The King Over the Water

On the folly of yoking a political movement to a lost cause.

Political parties and movements have often been captured by strong personalities and wild overpromises. One is reminded in this regard of the rise and dominance of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, led by the irrepressible Maximilien Robespierre and driven by promises of utopia and crusades against an ever-changing roster of ideological foes. To borrow a phrase from the counterrevolutionary thinker Jacques Mallet du Pan, the Revolution often ‘devoured its own children’ on its continuing quest to root out wrongthink and redress perceived injustices. The Jacobin Terror destroyed the progressive dreams of its supporters in a blood-fueled spasm of violence, turning the French Revolution in a decidedly more moderate direction that ended with the eventual restoration of the very monarchy it overthrew. Processes like these have recurred again and again throughout history, usually ending in a total rout for groups like the Jacobins; it is quite a bit rarer for the defeated party to hang around afterwards, still siphoning loyalty and attention from its backers.

We are seeing a version of this phenomenon playing itself out in real time in American right-wing politics. As the consequential 2022 midterm elections approach and chatter begins around the 2024 Presidential election (I’m sorry, but yes, it’s already here.), Republicans and conservatives are faced with a stark choice: return to the MAGA fold and embrace Donald Trump, or move forward with new blood and ideological competition. The answer they choose will determine whether the party capitalizes on an historic opportunity to dominate American politics and advance conservative ideas or fails and is forced deeper into the political and ideological wilderness during a crucial period for the nation. As noted, this is not a new occurrence in political history, although it is uncommon. Focusing on past grievances and trying to turn back the political clock generally isn’t a winning strategy, especially when it is paired with overpromises and personality cults. Still, these lost causes have drawn support time and time again. One of the prime historic examples of the power of such a combination to ruin political fortunes and movements comes from 17th and 18th century Britain: the failure of the Jacobites.[1]

The Jacobites were supporters of the deposed Stuart monarch James II and his heirs, and saw the 1688-89 Glorious Revolution which installed William III as King as destructive and illegitimate. The origins of the Jacobite cause (called such in reference to the Latin name of James, Jacobus) are complex and highly historically contextual, but suffice it to say that the movement was something of a continuation of the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century. Those wars were predominately fought over the very structure of political power in Britain – whether the monarch would be able to dominate through absolute power granted by divine right, or whether the Parliament would exercise the lion’s share of political power with the monarch taking a more limited role. Those wars raged across the kingdoms of Britain for years and fundamentally altered the balance of authority in favor of Parliament. James II, coming into power a few decades later, revitalized the monarchical cause by advocating strongly for a more absolutist monarchy on the lines of his contemporary, Louis XIV of France. James was deposed for this reason and others – including his Catholic faith, which was anathema to the nation’s Protestant elite – and replaced with his daughter Mary and her husband William, the Dutch stadtholder.

Scottish Jacobites in their traditional Highland garb, ready for battle.

James and his supporters continued to fight for the Stuart cause in the immediate aftermath of his deposition, but were heavily defeated at the disastrous Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, collapsing morale and leading to further losses in Scotland, where uprisings in the Highlands were put down by 1692. At this point, James had fled to France, being welcomed to the Court by Louis XIV himself. These failed revolts against the Protestant Succession of William and Mary were not over, however. Jacobitism would remain a force in British politics and foreign affairs through the middle of the 18th century, although it was largely a regional phenomenon, centering on the Stuarts’ ancestral domain: Scotland. Jacobites would secretly toast “the King over the Water,” a covert way to signal allegiance to James II and his heirs (James II died in 1701, being replaced by his son James III, known in Britain as the ‘Old Pretender’), as they remained across the English Channel in France.

Jacobitism itself evolved as time passed and British politics moved on from the Glorious Revolution, which many found to have permanently settled the question of balance between monarch and parliament. Those who wished for a return to Stuart absolutism still held fast to the Jacobite cause, but political developments brought a wide variety of disparate parties and movements into the fold. The biggest event on this front was the 1707 Act of Union, which unified the English/Welsh and Scottish realms by law, formalizing via legislation the joining of the crowns which occurred upon the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603. This parliamentary act brought Scotland firmly into a political union with the rest of Britain, limiting its autonomy while dramatically altering its economic future. Traditional Jacobites opposed this union partly because it removed yet another prerogative from the monarch and transferred it to the realm of Parliament; instead of the monarch being the sole link between the kingdoms, Parliament vastly broadened those ties and made them formal via the political and legislative process. Other opponents of the Act of Union joined the Jacobite cause in the hope of turning back the clock and regaining political autonomy, if not full independence. They were joined by those with other grievances they thought would be fixed by a Stuart return: social ills, religious problems, an imposition of ‘foreigners’ on the body politic (William was Dutch, and his eventual successors, the Hanoverians, were German), and general opposition to the Whig government.

