Trump, Prince Vasili, and Pure Cynicism

Donald Trump

Donald Trump


Today’s post is about politicians who change their positions to please constituencies and how, distressful though we may find it, it’s been a part of politics for a long, long time. In fact, when in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) Jonathan Swift describes Lilliputian court battles between the High Heels and the Low Heels (Tories and Whigs), he has one politician—based on the Prince of Wales, the future George II—wearing one high heel and one low heel, so that he totters when he walks. Supposedly George’s wife Caroline found the depiction accurate and funny.

Few literary characters totter quite so spectacularly as Prince Vasili in War and Peace, who may surpass all but one of our current candidates. In fact, I believe examining Vasili helps us understand Donald Trump’s success. More on that in a moment.

First let’s look at the other candidates, however. There’s Marco Rubio, who proposed comprehensive immigration reform three years ago and then has been rapidly running from his bill ever since the ferocious rightwing blowback. In the debate the other night, Hillary Clinton was dinged for her opposition to a Trans Pacific Partnership bill (TPP) that she had a role in negotiating. If people like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Scott Walker have run into problems over reversals, it’s in part because, like Mitt Romney before them, they don’t put enough conviction into their flipflops. Only Donald Trump approaches Prince Vasili’s flexibility.

Look at his record. He can be in favor of single payer healthcare at one point and utterly against it at another. He can praise Hillary Clinton, then bash her. The secret, as Prince Vasili demonstrates, lies in effrontery. Neither man shows any hint of shame.

I have in mind the disagreement in War in Peace over whether Prince Kutuzov should lead the Russian armies against Napoleon. We get a foreshadowing of Prince Vasili’s constantly changing assessment of Kutuzov in the two conflicting salons to which he belongs. One, run by Anna Palovna, is fiercely anti-French while the other, run by Vasili’s daughter, regrets Russia’s rupture with Napoleon. Vasili is “a connecting link” between the two:

He visited his “good friend Anna Pavlovna” as well as his daughter’s “diplomatic salon,” and often in his constant comings and goings between the two camps became confused and said at Helene’s what he should have said at Anna Pavlovna’s and vice versa.

The elasticity required here is nothing compared to his mercurial pronouncements about Kutuzov. When the Tsar hesitates about choosing a commander, Vasili opposes the aged general:

Now, is it suitable that Count Kutuzov, the oldest general in Russia, should preside at that tribunal? He will get nothing for his pains! How could they make a man commander-in-chief who cannot mount a horse, who drops asleep at a council, and has the very worst morals! A good reputation he made for himself at Bucharest! I don’t speak of his capacity as a general, but at a time like this how they appoint a decrepit, blind old man, positively blind? A fine idea to have a blind general! He can’t see anything. To play blindman’s bluff? He can’t see at all!

This opinion, Tolstoy tells us, made sense on July 24. But by July 29 there is uncertainty, and we are told that “Prince Vasili’s opinion continued to be correct though he was not now in any hurry to express it.” Then, in early August, Kutuzov is appointed “commander-in-chief with full powers over the armies and over the whole region occupied by them.” Can you imagine how Prince Vasili responds?

Prince Vasili entered the room with the air of a happy conqueror who has attained the object of his desires.

“Well, have you heard the great news? Prince Kutuzov is field marshal! All dissensions are at an end! I am so glad, so delighted! At last we have a man!” said he, glancing sternly and significantly round at everyone in the drawing room.

One guest learns that pointing out Vasili’s previous position is as useless as doing the same with Trump:

[He] could not refrain from reminding Prince Vasili of his former opinion. Though this was impolite to Prince Vasili in Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, and also to Anna Pavlovna herself who had received the news with delight, he could not resist the temptation.

“But, Prince, they say he is blind!” said he, reminding Prince Vasili of his own words.

“Eh? Nonsense! He sees well enough,” said Prince Vasili rapidly, in a deep voice and with a slight cough—the voice and cough with which he was wont to dispose of all difficulties.

“He sees well enough,” he added. “And what I am so pleased about,” he went on, “is that our sovereign has given him full powers over all the armies and the whole region—powers no commander-in-chief ever had before. He is a second autocrat,” he concluded with a victorious smile.

When it appears that Kutuzov has won the Battle of Borodino, Vasili is in “I told you so” mode:

“What did I tell about Kutuzov?” Prince Vasili now said with a prophet’s pride. “I always said he was the only man capable of defeating Napoleon.”

It then becomes unclear who won the battle, however, given that both sides have suffered immense losses. Vasili isn’t the only one doing pirouettes:

But next day no news arrived from the army and the public mood grew anxious. The courtiers suffered because of the suffering the suspense occasioned the Emperor.

“Fancy the Emperor’s position!” said they, and instead of extolling Kutuzov as they had done the day before, they condemned him as the cause of the Emperor’s anxiety. That day Prince Vasili no longer boasted of his protege Kutuzov, but remained silent when the commander-in-chief was mentioned.

Then there is a new development and a new reversal. It occurs right after Vasili’s daughter dies, probably of a botched abortion. I love Tolstoy’s parenthetical comment:

On the third day after Kutuzov’s report a country gentleman arrived from Moscow, and news of the surrender of Moscow to the French spread through the whole town. This was terrible! What a position for the Emperor to be in! Kutuzov was a traitor, and Prince Vasili during the visits of condolence paid to him on the occasion of his daughter’s death said of Kutuzov, whom he had formerly praised (it was excusable for him in his grief to forget what he had said), that it was impossible to expect anything else from a blind and depraved old man.

“I only wonder that the fate of Russia could have been entrusted to such a man.”

I’m not entirely unsympathetic with politicians shifting positions. They have to balance competing pressures, and idealism must be mixed with pragmatism if one is to be effective. Even Abraham Lincoln finessed issues. But if one is guided by no core other than self interest, then the public is at the mercy of egotists. I find no core in either Prince Vasili or Donald Trump.

I haven’t finished the novel yet and so don’t know how Prince Vasili responds after Kutuzov finally defeats Napoleon. I’m waiting to see if he gets his comeuppance and I’m wondering the same about Trump. Surely there’s a limit.

Or can one escape consequences indefinitely?

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