Louis XIV, the Sun King, led France in an age of diplomatic and military triumphs and state centralization. In a simpler age, he ruled personally, without a prime minister, and he mastered the French aristocracy. He is said to have declared, “L’état, c’est moi,” which would have been a ridiculous thing to say, except that he was a great king. His descendant, Louis XVI, isn’t remembered that way. As the well-known historian Allan Sherman wrote, he was worse than Louis XIII, he was worse than Louis XIV, he was worse than Louis XV, he was the worst since Louis I.
I’m not sure I can think of any American president who embodied the American state in the way that Louis XIV embodied France. That’s really by design, of course; the President is, as George Washington said, merely the “chief magistrate” of our Republic. But Donald Trump has always had an ersatz Louis XIV aesthetic, and I have no doubt that in his mind he does embody the nation. It’s easy to laugh at Trump’s tacky and grandiose style, until you read an argument like this from his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, in Trump’s Senate trial:
Now, we talked about motive. There are three possible motives that a political figure can have: One, a motive in the public interest, and the Israel argument would be in the public interest; the second is in his own political interest; and the third, which hasn’t been mentioned, would be in his own financial interest, his own pure financial interest, just putting money in the bank. I want to focus on the second one for just one moment.
Every public official whom I know believes that his election is in the public interest. Mostly, you are right. Your election is in the public interest. If a President does something which he believes will help him get elected—in the public interest—that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.
It’s one thing to be a Bossuet in the seventeenth century, when the idea of the divine right of kings was a new idea that served the interests of the nation against the old feudal aristocrats. But in 2020 only a toady can be an apologist for a theory that makes the personal interests of the President the same as the interest of the public and effectively puts the President above the law.
One of the very surprising things about the last few weeks has been the Republicans’ apparent lack of concern for the verdict of history. Which Republican senator wants to be remembered a hundred years from now for failing to protect the prerogatives of Congress and for putting up with a man who not so long ago they more or less universally said was a demagogue and a menace to the Republic? All of them, it seems.