From the day that Derek Chauvin was named, fired from the Minneapolis police and charged with the homicide of George Floyd, I’ve been waiting for someone to point out the resonance of the ex-cop’s surname. Since no one — as far as I’ve seen — has done so yet, now that his charge has been raised from third- to second-degree murder, I suppose this task falls to me.
The legendary Napoleonic soldier Nicolas Chauvin has been found by scholars to be an apocryphal literary archetype or composite figure, so Derek can hardly be his descendant. But he deservedly inherits the mantle of chauvinist heritage. Indeed, yesterday it transpired that he had a role in perpetuating it: when his three companions who stood by were at last arrested and arraigned as accomplices, it turned out that two of them had been on the force for only four days. Despite multiple previous complaints against Derek Chauvin, they were under his tutelage as a training officer.
Nicolas Chauvin’s fervent, unquestioning devotion to Bonaparte even after the latter was defeated and discredited, was undiminished — indeed, it was intensified — by the severe and disfiguring injuries that the mythical soldier sustained in countless battles for the emperor. It turned his name into so familiar a term that it is written, lower-case, to denote fanatical excessive espousal of a patriotic or other cause. In the 1960s and 70s, it was applied so effectively — and often rightly — by the women’s lib movement against masculine domination (remember “male chauvinist pig”?) that Webster’s now lists this as the word’s primary sense. But it properly refers to ardent, mindless partisanship for any identification group, to the detriment of all others.
What could earn Derek Chauvin this distinction more than choking the life out of a handcuffed man by jamming a knee into the detainee’s windpipe for almost nine minutes, with the killer’s hands nonchalantly in his pockets, just because the victim belonged to the wrong race?
The original chauvinists obscured the positive aspects of Napoleon’s legacy — of which we Jews, whose emancipation in France and Europe he promoted, should be especially conscious — by highlighting his descent into boundless ambition, self-glorification and bloodshed. Donald Trump has far less to his credit but, as of this week, he has exhibited a level of derangement that approaches Napoleon’s — with results that may prove no less disastrous for his own nation as well as others. In recent weeks he has turned the quintessentially chauvinist concept of “domination” into a mantra. Though “bone-spur” draft-dodger Trump never bore arms, he has added the original warrior Chauvin’s better-earned militarism to their common obsession with imaginary “good old days” (MAGA). And he has his own Chauvins, from local police forces all the way up to the US Senate, who will endorse and follow him out of blind adulation or, worse, calculated self-interest until he leads them over the inevitable cliff.
I was horrified when some of the protests in US cities erupted into violence, arson and looting. OMG, I thought, they are not merely squandering this opportunity to broaden the appeal for racial equality and justice; they may well energize the American chauvinists enough to put Trump narrowly over the top in the Electoral College this year as they did in 2016. Afterward, if Trump, Barr & Co. keep up their campaign to subvert the electoral process, there may not be a proper vote in 2024. That is how democracies die — roughly how the French Revolution became Napoleon’s empire. In Washington this week, goons in full combat gear wore no name badges and refused to state their agency affiliation: the apparition of an American secret police.
I rejected suggestions by like-minded friends that the looters whom the US military was called in to suppress were just false-flag provocateurs. It must be recognized, I felt, that there are violent and criminal elements among African-Americans too — a fact that can be partly explained by centuries of deprivation, but not condoned or tolerated. However it must not be used to excuse a barefaced affront to the Constitution, as Trump’s own former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other retired, respected flag officers have at last found the backbone to condemn.
The generals and admirals spoke out because Trump proved me wrong by snatching self-debasement from the jaws of the vindication that I feared. After cowering in a White House bunker, he jaunted across Lafayette Square once uniformed personnel cleared it of peaceful demonstrators by firing tear gas and rubber bullets, for a ludicrous photo op outside a somewhat damaged church. He brandished a Bible which — how symbolically — he held upside down. Church leaders denounced it, but the latter-day American chauvinists may yet buy it. Their counterparts in Israel might, too.