People reflexively compare Donald Trump to Hitler, but they have the wrong German. It’s Kaiser Wilhelm that the Donald is freakishly like. The similarity goes far beyond their extremely distinctive hair. (Trump’s elaborate blond comb-over is easily matched by the Kaiser’s trademark handlebar mustache with tips that stood straight up an inch high on the ends.)
The Kaiser’s power, like Trump’s, was unearned; he inherited the throne, while Trump fell into the presidency through a freak accident of history and demographics. Popularly perceived as foolish, Trump, like the Kaiser is actually reasonably intelligent, but also like the Kaiser, he convincingly simulates stupidity through his combination of extraordinary vanity, a comical level of arrogance, a negligible attention span, and legendary immaturity.
Trump famously surrounds himself with yes-people of mediocre talent. How like the Kaiser, who, soon after coming to power, fired Otto von Bismark, one of the great foreign policy geniuses of modern history. It was Bismark who had forged the German Empire out of Prussia and an assortment of minor German states and principalities, but the Kaiser wanted him out of the way so he would be free to pursue a militaristic course that was more or less opposite to the peaceful course Bismark had wisely set.
Bismark was no pacifist, but he recognized that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 must remain a one-time thing. The fundamental geopolitical truth was that Germany was ill-placed for war in Western Europe. The new German Empire was sandwiched on land between France to the West and the vast Russian Empire to the East, while England, the world’s preeminent sea-power, dominated the North Sea, which was Germany’s only path to the world’s oceans. Bismark saw peace as the only serious option, but Wilhelm was hungry for glory.
The Kaiser gloried in military titles and uniforms and had to an extraordinary degree the unthinking admiration of the military and the exercise of military power that Americans are now becoming increasingly familiar with. Yet he lacked any active military experience of his own and indeed would have been ineligible for soldiering because a birth injury had crippled one of his arms. (Trump’s sore feet excused him from service in Vietnam.) Nevertheless, he epitomized the Prussian worship of the military in a time and place where even society ladies stepped off the sidewalk into the street to respectfully allow officers in uniform to pass. Germany and all of Europe would pay for that worshipful admiration of warfare with generations of suffering.
Yet for all his posturing as a mighty warlord, like Donald Trump, the Kaiser had an element of populism in his peculiar political makeup. His warlike intentions were only the background of his break with Bismark. The proximate cause of Bismark’s firing was his furious opposition to the Kaiser’s proclamation on the protection of workers. The Kaiser’s backing would prove to be an essential component of Germany’s quite progressive, almost socialist leanings with respect to the working class. One of the most surprising similarities is that the working class formed the Kaiser’s “base” almost as much as they do Donald Trump’s despite both men’s ostentatious identification with the richest and most powerful.
Both men are veritable poster-boys for the Dunning-Kruger syndrome, blissfully unaware of their own incompetence. Despite woeful ignorance of foreign affairs, both men conducted spontaneous off-the-cuff diplomatic negotiations with whatever foreign leader they might meet at an official function, convinced that they are masters of diplomacy yet serenely ignorant of the implications of their proposals. The Kaiser, like Trump, loved to meet alone with foreign leaders behind closed doors, lest those pesky diplomats find some reason to spit in the soup. In the famous Treaty of Björkö incident, the Kaiser arranged for his yacht and the yacht of his cousin, the genuinely not-too-bright Czar Nicholas of Russia, to secretly moor close to each other so that the two emperors could privately hammer out a mutual defense treaty, far from the meddling diplomats. Wilhelm planned to cleverly solve Germany’s two front war problem by taking Russia out of the equation with the stroke of a pen. Under the treaty, Russia would come to Germany’s aid in a war against France, which would both avoid a two-front war and double the military power arrayed against France.
