“He loved authority and business. He had a high sense of his own personal dignity,” one commentator observed. “He was not altogether destitute of a sentiment which bore some affinity to patriotism … His second wish was to be feared and respected abroad. But his first wish was to be absolute master at home.”
He came to power, succeeding a popular head of state who had tried to restore normalcy, and even enjoyed a certain amount of popular backing at the start. But a series of self-inflicted blunders over the ensuing four years gradually sapped his support. He “was bent on ruining himself; and every attempt to stop him only made him rush more eagerly to his doom.” As the end closed in, he raged against officials for following the law rather than his orders. “You believe everybody,” he fumed, “rather than me.” In the end, he was removed from office, and his best attempts to return came up short.
I refer, of course, to King James II and VII of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
The resemblances between this king and Donald Trump are peculiar, and also illuminating. In each case, a morally and politically flawed leader is ejected from office; he goes into exile, establishes an opulent court, and plots a reinstatement; his children strive to take up the mantle, while a small but devoted band of supporters remains steadfast. Think of it as 45 meets the ’45.
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.”
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.”
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.
The Stuarts then set up courts in Catholic countries on the continent, first in France and then in Italy. Palm Beach’s Mar-a-Lago might not be the Palazzo Muti in Rome, but they played a similar function. The deposed monarch and his heirs could live in splendor, oversee a quasi-ambassadorial function, and hand out favors to loyal supporters.
Both dynasties drew their support from outside major centers of population and power. For Trump, that is rural areas, especially in the South. Jacobitism remained strongest on the fringes of the kingdom, in Scotland, Ireland, and Cornwall. (Indeed, Trump’s mother emigrated from Scotland, where her own Clan MacLeod had been supporters of the Jacobite cause.) Like Trump backers who now call for the secession of red states, Jacobites favored the dissolution of the union of the crowns.
Trump has now become an Old Pretender, in function if not personal affect: James Francis Edward Stuart was known as an intellectual. In his exiled court, the ex-president plots a return, either via a chimerical reinstatement or a new run for president in 2024. There is a Young Pretender too—Donald Trump Jr., or as we might rechristen him, Bonnie Prince Donny, who aspires to replicate his father’s political success. (Both heirs struggled with alcohol and romantic stability.)
“The old monarchy, the old Jacobite monarchy, took major risks. And of course the greatest gamble of all was in 1745, when Charles Edward Stuart descended on Scotland with only a few supporters, some gold, but only the promise of support from the French monarchy,” Devine said. “Because of his businessman background, there’s a strong element of the gambler in Trump. There is an important analogy there.”
The Jacobites gambled everything and lost. The question is whether this fate awaits Trump’s family and movement as well. Trump is down, but he retains a grip on the Republican Party and is the favorite for the GOP nomination in 2024 if he wants it. While observers like me warn of the grave threat to American democracy that his thinking poses, Jacobitism went from a real peril to a nonentity by the end of the 18th century. “It’s so harmless and so timid and so emasculated—it’s not a threat anymore—it can be sentimentalized in the work, for example, of Sir Walter Scott,” Devine told me. “That could be the [movement’s] fate—the lost cause of Trump.”
Lost causes are not always so harmless, though. Mark Twain placed some of the blame for the Civil War on Scott’s novels. “Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war,” he wrote in Life on the Mississippi. The Confederacy’s own Lost Cause myth casts a dark shadow over American politics to this day. On January 6, when Trump supporters stormed the seat of government to try to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president, one walked the halls of the Capitol bearing the Confederate battle flag.
At this moment, Trump’s movement remains a serious danger to democracy and rule of law in the United States—a new lost cause of its own with all the menace of the Confederacy. With some luck, perhaps one day Trumpism will eventually be relegated to bodice rippers and tourist kitsch.