Life Imitates French Adventure Novels

Many of my friends, particularly foreigners, are aghast at the unseemly spectacle that is the US presidential election of 2016.  Understandably, navigating through the mess when no one’s comments could be trusted to be accurate, much less sincere, when people are jumping ship and switching teams faster than you can cry “Donald”, and when the media joyfully and salaciously reflects each candidate’s every movement with an endless stream of commentary and ever so-slight distortion, can be confusing, even disorienting. And of course, there is a lot of noise how this is a totally different kind of election, that nothing like this has happened before, that it’s all about personalities now, that Trump is completely disruptive, and that this landscape is unknown to mankind. Not so. The dynamics in this election are ultimately no different from the dynamics in any other elections, and the forces at play are not so different from those that have existed throughout history and have been written about. Allow me to explain and make it very easy for you.

The political actors we have today are called by different names and wear different titles, but what we see in the real life U.S. in 2016 can very easily be compared to the events set in 17th century France in a number of novels written in the the 19th century, and intimately familiar to those who have had enjoyed that genre as children.

Perhaps the most widely known example is Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”, horribly distorted by the film industry and virtually unknown to the average American, from my experience. Which MAY be the reason why many average Americans are as dismayed as they are, whereas I am merely frustrated. There’s nothing new under the sun. Quickly recapping for those unfamiliar with the novel, the events take place during the reign of Louis XIII. The “good” guys are a small tight knit group of friends who are are serving as soldiers, or, well, musketeers. In wartime, they are the artillery. In peacetime, they are more like the Secret Service, or the monarch’s personal guard. In addition to their official jobs, they often serve in a less official capacity performing sensitive missions and keeping enemies at bay. The chief enemy in this case is the crafty Cardinal Richilieu, who is plotting to undermine the king to advance his own nefarious ends. He employs various henchmen to do the dirty work – Comte de Rochefort, who plays the role of an enforcer, and a spy/agent Lady de Wintour.

The book goes through various adventures, squabble and behind-the-scenes court intrigue, but the central storyline revolves around a mission to ruin the reputation of the queen and undermine the monarchy. The queen, you see, is having an affair with the British Lord Buckingham, and thoughtless gave some of the jewelry gifted to her by the king as a token of her affections to her lover. Needless to says, the Cardinal takes advantage of the situation and tries to set it up so as to cast a shadow on the queen’s fidelity. It’s up to the protagonists to save the day and to deliver the goods in a timely manner, despite all obstacles.

What does any of this have to do with our election today? Well, the quest for power is central to both storylines, In our case, presidency at stake. The aristocracy, prominent in the book, and other similar novels, is played by Senators, Congressmen, and assorted high level functionaries, donors, etc. (By the way, not all aristocrats were wealthy – many were drunks and gamblers, and often depended on non-artistocratic wealthy families for credit, etc… in other words, donors).

The candidates from both parties are hardly different from various factions vying for greater influence and power. The ladies in waiting and their male equivalents today are played by assorted staffers, who are the most direct way of developing relationships with their masters, er, employers. Conspirators plotting cloak-and-dagger schemes to oust this or that tinpot monarch and put their own man in, or get this or that plot of land to their guy could be compared to the delegates planning assorted measures to respond to RNC’s overreach in a semi-clandestine manner during the Convention, but many such ploys are evident throughout “normal” cycles just as much.

Assorted agencies and groups play the part of competing militias and guards;  supporters in our day are surely assorted industries that have emerged to create winning candidacies, and the role of musketeers clearing the way today is played by advance teams, sweeping away obstacles and annoyances before their candidate’s events and generally smoothing over the edges.

But who is the creepy controlling Cardinal in our scenario? Why, none other than… Vladimir Putin. Ha, fooled you, didn’t I? You surely expected me to name one of the nominees to that position. But alas, the RF president is proving to be at the helm, whereas the two leading candidates are merely playing into his hands.  It is Putin who is at least ONE of the gray cardinals at play here, and it is he who stands to benefit the most from creating a chaotic situation during the presidential election here, maximizing his own opportunities for now and for later.

Hillary Clinton is more like the greedy conniving Lady de Wintour who is used by the Cardinal and abandoned to her unenviable fate when she is no longer needed. Hillary is likely not a deliberate spy for Putin, but her greed and ambition have been self-evident, her lack of scruple in political dealings is legendary by this point, and the email server issue is merely an illustration of readiness to sacrifice all reason, regard for security, and sense of ethics in order to protect herself from the investigation of her financial shenanigans. Of course, her reckless disregard for national security, placed potentially valuable and sensitive information right in the hands of Putin, so he did well in furthering his goals, at least part of which is greater understanding of U.S. system, interaction with our allies and other contacts, and possibly much more. Perhaps Hillary could be useful still, and perhaps the time to write her off has not yet come.

