Donald Trump holds a carving knife in one hand; the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty in the other. Gruesome, but it made a eye-catching front cover for a 2017 issue of Der Spiegel. Last month, the German magazine followed up. This time the front cover shows Joe Biden on a pedestal, placing Liberty’s head back upon her shoulders.
It’s pure propaganda, of course — but illustrates the core theme of the incoming presidency: restoration. After the rupture of the last four years, the President-Elect wants to “restore the soul of America”, as he put it in his victory speech: “Let us be the nation that we know we can. A nation united, a nation strengthened. A nation healed.”
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
These are not the words of revolutionary. Biden is a restorationist, he wants things back as they were — before the virus and before Trump. The kind of people who were in charge under Barack Obama will be back in charge now. And the wider economic and cultural establishment — whether in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the Ivy League, Wall Street or the Washington beltway — they’ll be back in charge too. It’s not that they ever went away, of course. But they can rest easy now.
Or can they?
Most revolutions fail. But a further lesson of history is that most restorations also come to grief. Team Biden would do well to learn from those that failed — and from the few that didn’t. Here are ten to be getting on with:
1. The Bourbon Restoration
When Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793 it wasn’t the final end for the kings of France; more like a very rude interruption. With the final defeat of Napoleon, the monarchy was restored, and the murdered king’s brother ruled from 1815 to 1824 as Louis XVIII. He was succeeded by another brother, Charles X. Unfortunately it wasn’t just the Bourbons who came back, but the reactionary attitudes of the ancien regime. There were vindictive persecutions, a rolling back of democracy and a general failure to learn the lessons of 1789.
Unsurprisingly, it ended badly for the ultra-royalists, with a second revolution in 1830 which forced the abdication of Charles X. A third revolution would finish off the monarchy for good in 1848.
The lesson for Team Biden is this: take a hint. In many ways, the Trumpening was a freak event, but the underlying anger of those who voted for him in 2016 and 2020 is still there. If the Democrats think it can be ignored, or even taken revenge upon, then they risk further revolutions down the line.
2. The Stuart Restoration
The restoration of our own monarchy in early 1660s was marked by an act of revenge as petty as it was gross: the body of Oliver Cromwell was dug up and posthumously hung, drawn and quartered, and, unbelievably, his head wasn’t reburied until 1960, having spent most of the interim in private collections.
There where other grisly executions, both posthumous and prehumous, but afterwards the reign of Charles II took on a more tolerant character. Arguably, he had no choice but to try and reconcile the various political and religious factions, because his rule was far from absolute. He faced entrenched opposition in Parliament and under constant suspicion as to his Catholic sympathies.
Charles’s personal charm and popularity allowed him to keep the plates spinning until his death in 1685, but unfortunately he was succeeded by his brother, James II — a tactless oaf. The result was the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 — in fact, a coup that deposed the wrongheaded, but rightful, king and installed an iffy Dutchman in his place.
Genial Joe Biden, like Charles II, is well-liked, but he won’t be around forever. His designated successor, Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, has yet to prove her personal popularity. She bombed in the debates for the Democratic nomination and quit early. Despite the size of Biden’s victory (a margin of more than seven million votes), the race for the White House in 2024 is wide open.
And so successions are a dangerous time for restorations.
3. Twilight of the Roman Republic
In the most powerful state in the world political tensions rise as two parties are engaged in a bitter struggle for the Senate and indeed the very future of the Republic. Nothing much changes, but in this case we’re not talking about Democrats and Republicans, but Optimates and Populares in the first century BC. The former represented the aristocratic establishment of Rome, the latter “the people”. After a period in which the populists gained power, they suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of Lucius Cornelius Sulla — a veteran Optimas.
But while firmly restoring the old order, Sulla made a mistake — he allowed the son-in-law of Cinna, the defeated populist leader, to escape with his life. The name of the young man? Gaius Julius Caesar.
You probably know what happened next. Caesar goes on to bring the Republic crashing down. There’s nothing that the Optimates, including brilliant intellectuals like Cicero and Cato the Younger, could do to stop him; and Caesar’s assassination only leads to the rise of his nephew, Octavian a.k.a. Augustus, the first in a long line of Roman emperors.
The lesson here is simple. Just because you’ve defeated one populist, it doesn’t mean that another, more capable one, isn’t waiting for you down the line.
4. The last pagan emperor
Here’s another Roman example — this one from the fourth century AD. Flavius Claudius Julianus became emperor in 361, a fervent anti-Christian who was determined to restore Rome to its pagan ways. He’s better known to history as Julian the Apostate — which gives you an idea of how well he succeeded.
Julian’s campaign against Christianity was met with opposition, but that wasn’t the immediate reason for its failure. Rather, the cause of the Apostate’s downfall was something less subtle — namely, a Persian spear in his guts.
The moral of the tale is that if you want your restoration to succeed then a) don’t die two years into your reign and b) don’t start ill-considered wars in the Middle East.
5. The Meiji Restoration
The Japanese monarchy is old, really old. It stretches back at least 1,500 years and may be centuries older than that. However from 1185 to 1868, the position of the Emperors was effectively subordinate to that of the Shoguns — Japan’s hereditary military rulers.
In 1868, the Shogunate collapsed and the emperors were restored to a position of pre-eminence. However, what looked like a reversion to the (very) old order, was in fact intended to pave the way for something new. The Japanese had realised that they would have to modernise or be colonised, and so feudal isolationism gave way to rapid industrialisation and free trade.