Unfortunately for all of those variegated political movements, Jacobitism was the very essence of a lost cause, despite the few times the Stuarts came relatively close to regaining power. The Scottish uprisings in 1715 and 1745 – creatively named by historians as The Fifteen and The Forty-Five – had their share of successes, but ultimately failed due to a combination of ideological fractures, the failure of foreign aid to materialize, Stuart overconfidence, and poor logistical and military organization. In 1715, the first attempt at restoring the Old Pretender (the would-be James III) gained control of northern Scotland and the Highlands, but foundered upon the rocks of Stirling Castle and the arms of Edinburgh. The poor tactical leadership and indecision of the Jacobite leader, the Earl of Mar, at Sheriffmuir, as well as defeats at Inverness and Preston, gave the Hanoverians the upper hand. The rebellion was defeated before James III could even set foot in Scotland, although the mopping up took several more months. Just a few years later, in 1719, James tried again. This rising failed within months, further sapping energy from the Jacobite cause and leading several prominent supporters of the Stuarts, including Lord Bolingbroke, to reconcile with the Hanoverian monarchy.

The battlefield at Culloden, the site of the final defeat of the Jacobite movement in April 1746.

The last gasp of the Jacobite cause came in 1745, when James III’s son Charles (known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie) led a large and well-equipped rebellion from the Scottish Highlands. By this time, the original Jacobite ideology of absolute monarchy had fallen by the wayside in favor of the myriad overlapping causes detailed earlier; the most salient of these driving ideas was antipathy towards the Act of Union and a push for Scottish autonomy. The Jacobites, seeing Britain as distracted by its involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession, took the opportunity to rise once again. Charles landed in northern Scotland and gained wide support on his march through the country. This stage of the rebellion culminated in the taking of Edinburgh and a major victory at the Battle of Prestonpans. At this high point in the campaign, Charles asked his Scottish supporters to invade England and place him on the throne in London. Their initial reluctance stemmed from the fact that victory in Scotland put them in a good place with respect to reaching their objectives and overturning the Act of Union; invading England would risk all of that and potentially bring seasoned British troops back from the Continent to oppose them. Charles promised significant French aid, including troops, and strong support from English Jacobites on their planned route, which convinced the Scots to go along with the plan. When it became clear that the promised aid was not materializing, they turned back at Derby as they feared their retreat would be cut off.

The failed England campaign softened the spirit of the Jacobites and stretched their logistics beyond the breaking point. The Duke of Cumberland, King George II’s son and a spectacular military commander, took over the British forces opposing Charles; this was the beginning of the end for the Forty-Five. The decisive event came in April 1746, when the Jacobites were utterly routed at Culloden, with whole Highland clans massacred on the field. This was the last serious attempt at a Jacobite revolt, as the British cracked down hard. The Highlands, the seat of so much Jacobite support, were disarmed, its clans outlawed and its unique culture deliberately upended. Scottish independence as a cause was not seriously reconsidered for hundreds of years. There would never again be another internal threat or alternate claimant to the British monarchy; the current Windsor royal family are descendants of the ‘foreigners’ the Jacobites so despised. Parliament would only grow in power at the expense of the monarchy, fully neutering the institution in terms of independent decision-making within a century. Hitching their wagons to the Jacobite cause was disastrous for proponents of all of those factions and heavily benefited their rivals. Despite the lofty promises and the magnetic personalities, the Stuarts were only looking after their own interests in regaining the British Crown; in their quixotic quest, they took down a variety of political factions with them.

In one of the only times I’ll ever favorably quote Karl Marx, he wittily observed that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” If the Jacobite movement was the tragedy – and it sure was for the ideas its supporters espoused – the MAGA movement is certainly the farce. As with so much in our modern age, this time history seems to be moving faster. In this analogy, Donald Trump himself takes the place of James II and his heirs; he has a strong personality that generates loyalty, he attracts a wide ideological range of supporters despite his primary concern being himself, he wildly overpromises without any thought of the realistic constraints[2], he seeks to operate as a pseudo-monarchical president with power centered in his person, and, of course, his is a lost cause. Like James II, Donald Trump was deposed – in our manner of politics, via the ballot box – and a group of his supporters took it quite poorly. Their despicable riot on January 6, 2021, motivated by Trump’s absurd ideas about overturning the election, was rapidly overcome and only served to further discredit their beliefs and movement. After these defeats, the former President retreated to his Floridian estate, but has remained a force in American – and especially Republican – politics.

