Although he was an Englishman (by way of Ireland), Sir Edmund Burke is often considered the intellectual father of American conservatism. As a member of the British House of Commons in the 1770s, Burke forcefully defended American independence and preached eloquently that the British crown should allow the American continent the democratic rule they so clearly desired. In his way, he was considered a liberal of his time; an advocate for decreasing the authority of the monarchy – even a constitutional one – in favor of self-ruling open democracy.
Burke gained some international notoriety in his day as a public advocate for a position which was initially unpopular at home. And so, when the French Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in 1789 and forcibly removed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from Versailles, the leaders of what was at the time a relatively modest movement in France fully expected to have Burke on their side. Instead, revolutionaries like Mirabeau were stunned when Burke responded to their plight by penning, in 1790, what would become his most enduring work, a round condemnation of the then-budding French revolution.
By now the excesses of the French Revolution are fairly well known, but when contemplating the genius of Burke, it is important to remember that in 1790, the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were still 3 years in the future, and the subsequent worse Terrors were yet more distant still. Yet at this time Mirabeau was publicly cautious about the course of the revolution, warning publicly (and prophetically, as it turned out) that “When you undertake to run a revolution, the difficulty is not to make it go – it is to hold it in check.”
Burke’s prophetic ability was nothing short of genius, then, when he saw in the French revolution that “at the end of every vista you see nothing but the gallows.” None less than Thomas Paine disagreed strenuously with Burke at the time, noting in The Rights of Man, “Whom has the National Assembly brought to the scaffold? None.” It would of course turn out that Paine was disastrously wrong.
How was Burke able to see half decade of senseless bloodlust that was about to consume the French countryside, while he had so recently praised the efforts of the American revolutionaries? Mainly, he saw the difference between the leaders the revolutionaries had selected for themselves. On the one hand, he saw that the Americans, wishing to be left alone and to live their lives according to their own democratic wishes, had selected such men as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to lead them. The French, being a bloodthirsty mob, had quickly shunted aside Mirabeau in favor of increasingly radical and violent men, like Danton, Marat, and Robespierre.
A few short months after Burke’s book was published, France got the first taste of what the revolution was to become. The constant infighting and political instability had invited the Austrians to invade France in order to attempt the salvation of Marie-Antoinette. In response to military defeats, a mob sacked the Paris prisons, killing 1200 inmates – including women and children – many of whom were savagely hacked to death by the mob. A sham tribunal handed Marie-Antoinette’s Bedchamber maid over to the mob, who ripped her body apart while she was still alive, mounting her head on one pike and her entrails on another.
From then on the French revolution would follow a familiar pattern: rabblerousers would arise out of nowhere – each more radical than the last – and the previous leaders of the revolution would find themselves the victims of the mob mentality they had helped to foster. The King’s brother, the Duc d’Orleans, had played a key role in supporting the revolution and delivering the king to their custody, but that did not save him from the guillotine. One of the leading revolutionaries, Pierre-Victurnien Vergniaud, noted with horror that the revolution, like Saturn, was devouring her own children – he would find himself in the guillotine a short time later. Marat was assassinated in a bathtub, which provoked an order to arrest anyone suspected of “disloyalty to the revolution,” an order which was carried out to ruthless extremes under Robespierre. Robespierre himself was finally arrested and killed in 1794, which marked the high water mark of the Terrors. Before it was done, the French Revolution would claim the lives of tens of thousands of innocent French civilians.
The difference between the end result of a revolution led by men such as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Adams on the one hand, and a revolution led by Mirabeau, Marat, the Marquis de Sade and Robespierre on the other, cannot be overstated. The Americans emerged with a stable democracy that still stands today (in spite of numerous historical challenges). The French emerged with a country in ruins, with the Austrians and Prussians knocking on the door of total conquest. To avert this conquest, the French turned to a young military genius named Napoleon, whose dynasty would rule France with dictatorial power until, incredibly, Louis XVI’s brother was permitted to return to the throne and rule as a monarch. Not until Napoleon III was deposed in 1870 (as a result of further disastrous conflict with the Prussians) would the French have anything even approaching the constitutional democracy that the Americans formed in 1787.
In the meantime, the consequences of the rule of Napoleon and the echoes of the French revolution (and the wars it generated) would wreak horrible privations on ordinary French citizens for the better part of a century.
I have considered all this at some length as I have watched the Donald Trump phenomenon take hold over the last five or six months. Many men – including Erick Erickson here – have struggled for years against the existing GOP order, recognizing that it was rotten and in need of change. The end result of their struggles is a Presidential nomination contest in which [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] and [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ] both have an outstanding shot at winning – a result that would have been unthinkable in 2008 (frankly, the idea of either man being elected to the Senate was unthinkable then).
But for having the temerity to suggest that Trump was a charlatan who was profiteering on a revolution he did nothing to either help create or advance, I saw Erick receive hate mail that clearly indicated that a mob had formed that would have had his head on a pike, if they could. Many people who have fought for years to overthrow the legitimate establishment are now branded as being part of it by an unthinking and unreasoning mob, who knows to look for nothing but its next two minute objects of hate.
The Trump revolution has substituted a reasoned list of grievances against the established order with a mob that chants thoughtless slogans and thirsts for blood (for now, the blood is purely metaphorical). Engaging the average Trump supporter about why they support Trump is not likely to produce any sort of coherent answer that won’t be found on a hat that Donald Trump himself has worn at some point.
And so here we are, and I am regularly asked why I can’t find common cause with his supporters, even though I might oppose Trump himself. The reason, though I am clearly no Burke, is that I can see that what I want and what Trump supporters want has only the surface level similarities between the American Revolution and the early days of the French revolution. Underneath, a movement that would elevate a man such as Trump, in the face of overwhelming evidence of his completely absent philosophical and moral compass, is not a movement that will lead to prosperity, order, or a better America.
The difference between a movement that would elevate a Cruz or a Rubio, and one that would elevate a Trump, is the difference between a revolution that will end in positive change, and one that will cause untold misery on the country at large. The nomination of Trump will almost certainly lead to the election of Hillary, and if it doesn’t, the consequences might well be worse. The fracturing of the one political movement in America that is actually dedicated to the preservation of America’s territorial integrity and its safety can only invite further boldness from our modern day Austrians and Prussians – ISIS and Al Qaeda.
That all of this should come to pass over a man such as Trump is evidence that what exists here is not a revolution in search of freedom, but a mob in search of violence for its own sake. And such a movement must be opposed as the existential threat to this country’s health that it truly is.