Unfortunately, the emperors somehow failed to adequately consider Russia’s long-standing agreement with France to do exactly the opposite, and the treaty was shot down immediately. It was an absurd plan and it says much about the two men’s personalities that the Czar could be so easily be talked into a nonsensical deal, and that the Kaiser failed to imagine that there might be a reason why his professional diplomats had not had the same stroke of genius.
The Kaiser loved to rattle his saber over this or that and like Trump, generally showed little genuine interest in whatever it is that he was rattling his saber about. He seems to have just loved the sound, but Europe at the beginning of the 20th C. was a dangerous place for that game. Rapid industrialization had put unprecedented economic and military power behind the complex and unstable web of national animosities and alliance that had accumulated over centuries. The last great war in Europe had been the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 in which what would soon be the German Empire (led by Bismark) had trounced the French Second Empire (under Napoleon III) and annexed the territories from which they would create the German Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine. The humiliation of that defeat and the presence of a German Alsace-Lorraine on their border gnawed at the French for generations; the French thirst for revanche was only one of many such national grudges that provided fuel for the conflagration that would lay waste to so much of Europe in the Great War.
There was no Twitter in the early 20th C, but the Kaiser made do with pen and paper, firing off random unsolicited advice to foreign leaders all and sundry, many of whom were relatives, his mother being the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. His letters and telegrams read very much like The Donald’s Tweets to celebrities, filled with patronizing and often wacky advice.
But for all that, the Kaiser was in many ways a rather interesting guy. His antics and insulting behavior to foreign dignitaries could be epic, but he had a strong desire to eliminate the backward-looking anti-intellectualism of the Prussian ruling class and promote science, engineering, and medicine in Germany. He was an interesting character right up until August 1914, when the militarism he promoted and facilitated was unleashed. The pointless war that he let happen ultimately destroyed the German Empire, brought Europe to the brink of ruin, caused the deaths of thirty million people, and laid the groundwork for the even bigger and more destructive Second World War. It might not be too much to lay at the Kaiser’s door even the Russian Revolution and the calamitous consequences that followed it. Prior to the Great War, Russia had been modernizing rapidly, and but for the ruinous war with Germany, violent revolution might have been avoided entirely.
The Kaiser never repented any of it. After the war, he lived out the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands, believing to the end (in 1941) that he’d done a terrific job.
Trump’s presidency will end too, one way or another. He will exit the world stage having inflicted enormous and lasting damage on the Republican Party, his electoral constituency, and to his country’s standing among the nations of the world. Incalculable damage has already been done and he’s just getting started.
Donald Trump is no more the repenting type than the Kaiser, but whether he will enjoy a quiet exile like the Kaiser’s is doubtful. His tenure as president more and more seems destined for a premature end, but unless he can get some kind of guarantee that he and the kids won’t go to prison, there is no upside to leaving quietly.
When the current situation finally becomes intolerable, as it inevitably must, the Republican leaders could privately tell him that he must choose between “retiring for medical reasons” with the unwritten understanding that he will be pardoned by Pence if it becomes necessary, and being impeached immediately. Given such a choice, he’s almost certain to take option B and brass it out because the deal doesn’t get them off the hook with Preet Bharara. It worked with Nixon because the pardon could be presented to the country as a magnanimous action by his successor in the interest of “national healing” but the country almost choked on it. Nobody outside of Mueller’s team knows for sure, but it’s looking it may go all the way to Trump allowing Putin to dictate US Government policy, so it’s looking like Trump will be way outside of Nixon territory.
The only plausible outcome is that Trump’s presidency will be terminated be a 25th Amendment quasi-coup d’etat by Mike Pence and a cabal of top Cabinet members quietly authorized by a desperate Republican leadership. This will solve the problem for the country, but leave Trump a sitting duck for both state and federal prosecution.
So we’ll have to wait to see how far The Donald’s post-presidency parallels the Kaiser’s exile. Will it end with a dignified retirement to Mar-a-Lago, or with endless legal prosecution and the threat of prison until he’s too old to bother with?