‘Why I believe Louis XIV is a model for Trump’
A lecturer in early modern European and French history at Trinity College, Dublin, she is an expert on the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV.
Donald Trump has been compared to both Hitler and Julius Caesar. But Linda Kiernan believes he can learn the most from the French “Sun King” Louis XIV — and not just his decorating style.
The US president has struggled recently to convey the sense that he is familiar with the details, or even broad outline, of his own country’s history. It’s therefore unlikely that he’s au fait with the politics of France’s King Louis XIV – even if he does emulate the Sun King’s interior design style.
But if Trump wants to overhaul his governing style and truly enhance his power, he’d do well to look further into a character in whose era he might have felt at home.
As Trump builds his ramshackle executive team, his administration is taking on the characteristics of a royal court.
While the Sun King united the king's two bodies, the president can barely contain two Twitter accounts
From the appointment of close relatives to the ever-shifting lines of cabals to the dubious credentials of some aides, the White House has taken on the volatile, sensitive and often opaque nature of courtly life in the medieval and early modern period. The Oval Office now comes complete with pretenders, émigrés, favourites, figures with dubious foreign connections – and, most unusually, a jester in charge.
Sadly for Trump, he seems only to take inspiration from the Sun King when presented with fabric swatches. Instead, he would do well to acquire the principal skill that helped the French court set the standard for diplomacy: subtlety.
The court system was extremely sensitive. The slightest of gestures could signal the rise or fall of any particular courtier. Courtly protocol became a universal language – and French grew as the language of diplomacy across the European continent.
The power of the office of the president depends to some extent upon the charm and persuasion of the incumbent. The commander-in-chief’s ability to cajole undecided members of Congress is just one way the aura of the office can be employed to effect political change.
Trump’s braggadocio robs him of this subtle form of presidential influence – an un-legislated, unofficial aspect of legitimate power that relies not on statute, but on stature.
The historian Ernst Kantorowicz famously wrote of “the king’s two bodies” – the idea of a monarch as the marriage of a mortal physical body with a mystical, eternal body politic. This was never better embodied than by Louis XIV.
The importance of combining the two seems to be lost on Trump. While the Sun King united these two bodies, the president can barely contain two Twitter accounts – and it’s clear which one holds sway.
The once mighty @POTUS account is merely an offshoot of the long-running @realDonaldTrump, a more lovingly maintained feed. It’s regularly updated with the latest pictures of the president in action, and time and again, it goes against the presidency’s official statements. The distinction between the two accounts is emblematic of the gap that exists between Trump’s apparent views of public service and private interest.
This is not merely an academic distinction. The president’s dual existence as a public and private individual has constitutional consequences – not least when it comes to his family appointments or potential conflicts of interest.
Leaders should understand that so long as they hold office, they do not get to operate as two separate public and private entities. It seems Trump simply doesn’t understand this concept – and much less, how important it is. So it should come as no surprise when he struggles to grasp the principle of the separation of powers, or dismisses investigations into his firing the FBI director as a “witch hunt”.
To paraphrase Louis XIV: for the time being, Mr President, “L’état, c’est toi.”
This is an edited version of Dr Kiernan’s article in The Conversation. Follow the link under Become An Expert for the full text.
- Which historical figure is Trump most like?
- Write your own 500-word opinion piece, based on your answer to the question on the left.
- King Louis XIV
- Nicknamed the “Sun King”, Louis XIV ruled France from 1643 to 1715, still the longest reign in European history.
- Interior design
- Referring to the many ostentatious gold furnishings in Trump Tower and the Palace of Versailles alike.
- Close relatives
- Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner both have high-profile roles in the White House.
- Political factions. There have been countless stories of “palace intrigue”, about which of his aides and advisers Trump favours at any given moment.
- Foreign connections
- Investigations are being conducted — including by the FBI — into alleged secret dealings between some of Trump’s top aides and the Russian government before and after the election last year.
- Boasting: the name of a braggart in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.
- Body politic
- The belief in a monarch’s spiritual embodiment of the state, separate from their physical body or person.
- L’état, c’est toi
- Louis XIV said “L’état, c’est moi” — “I, myself, am the nation.” The author replaces “moi” (myself) with “toi” (yourself) to address Trump directly.