Trump is frequently compared to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, another glib, unscrupulous, lying, preening sexual predator who managed to keep getting elected even though his personal conduct was deplorable and his policies were a disaster. Strutting and corrupt popinjays like Benito Mussolini, Carlos Menem, and Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic come to mind as well, along with other dictators who constructed cults of personality about themselves and treated their countries as a personal possession.
Well, if not Silvio, them whom? What, Willie, Kaiser Bill?
I’ve been struck by the parallels between POTUS 45 and the last Hohenzollern emperor: Kaiser Wilhelm II. I’m not the first person to notice the similarities — Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute wrote a nice piece on this topic back in January — but the common features go beyond their individual characteristics. Not only do Trump and the kaiser share some unfortunate personality traits, but there are also striking similarities between conditions in Wilhelmine Germany and the situation in the United States today. There are also some important differences, but they are not entirely reassuring.
Historian Thomas Nipperdey once described Wilhelm as “superficial, hasty, restless, unable to relax, without any deeper level of seriousness, without any desire for hard work or drive to see things through to the end, without any sense of sobriety, for balance and boundaries, or even for reality and real problems, uncontrollable and scarcely capable of learning from experience, desperate for applause and success — as Bismarck said early on in his life, he wanted every day to be his birthday.”
Okay, fair enough. But what about pre-war Germany and today's pre-war America?
Moreover, Germany under Wilhelm abandoned Bismarck’s sophisticated reliance on diplomacy and subordinated that function to the dictates of the General Staff.
Consistent with this pattern, the United States routinely views third-rate powers like Serbia, Iraq, Iran, and others as if they were mortal dangers, treats problems like the Islamic State as if they were existential threats, and tends to assume these difficulties can be solved by blowing more stuff up or sending in another team of special forces. The results of these efforts have been mostly disappointing, yet hardly anyone in Washington is willing to question this approach or even ask our commanders why “the world’s best military” isn’t winning more often.
And why was Germany in this pickle? Because neither wealthy Junker landowners nor rich German industrialists wanted to pay taxes, and both groups had the political influence to stop the government from raising them.
One critical difference.
By contrast, Trump is still in charge of the executive branch, and for the most part it is doing his bidding. The “adults in the room” (James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, etc.) may have been able to temper some of Trump’s worst instincts, but he’s still managed to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, alarm key allies, cause a precipitous drop in global confidence in the United States, undermine the Iran deal, fuel escalating tensions on the Arabian Peninsula, and repeatedly pour gasoline on the delicate situation with North Korea. Because top officials are still listening to him and still following his orders, Trump’s personality defects are more worrisome and consequential than Wilhelm’s were.
The good news?
Wolfgang, quick, fetch meine pickelhaube.