If the populist preacher’s fate is anything to go by, Trump’s presidency is doomed
Donald Trump, false prophet. By contemporary standards, his populist power-taking may seem like genius, but through a historical lens he is an obvious plagiarist. Trump has stolen his lines and stage directions from a playbook that is literally as old as print – and from which we can already read his ending.
The true genius of populist politics was Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). Savonarola was a Dominican friar who, in 1490, made his way to Renaissance Florence. A mid-level preacher and political outsider, Savonarola stunned Europe by tearing Florence from the 60-year grip of the Medici family with an angry surge of populist strength – punctuated by his historic Bonfire of the Vanities.
“Trump thinks he’s in power. But so long as he follows the populist’s playbook, he’s at the mercy of his base. History suggests that they will burn him, soon
His playbook had four ingredients:
1. An Apocalyptic Message, to Stoke People’s Fears and Stereotypes
Ottoman Muslims harassed Italy’s eastern borders. From the west, the French invaded – and carried away the city’s wealth in a lopsided peace deal. In a vague way, Savonarola had predicted both, and he concluded, to quote Trump: “We don’t win anymore!”
2. A Flawed Establishment Opponent
The Age of Discovery Savonarola lived in – the age of da Vinci, Copernicus, Columbus and others – was turning old truths upside down. The times called for strong leadership, Savonarola proclaimed, in both Church and state, but “O Florence, Florence, your cup is full of holes”. The city’s Medici patriarch, Lorenzo “the Magnicent”, fell ill and died in 1492. His heir, Piero “the Unfortunate”, had all his father’s wealth but none of his political savvy.
3. A New Medium
Gutenberg’s press was just becoming common, and Savonarola harnessed its potential better than any. He delivered fiery sermons to crowds of thousands, then print houses spread his words to thousands more with the sure-to-sell transcript. Popes and princes repeatedly declared him false. Every time, Savonarola answered by flooding the streets with cheap pamphlets – 15th-century tweets – that twisted those denunciations into proof that the elites were out of touch.
4. A Prophet’s Narcissism
Savonarola’s most fervent believer was himself. God had appointed him the task of renewing the city, and so whatever words he spoke, they had to be true just because he spoke them. That self-belief was his greatest strength. It drew to his every sermon a horde of sensation-seekers, plus citizens who had lost faith and longed to have it restored by the man’s reality-bending powers.
All this, Donald Trump has aped assiduously: with his demonisation of Muslims and immigrants, his “drain the swamp” rhetoric against “Crooked Hillary” and co, his 4am Twitter rants against “Fake News” and his “Fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy of life.