What is to be done with Donald Trump?
He hasn’t yet conceded the election, but, come January 20, he will be looking for a new job. He is undoubtedly tempted to remain as much as possible in the public eye, rage-tweeting against the Biden administration and possibly starting up a new cable TV network. But he also has to worry about criminal investigations, and about defaulting on his considerable debt now that he can no longer use the presidency to drive business to his hotels and resort properties.
At the same time, President-elect Joe Biden is certainly not relishing the prospect of having Trump around for the next four years, spreading lies and insults about him at every turn. A Trump trial might be gratifying to Biden after the chants of “lock him up” at Trump rallies, but the resulting media circus would be an enormous distraction, making it more difficult for the new president to pursue his own agenda. What’s left of the GOP establishment, as well, is doubtless dreading having to continue defending Trump’s ever-crazier statements for fear he will back their primary opponents.
Fortunately, history offers a solution that could work to everyone’s advantage: political exile. The U.S. Constitution, of course, has no mechanism for imposing such a sentence on a former president, but Trump himself might enjoy following one particular precedent.
In April 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the throne of France. Despite losing a massive army in Russia a year and a half earlier, he had continued to fight valiantly against a large allied coalition, but finally he was pushed back into his home territory and forced to surrender. By the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon agreed to leave France, and to renounce all claims by his family to the country.
It was a humiliation, but not a total one. The treaty allowed Napoleon to keep his title of “emperor” and gave him a new principality to rule: the Mediterranean island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany and not far from his native Corsica—a pleasant place roughly the size of Martha’s Vineyard, with a craggy coastline and mild climate. Napoleon would have a spacious mansion to live in, a 400-man honor guard and a large staff. As “emperor of Elba” he would enjoy all the trappings of sovereignty, including a crown and flag. True, the British navy would keep watch to make sure he didn’t leave. Still, for someone whose aggressive wars had led to as many as 4 million deaths across Europe, it was a mild enough punishment. Soon after signing the treaty, Napoleon set off for his new home, with the British press mockingly asking whether he would have enough “Elba room” there.
Following this precedent, why not give Trump his own island realm, and an imperial title to go with it? The chance to call himself Emperor Donald I might satisfy even this most titanic of egos and make up for the humiliating election loss to “Sleepy Joe.” Trump could build himself a palace, copying the décor from his penthouse in Trump Tower, which was itself inspired by Versailles. He could install Rudy Giuliani as Grand Chamberlain, and William Barr as his Lord High Executioner. Ivanka and Don Jr. could fight over who would inherit the crown. As absolute monarch, Trump could ban abortion, immigration and taxes, while declaring gun ownership mandatory for all his subjects. He could build a new Trump International Hotel, fly in supporters to stay there, and then stage rallies with them to his heart’s content.
The question, of course, is: Which island? Trump himself would probably love to take over Martha’s Vineyard, which would give him the chance to confiscate Barack Obama’s summer home. (Plus, he would have Alan Dershowitz as a neighbor.) But the islanders cast more than three-quarters of their votes for Biden, so they would probably object. One of the Channel Islands might work, but California went for Biden by nearly 2 to 1, and the citizens of Santa Barbara might have problems seeing their ocean view marred by gigantic Trump Towers on the horizon.
Consider the charms of Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. It is currently uninhabited, so giving it to Trump would not involve having to expel any residents. True, it still has dangerous levels of radioactivity from the 23 nuclear tests conducted there from 1946 to 1958. But for Trump, who boasted that he was a “perfect physical specimen” after he survived his bout with Covid-19, and who has legendary disdain for scientists and their expertise, surely a little radioactive strontium and cesium would not pose a problem. Nor would the threat of rising seas to the low-lying atoll bother someone who thinks of global warming as a hoax. Trump, of course, would find it difficult to resist ruling a place named “Bikini,” and the tropical climate might remind him of Mar-a-Lago.
There is one possible problem, however, as the story of Napoleon on Elba also reminds us. After less than a year in his miniature island realm, the former emperor of the French grew bored and restless. He also learned that the new French government, under the underwhelming King Louis XVIII, had already become massively unpopular. So, in February 1815, Napoleon and a group of loyal followers secretly embarked on a brig and sailed away from Elba, dodging the British patrols. Two days later, they landed on the southern coast of France and started marching north. The French flocked to them, King Louis fled for Belgium, and within weeks Napoleon had arrived in Paris and declared his empire reestablished. It would take a costly new military campaign, and a famous battle in June, for the allies to defeat him a second time, and to bring the episode of the “Hundred Days” to an end. Napoleon would then depart for a second exile, this time as a prisoner of the British Army on the tiny, windswept island of Saint Helena, deep in the South Atlantic, where he died six years later.
Donald Trump, as well, would almost certainly try to stage a return to power at some point. There are already reports that he is planning to run for president in 2024. Still, the Democrats might not have that much to fear. If the historical parallel holds, Trump’s comeback, however dramatic, could be followed swiftly by his Waterloo.
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