As for Trump, he is doing quite well in his role of a pompous bombastic self-absorbed oafish minor aristocrat, that is used by the clever Cardinal as a source of incidental information and an agent of mayhem, who creates a disastrous sideshow, while simultaneously providing the necessary comic relief for the readers among all the drama. (Lady de Wintour is connected to some untimely deaths, and assorted thefts and other crimes, yet until the very end, manages to emerge unscathed from the worst of dilemmas, including an arrest).

Paul Manafort, on the other hand, is an experienced professional mercenary well familiar with Putin’s methods, and thus ideal for the role of the intermediary between the easily manipulable faux aristocrat, the public, and the “cardinal”, with Roger Stone, the master of dirty tricks, in charge of designing good- old-fashioned and ultimately baseless smear campaigns, threats to plotters/delegates, and other nasty but timeless tactics of “enforcement”.  That’s right, the smear campaigns were at the center of this year’s election, but no one really minded because they were entertaining, reinforced everyone’s worst confirmation bias about their targets, and played into the hands of their favorite.

We know that in the book, Richilieu aimed to expand the power of the Church, and of course, to extend his own influence. He just liked power for the sake of power and did not care about the number of bodies on his path to victory. Putin operates much the same way. He has coopted the RUssian Orthodox Church, and likewise has been focusing on both expanding the appearance of Russia’s international influence, and consolidating his own personal power and wealth – without wasting much time worrying about his victims. The US, Russia’s old-time Cold War rival, seems as natural a target as any. We don’t know his long-term goals regarding us, but from what we have seen involved so far, none of them are particularly amicable or helpful. Even if we assume that it was some fellow traveling dictator, perhaps someone from China’s regime, behind the stealing and/or leaking of the information, Putin certainly benefits and will utilize the opportunities as they emerge.

As you can see, not much has changed. Human nature has remained  constant, and people still think they are far important in the long scheme of things than they really are, whereas they are mostly pawns rather than top level players. Greed and power remain the overriding motive for many, while others are ready to sacrifice integrity and principles for the sake of obtaining short-term goals, be they positions of influence or promised boons, such as judges.

One may argue that the French aristocracy in France, far more Establishment than our own wannabes can ever hope to be, was not anything beneficial for most people nor worth protecting. Except that the alternative, the crafty, murderous Cardinal was at least as bad, and whereas the monarchy was relatively stable at the time, albeit with its excesses and issue,  the Church’s intervention in French internal affairs would have led to destabilization and greater consolidation of power on whichever end emerged successful, rather than providing a welcome respite to the disenfranchised public. Similarly, Trump and Hillary supporters believe that either of the candidates will provide innovation or on the contrary, valuable government experience, fix all the problems, and prevent further failures. But they fail to see that neither character is particularly savory, and behind the scenes, a crafty puppeteer is pulling the strings – in his own direction. At least one.

Assumption of complete independence of action is the biggest mistake of this election. Similarly, in the book, everyone assumed Lady de Wintour and many other characters, acted independently, whereas they represented someone else’s interests – and by the time, people caught on, it was generally too late.

So will we continue playing into the hands of assorted foreign strongmen and interests under the false slogans of “making American great again” or “being with her (more like “them)”… or will we finally take a long hard look at the disaster we are facing and prevent the slow takeover of our country by putting a stop to this political theater and selecting a president who is actually pro-American? So far, the prospects of this are not looking good. And there is no telling that a courage group of good guys will ever emerge to save the day last minute (whatever that would mean in this situation) = because even in the novel the power struggles came with their unhappy consequences.

Nothing was at the end quite what it was like at the beginning.  It never really is. Playing ostrich won’t help. Denying the obvious won’t help. Asking tough questions may be the first step towards clarity, towards regaining sanity and a sense of perspective. Funny, that our reality has more in common with French adventure novels of the corrupt aristocratic elites than what our republican democratic form of governance  was supposed to be = protecting us from those very excesses and the tomfoolery that comes with that territory. Yet, here we are  – playing right into the hands of the modern-day Richilieu, letting ourselves get hijacked – and won’t what hit us until it’s too late. Don’t go for those sugar pills, guys. Don’t fall prey to charming desirable manipulators who tell you exactly what you want to hear. Don’t make excuses for tyrants and unscrupulous thugs. Your future and your life at stake, and there may not be anyone to come save you. After all, anyone who acts like a real friend and dares to tell you truth to your faith, is labeled as a traitor and immediately cast out.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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