As a restoration it both succeeded and, in first half of the 20th century, went horribly wrong. And yet, in modified form, the monarchy continued after the Second World War — presiding over another great burst of modernisation.
If nothing else, this story shows that restoration can be a dynamic force — and indeed must be if it is to endure.
6. Ed Miliband and the return of Old Labour
When the younger Miliband brother became Labour leader in 2010 it marked a formal end to the New Labour project. Labour would just be Labour again — as if the Blair-Brown era had never happened.
Miliband tried to create some sense of forward momentum with talk of a “new generation”, but no one was fooled. It was Neil Kinnock who blurted out the truth: “we’ve got our party back”.
But not for long. While Old Labour had routed the Blairites, they hadn’t accounted for the Hard Left — for whom Ed Miliband was a mere gateway drug to Jeremy Corbyn.
I don’t suppose that Joe Biden cares to be reminded about Neil Kinnock (their fates have tangled before), but what happened to the Labour Party is of relevance to the Democrats. While veteran socialist Bernie Sanders may be too old to run for President in 2024, his ideological heir, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will be just old enough. A Left-wing takeover of the party would be a disaster for the Dems, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
7. Russian democracy
This next example barely counts as a restoration because the pre-Communist history of Russian democracy was so short. Nevertheless, following the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russians gave it another go.
The first Russian President, Boris Yeltsin was a heroic, but deeply flawed, leader. The dissolution of a totalitarian system was always going to be chaotic, but what the Russian people couldn’t forgive was that so much of Russia’s remaining wealth ended up in so few hands. In 1999, Yeltsin stood down, to be replaced by Vladimir Putin — who would restore order, but very much on his terms. Russia’s second experiment with democracy had come to end.
Allegations of corruption could also prove toxic to the Biden administration. The controversy surrounding his son’s business dealings isn’t going away, but there’s a wider issue too. The rise of Donald Trump was fuelled by public anger against the elites. The people who had driven America into war and then crashed the economy were still rich and powerful despite eight years of Barack Obama’s “change” presidency. Trump was an instrument of long-overdue punishment.
If, over the next four years, America’s oligarchs are still flourishing while ordinary Americans suffer through a painful post-Covid recovery, then expect the voters to send the elites another message. Only louder this time.
8. German democracy
Here’s one restoration that was — and is — an indisputable success: the restoration of (West) German democracy after the Second World War. From the ruins of 1945, the leaders of the Federal Republic rebuilt a prosperous economy and a rock-solid democracy.
Of course, they’ve had help: the Allied occupation; the Marshall Plan; the protection of NATO; and the advantages of a European Union designed around German needs. But the most important factor underpinning German democracy is the complete contrast to what came before: total military defeat and the incontestable evidence of Nazi evil. Whatever the failings of the modern German state, and there are many, there is simply no comparison to the position from which it started.
So, what’s the read-across to the US today? None whatsoever, is the answer — and that’s precisely the point. The opposition to Trump may have styled itself “the resistance”, but while he was a uniquely bad president, he was not, in fact, Hitler.
Whether they like or not, the Democrats must remember that their values and those of the cultural establishment are not uncontested. The anger that millions of ordinary Americans feel towards the ruling class has been horribly exploited by charlatans, but that does make it invalid. Free from the likes of Trump, there is a chance that it find a better and more powerful expression.
9. The return of the Tory grandees
In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was toppled after 15 years as Conservative leader (and 11 as prime minister). As soon as the grocer’s daughter was gone, the old Tory establishment took back control of “their” party.
There were some ups and downs along the way, not least the landslide defeat in 1997. The election of Iain Duncan Smith in 2001 was another hiccup — however he was soon deposed and the power of the Tory Optimates re-asserted. With David Cameron, they found a patrician leader in modern garb. Furthermore, his designated heir, George Osborne, was all set to continue the new dynasty into the 2020s.
But the patricians had miscalculated. Losing the Brexit referendum in 2016 was bad enough, but by 2019 it was clear that they’d permanently lost the party to the Tory Populares, led by Boris Johnson. This was more than a matter of factional to-and-fro, but rather the result of a fundamental shift in the electorate. The populist, pro-Brexit coalition was much bigger than anything that the Cameroons could cobble together.
Political realignment is something that the Biden Democrats should watch out for too. Thanks to Trump’s irresponsibility, they won the Covid-year election, but the details of the result — in particular Republican gains among younger non-white voters — ought to worry them. A patriotic, pro-worker GOP could win the popular vote by building a populist, multi-ethnic coalition.
If the Dems think that such a thing could never happen they should have a word with Labour ex-MPs across the North of England.
Let’s finish where we begun — in America. The most important restoration in American history was the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War. It was a success in that the USA was put back together again, but a failure in that the South remained a place apart, its black population subject to new forms of oppression.
Could things have turned out differently? The dehumanising evil required to sustain slavery over so many years was always going to be hard to uproot, but the economic marginalisation of the South helped it regrow and take hold again.
Thankfully, the geographical divides today are less extreme than those 150 years ago, but the Biden administration still faces a struggle to heal America. If opportunity and influence remains concentrated in the privileged parts of a few cities, then country will stay divided.
A rebalancing needs to take place in all spheres, cultural as well as economic. Putting a country back together again does not depend on its citizens all agreeing with one another, but it does require mutual respect.
So far, Joe Biden has set the right tone. Following through with right actions won’t be so easy.