Many conservatives and Republicans have chosen to move on from Trump, having made their peace with the 2020 election loss and seeking candidates that can succeed where he had failed in beating the Democrats. Still, there are sizeable factions on the right side of the American political spectrum who seem positively obsessed with making the former President into an avatar of everything they believe. Candidates across the country have been cajoled into supporting (or have heartily embraced) Trump’s ridiculous 2020 conspiracy theories, even as they progressively get more ludicrous. The former president has claimed that voting machines were rigged and ballot counts fabricated (totally untrue) and that he would be reinstated this past summer (didn’t happen). Trump, as is his wont, has brooked no dissent on this issue, criticizing Republican candidates who have not sworn full fealty to his delusions. Recently, he attacked the underdog Republican Colorado Senate candidate, Joe O’Dea, for distancing himself from the MAGA fever swamps; the race in that state is hotly contested, and any lack of GOP turnout would likely kill O’Dea’s chances. In a political environment that is so closely divided, every seat counts. But for Donald Trump, the only thing that matters is his own political future, parties or ideas be damned.

Republicans can choose whether to embrace a defeated Trump, or let him languish on the golf course.

Republicans have a choice this election season – and in the run-up to 2024 – whether to embrace the MAGA lost cause and look backward, or to leave it in the past and move forward in fighting the Democratic agenda. And this choice couldn’t come at a more critical time. Domestic and international politics are roiling; inflation is at 40-year highs, President Biden is wildly unpopular (on top of being extremely old), war is raging in Ukraine, and the world order is seemingly crumbling at our feet. China is on the rise and is looking to “reclaim” (read: invade) Taiwan sooner rather than later, Iran is fast on its way to developing a nuclear weapon and asserting hegemony in the Middle East, and Russia has been engaged in the largest land war seen in Europe since 1945. The tailwinds for Republican success are enormous, on top of the usual midterm blues for the governing party. Joe Biden and Democrats are largely on the ropes and can be dealt a severe blow if Republicans sweep the field in November; the knockout punch would then be set up perfectly for 2024.

But all of this could be wasted if the GOP and its voters take the path of the Jacobites and double down on a lost cause. Donald Trump is highly disliked by the broader public – hence his defeat by a candidate who barely left his house in 2020 – and has proven himself to be a sore loser who drags his closest supporters down with him. Those who lash themselves to the mast of the Trump galleon will be dashed on the rocks with the ship when it inevitably wrecks (probably due to pilot error). Their ideas and movements will be left by the wayside while the rest of American politics moves on. As someone who generally disagrees ideologically with the biggest Trump supporters, I would be more than happy to watch them sink with their captain; still, I would rather the whole Republican fleet not go down too. Trumpism, whatever that is, will go down in history as a lost cause, just as has Jacobitism. What today’s conservatives and Republicans need to decide is whether they’ll keep chasing Trumpism into the morass of obscurity and irrelevance, or if they will choose to let it go into the dustbin of history and turn towards a promising and novel alternative. The stakes couldn’t be higher; choose wisely.

[1] Not to be confused with Jacobins, the aforementioned French Revolutionaries. And no, I didn’t plan on using two historical examples with similar names, but they just worked!

[2] Has Mexico paid for that wall yet?

6 thoughts on “The King Over the Water

  1. I enjoy some of the history and I’m not a Trump cultist but you sound way too much like Bill Kristol and frankly I consider him a traitor to Republicans, Conservatives and Christians. Talk about a clan, Kristol and his court of jesters are voting Democrat and his new favorite high priestess is the war-mongering Liz Cheney. If voting for Democrats and the continued name-calling of decent Americans that wanted someone to stop the progressivism polluting our schools are your buddies then, COUNT ME OUT. Anyone aligned with Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, Liz Cheney and other ravenous hate-filled anti-Trump sycophants are my enemies (not because of Trump but because they are determined to hurt millions of people who only voted for change. The people I listed voted and will vote again to put us under the FEET of Democrats that have become so dangerous that they sound like Hitler. NOT NO BUT HELL NO.

    • Thanks for reading! I definitely don’t consider myself aligned with Kristol or the Bulwark folks. I am more on that side with respect to foreign policy, but they’re basically Democrats on domestic policy. The goal of this article was to push for a move away from Trump & towards an option with less baggage (DeSantis, Cotton, Tim Scott, etc.). I would strongly prefer to have Republican policies than those of the Biden administration, and I embracing Trump again would seriously endanger that.

  2. Thoughtful thesis. As I read it, though, I was looking in the mirror at the democrat ‘cultural’ side and the dilemma they are facing. They have spent years (i.e., Gore “we’ve only got 10 years” and John “private jet” Kerry) pounding the climate change agenda (less climate and more power and $$) along with the Pronoun/Cancel culture farce (not to mention MeToo). Now they are indeed eating their own (or your reference to devouring just as appropriate, at least Harvey might think so).

    If the midterm (and ’24?) are as bad as they are starting to look for the progressives, they may have their own Trump moment as well.

    Thanks for the post.

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