their soaked and streaming clothes, they shouted “Vivat!” and looked ecstatically at the spot where Napoleon had been but where he no longer was and at that moment considered themselves happy.

That evening, between issuing one order that the forged Russian paper money prepared for use in Russia should be delivered as quickly as possible and another that a Saxon should be shot, on whom a letter containing information about the orders to the French army had been found, Napoleon also gave instructions that the Polish colonel who had needlessly plunged into the river should be enrolled in the Legion d'honneur of which Napoleon was himself the head.

"Quos vult perdere dementat." ("Those whom God wishes to destroy he drives mad")


There is much to recognize in Tolstoy's absurd depiction of Napoleon as a grotesque egotist, mad with power and satisfaction. I can't help thinking of the craven shamelessness of Republicans like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Jason Chaffetz and Marco Rubio when I read of these horsemen literally drowning themselves to show their devotion to their leader, who can barely be bothered to toss an honor their way. Like Donald Trump, Napoleon had a talent for motivating cowards who wish for his approval to debase themselves beyond belief. But neither of these leaders could manage to force their strongest opponents to buckle.

Like Trump, Tolstoy's Napoleon was spoiled rotten by his own immense self-regard, though it must also be said that Napoleon was a far more impressive historical figure than Trump is shaping up to be. Napoleon was a self-made man, and even at his peak of his excesses he was known to be generally humane, moderate and well-informed. Other dictators have tried to imitate Napoleon's glory (Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all strained for Napoleon's level of greatness). Like them, Trump has few of Napoleon's attractive qualities, while his many obvious psychoses and mental limitations make him clearly more dangerous than Bonaparte ever was.

But the great message of Tolstoy's War and Peace is that our leaders don't even matter that much. Certain "heroes" arise at certain times to grasp at great power, and sometimes they manage to hold power in their clutches. But this always turns out to be a false power, an illusion, unless these leaders manage to actually win the trust and love of the people they claim to lead. This is Tolstoy's great message — his pacifist message, his Christian message, his belief in the goodness of all people even when many fall under the spell of charlatans who attempt to dominate and overpower them.

Napoleon was able to briefly subjugate Russia, but he was never able to make the Russian people accept him. This is why the French armies finally froze to death on the cold retreat from Moscow, where they could ultimately find no purpose in remaining.

Today, in 2017, we the American people are the Moscovites. We are the ones who will resist forever, because we cannot be beaten. Our government has failed us, has collapsed. We have no President, and we have no Congress. (Thankfully, it appears we still do have an independent judiciary, though Trump and the Republicans are doing their best to infiltrate that branch of government as well.)

But we stand as a united people, disgusted by the phony politician who tells us to do his bidding, and we refuse. This is our Tolstoy moment, America. We may suffer much, and we may need to fight longer than we wish.

But we can rest assured that we will ultimately win, as long as we keep our faith and don't stop fighting, because a mass of people united behind a strong moral message cannot ever be defeated. A cold winter awaits those who don't understand.