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Trump’s story is familiar. The history of the Jacobite movement (the name comes from the Latin for “James”) may be less so. James II became king upon the death of his brother, Charles II, in February 1685, but his religion—Catholicism, in a Protestant country—and various political missteps led to his removal in the so-called Glorious Revolution. James fled to France, where he died in 1701.
His son James Francis Edward Stuart—James III and VIII to his supporters, the “Old Pretender” to his critics—twice attempted to reclaim the British throne, once in 1715 and then again four years later. James’s son Charles (“the Young Pretender” or “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” now known for his role in the period book and TV series Outlander) tried once more in 1745, before being defeated at Culloden the next year. Jacobitism and the House of Stuart were effectively finished, though the lost cause became a popular Romantic motif, especially in Scotland.
The parallels between the Stuarts and Trumps are personal, political, and structural. When I put the notion to Sir Tom Devine, the preeminent living Scottish historian, he first laughed uproariously. “I absolutely love this comparator,” he told me once he’d regained his composure. “The entrails of connections are so potent and so lovable.”
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There are differences. James II was devout; Trump is not, though he has also found religion to be a powerful political force. James was also noted for his physical courage. But there are temperamental similarities between the men, says Daniel Szechi, a prominent historian of Jacobitism.
“Despite his many, many flaws, he was a better human being than Trump, but he shared some similar characteristics,” Szechi wrote in an email. “He was profoundly ignorant, had when young a libido the size of New York, believed he was on a mission from God, and maintained he was the true king even after the Parliaments of the three kingdoms had all deposed him, and, indeed, continued to believe the people of England still loved him despite all evidence to the contrary.”
Politically, the two men also shared an absolutist view of power, and both were accused of cruelty. “You could argue that the Trump experience revealed a sense of the development of almost a semi-monarchical court,” Devine told me. “Not only that, but a sense of dynasty, with all these other creatures who were around him to do his bidding.”
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In November 1688, when James’s son-in-law and nephew, William of Orange, invaded England, James insisted he was the rightful king, even after it was clear his support had collapsed. In November 2020, Trump insisted against all evidence that he had rightfully won the election; James’s legal justification was arguably much stronger. James urged his supporters on to a violent attempt to restore him to power, though it took years for Jacobite forces to be put down, while the Trump-inspired January 6 insurrection was quelled within hours.