Why Donald Trump is a second Savonarola

If the populist preacher's fate is anything to go by, Trump's presidency is doomed

Donald Trump, false prophet. By contemporary standards, his populist power-taking may seem like genius, but through a historical lens he is an obvious plagiarist. Trump has stolen his lines and stage directions from a playbook that is literally as old as print – and from which we can already read his ending.

The true genius of populist politics was Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). Savonarola was a Dominican friar who, in 1490, made his way to Renaissance Florence. A mid-level preacher and political outsider, Savonarola stunned Europe by tearing Florence from the 60-year grip of the Medici family with an angry surge of populist strength – punctuated by his historic Bonfire of the Vanities.

Trump thinks he's in power. But so long as he follows the populist's playbook, he's at the mercy of his base. History suggests that they will burn him, soon

His playbook had four ingredients:

1. An apocalyptic message, to stoke people's fears and stereotypes
Ottoman Muslims harassed Italy's eastern borders. From the west, the French invaded – and carried away the city's wealth in a lopsided peace deal. In a vague way, Savonarola had predicted both, and he concluded, to quote Trump: "We don't win anymore!"


2. A flawed establishment opponent
The Age of Discovery Savonarola lived in – the age of da Vinci, Copernicus, Columbus and others – was turning old truths upside down. The times called for strong leadership, Savonarola proclaimed, in both Church and state, but "O Florence, Florence, your cup is full of holes". The city's Medici patriarch, Lorenzo "the Magnicent", fell ill and died in 1492. His heir, Piero "the Unfortunate", had all his father's wealth but none of his political savvy.

3. A new medium
Gutenberg's press was just becoming common, and Savonarola harnessed its potential better than any. He delivered fiery sermons to crowds of thousands, then print houses spread his words to thousands more with the sure-to-sell transcript. Popes and princes repeatedly declared him false. Every time, Savonarola answered by flooding the streets with cheap pamphlets – 15th-century tweets – that twisted those denunciations into proof that the elites were out of touch.

4. A prophet's narcissism
Savonarola's most fervent believer was himself. God had appointed him the task of renewing the city, and so whatever words he spoke, they had to be true just because he spoke them. That self-belief was his greatest strength. It drew to his every sermon a horde of sensation-seekers, plus citizens who had lost faith and longed to have it restored by the man's reality-bending powers.

All this, Donald Trump has aped assiduously: with his demonisation of Muslims and immigrants, his “drain the swamp” rhetoric against “Crooked Hillary” and co, his 4am Twitter rants against “Fake News” and his “Fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy of life.

Trump is also repeating Savonarola’s worst mistakes.

Savonarola squandered a rare moment of opportunity. He came to power his own way, free from debt to elite patrons. At times, he exercised that political liberty to break gridlocks in the republic’s council chambers. He formed novel coalitions, successfully. He replaced Florence’s byzantine tax code with a single flat tax on all property. He developed one of Europe’s earliest public welfare programmes, in the form of reduced-rate lending. He added seats to the Great Council for forgotten voices. But the friar’s public demagoguery every Sunday overshadowed these few good ideas – and fuelled the elites’ obsession to get rid of him.

Trump likewise came to his kingship free from the usual debts owed to party patrons, and having made big promises to end congressional stalemates on tax, infrastructure, immigration, trade policy and entitlement reforms. But he, too, has so far squandered his opportunities. The novel coalitions he forges during the week – doing a deal with the Democrats on immigration reform, or forcing Democrats and Republicans to fix Obamacare subsidies by threatening to end them entirely – unravel on the weekend while he panders to his base.

Trump thinks he’s in power. But so long as he follows the populist’s playbook, he’s at the mercy of his base. History suggests that they will burn him, soon.

Savonarola thought that the base of boisterous, sometimes violent supporters he owned made him invulnerable. That arrogance blinded him to some political realities. The Paul Ryans of Savonarola’s day – those who had supported Savonarola’s efforts to evict the Medici oligarchs – shook their heads in frustration at his incapacity to rein in the messianic ego when prudence demanded (bad-mouthing the pope has never been a vote-winner). To keep his base happy, Savonarola made enemies of everyone else: on the “left”, those who rejected his public bonfires against liberal values; on the “right”, those who feared he’d start a trade war with the rest of Europe; and up high, those who feared the loss of their privileges.

But Savonarola had bought his base with false promises. “I announce this good news to the city: that she will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been!” To citizens who were weary of being pushed around by forces beyond their control, Savonarola had preached the power to defy reality – and his followers put their faith in his prophecies. But the preacher’s self-belief could not overturn the military advantages of the French army that invaded Italy, nor cure people of the syphilis brought back to Europe from the New World, nor protect Florentine merchants as global trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

Those realities began to tarnish his silver tongue. His angry base proved more fickle than faithful. And the moment they stopped turning out in the streets for him, Savonarola’s political opponents orchestrated the man’s removal. First, they had him excommunicated. And then, some four years after his reign had begun, they had him executed.

Trump-haters have made an industry out of predicting a similar demise for Trump’s presidency. History says they will probably get their wish. History also says, that’s when the real test will begin.

Savonarola’s death did nothing to reunite the city he had ruled. The divisions he stoked could not heal themselves. They were merely papered over. Removing him was the expedient solution: reformist grumbles within the Catholic Church were shushed; republican urges in Florentine politics dissipated (and by 1512, the Medici were back in power). But removing him also delayed Church and state from confronting the divisions that had made his rise to power possible. Twenty years later, Martin Luther would tap the same divisions to ignite a far greater crisis: the Protestant Reformation.

How do we improve inclusion for those left behind by rapid change, without impeding the positive forces driving change?

Likewise, Trump has amplified the social tensions of our day. But he did not create them. And whether or not he himself is defeated in 2020, or impeached, the divisions he has exposed are the real threat that must be met. The very fact of Trump’s presidency compels the US – and all advanced liberal democracies – to confront existential questions head-on, before they become existential threats:

How do we maintain the respectful discourse upon which democracy depends, without it being drowned in unaccountable lawlessness or divided into mutually unintelligible communities?

How do we maintain the sovereignty of our own citizens, in a globally open financial, economic and media age that easily admits foreign interference?

How do we pass on to each new generation the value of their democratic freedoms, if they take them for granted?

How do we improve inclusion for those left behind by rapid change, without impeding the positive forces driving change?

Trump won’t learn the lessons of history. If we don’t start looking past his tweets to the matters over which we ought to obsess, neither will we.

Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna’s Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks & Rewards of our New Renaissance is published by Bloomsbury