As a former Moscow correspondent for The Post, I probably should not admit this, but until this summer I had never read Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
Now I can report from the far shore:
It is as long as everyone says.
It is as good as everyone says. No, better.
It is about Donald Trump and how we should respond to his presidency.
You doubt that last one? Then listen to this:
“A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions. . . . The incompetence of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of the deception, and the dazzling and self-confident limitation of the man raise him to the head . . . and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position,” Tolstoy writes.
Eerie, right? The dazzling and self-confident limitation of the man.
Okay, I dropped a couple of words from the passage. Tolstoy actually wrote “the seething parties of France,” and “the head of the army.” He was in fact describing not our president but Napoleon, for whom the Russian author harbored a magnificent contempt.
But the masterpiece does resonate, not only for that coincidence of description — and not only because, these days, everything seems to be about Donald Trump.
In his novel framed by Napoleon’s invasion of and retreat from Russia in 1812, Tolstoy asks: What moves events? Is it, as commonly assumed, “great men” such as Napoleon and Czar Alexander I? Or is it the separate decisions of thousands of individuals: soldiers, peasants, shopkeepers, lords?
It is the latter, Tolstoy says. Their actions flow together into a force that czars and generals can only pretend to control.
Which, if even only partly true, seems to have some lessons for today.
Trump has been posited as a threat in many directions: to the rule of law, to civility and truth, to America’s standing in the world as a beacon of freedom and democracy. But maybe no threat is more serious than his assault on the idea of America as a nation that welcomes newcomers and outsiders and allows them, in their turn, to become American.
From announcing his candidacy with a warning about Mexican rapists pouring across the border to inaugurating his presidency with a ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, to embracing just a few days ago a proposal to sharply limit immigration of unskilled workers, Trump has exploited fears of non-white, non-Christian, non-English-speaking “others.”
This is particularly dangerous because it speaks to a sentiment that existed long before Trump came along — that always has existed in American political culture.
Let’s pause to stipulate that you can oppose immigration without being racist. Until we fulfill John Lennon’s vision (“Imagine there’s no countries . . . ”), we are all in one sense arguing about numbers, not principle. I can make a case that the current annual limit of 1 million legal immigrants is better for the economy, and the country, than Trump’s proposed 500,000, and that 2 million might be better still. But even my higher cap would leave millions more on the outside wanting to come in.
What is a matter of principle is how you define being an American: Is it a question of blood, of how long you and your ancestors have been here, of whether you accept America as a Christian nation? Or is it based on your devotion to its foundational idea — that all men and women are created equal?
That battle is being fought in the courts, and it will be fought in Congress. But the essential battle for the nation’s soul will be fought by every one of us, every day.
It is a battle we will win by embracing each other’s humanity: by welcoming the mosque down the street, helping a “dreamer” stay in school, translating a form for the parent at the next desk at back-to-school night. It is a battle, as Tolstoy would have understood, that will be won or lost by the nation’s soldiers, farmers and shopkeepers, and by its nurses and factory workers and teachers and office workers, too; by each of us, day by day, encounter by encounter.
Tolstoy wasn’t totally right about history. Even the mountebanks, the leaders of no convictions, can shift the course of events. But the rest of us, impelled by the generosity that has made America a great country, may have more power than we think.
Read more on this issue: