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Braced for the latest of Trump’s parting outrages, we can only speculate about Joe Biden’s prospects of restoring America’s mutilated democracy. A literal restoration unfolds daily as Obama-era survivors surface for Cabinet-level jobs. Some are Biden intimates with deep government experience, while others fill quotas of ethnicity and gender.
Arguably the most renowned political restoration in western history was that of the English king Charles II, in 1660. Following his father’s beheading, he had spent much of his exile in France while his boy cousin, Louis XIV, was working on becoming the Sun King.
In England, Charles became known as the “Merry Monarch”, and sometimes as “Old Rowley”, a renowned breeding stallion. After the harsh strictures of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime, Charles’s pleasure-seeking ways prompted the rise of racy, witty Restoration comedy.
One of the most popular of the Restoration playwrights was Aphra Behn, cited by Virginia Woolf as the first Englishwoman to make a living as a writer. We know little of her life, but she seems to have turned to writing after a failed career as a spy for her king in the Dutch court. Although Charles evidently neglected to pay for her services, she remained a Royalist and composed nasty screeds against the Opposition Whigs.
Years before Charles II fled to England, Aphra Behn died, seemingly of natural causes, and was buried, rather remarkably, in Westminster Abbey. (Proof that neither Wit nor Embonpoint are defense enough against Mortality.)
Charles was unlucky enough to reign during the Great Plague of London in 1665, which overlapped the Great Fire in 1666.The pestilence began in the spring, and by July those who could fled the city. The king and his family and court took refuge in Oxford, where Parliament and courts soon set up for the interim.
Charles published a proper royal proclamation with extensive public health orders intended to minimize the spread of the infection—more than Trump did 355 years later. Nonetheless, an estimated 100,000, one fifth of the population, died within 18 months. Mass burials have been unearthed in so-called plague pits around the city–the latest London tourist attraction.
Hardly was the ground settled on the graves when the Great Fire engulfed the city in a mere three days of September 1666.
The Great Fire broke out at the end of the hot, dry summer of 1666, and consumed much of the City of London, including the homes of 70,000 of 80,000 citizens. A deranged French watchmaker claimed to have started the blaze and was hanged. Catholics were also blamed, the Dutch, and any stray foreigners. Eventually it was agreed that the fire had originated in the kitchen of a bakery in Pudding Lane near the river. Can we trust a source that claims King Charles and his brother joined and directed fire-fighting efforts?
Afterwards, in any event, Charles did work to restore London culture, sponsoring the Royal Society and founding the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.But all was not well at court. Although Charles had a dozen offspring from various mistresses, his queen had produced no heirs. Catherine managed to keep her head and her place in court, but the stage was set for the Second Restoration, that of Charles’s brother James. Then James II too was forced into exile in France when the parliament of the Glorious Revolution invited William of Orange and Mary Stuart to occupy the English throne.
While royal fugitives from the British isles had always found comfortable exile across the channel, the post-revolutionary French had multiple restorations of their own, mainly within the House of Bourbon. After Napoleon fled to Elba, there was Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, who had ended so badly.
“The Bourbons have learned nothing and have forgotten nothing,” said Prince Talleyrand. We could take a moment to compare Talleyrand, that shrewd and unscrupulous advisor to frivolous kings, to Antony Blinken, Biden’s head diplomat. Briefly, both were educated in France. We could take another moment to compare Joseph Robinette Biden to Charles Stuart, king of England, et al. But tempus fugit.
An appetite for royal restoration still survives in Central Europe. The Monarchist Party of Bohemia, Moravia & Silesia marched just last year in support of the return of Habsburg rule over themselves and several other Central European republics. The heir to this ancient dynasty would be Karl von Habsburg, archduke of Austria and royal prince of Hungary, Bohemia, and Croatia, whose resume’ includes pertinent service in the field of cultural preservation.
Architectural preservation–and restoration, even more–is often politically controversial. In Germany, long after the carpet bombing of World War II, there is now the Neue Altstadt, New Old Town, quaint and costly at a time when the great need is for affordable housing. And there is the recent reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace, not to mention the Potsdam Garrison church, built by Frederick II, visited by Bach, Czar Alexander, and Napoleon–and where the German parliament met for Hitler and Hindenburg’s handshake after the Nazi victory in 1933.
After the war, the thriving United States economy could support major rebuilding of Europe with the Marshall Plan. The U.S. was producing half of the world’s GDP. Now, what with one thing and another, it’s down to one-seventh. Yet Biden talks of restoring American “leadership”. Biden and Harris were elected to return us to “normal”, which includes our traditional political patronage system supporting our vast military industrial complex and our famously hypocritical foreign policy.
The U.S. does still lead the world in one area: arms production and trade. Decades ago we found a way to help Saudi Arabia spend its petrodollars while improving the U.S. balance of trade; each year we sell them millions of dollars’ worth of U.S weaponry, including fuel and servicing. These are currently being used most effectively against civilians in the Saudi proxy war in Yemen.
But starting and ending military and trade wars, breaking or blocking treaties and agreements, may now proceed without reference to the price of a barrel of oil or to a late-night tweet from Trump.
Much could depend on the restoration of a working majority in the Senate through election of two Democrats in Georgia. All of the resources of both parties (mine, plus dark money to buy votes and/or poisonous TV ads) are engaged in this epic struggle–except for those funds needed to pursue Trump’s continuing campaign to invalidate the presidential election.
But our new president and Congress can make significant moves with or without a Congressional majority. Some actions are automatic and symbolic, such as returning to the Paris Climate accords. Others are material and obvious, such as retracting the $500 million in arms pledged to Saudi Arabia. The Internal Revenue Service could be expanded and improved without special legislation to reinforce collection of billions in corporate taxes. Aside from its economic justice, the revenue would help pay for new public works projects to repair infrastructure, build affordable housing, and construct national grids for renewable energy and universal internet. Collateral benefit: full employment. (This last might be seen as an echo if not a restoration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA in the 1930s….but hasten the day!)
With the Georgia election, looming protest in our capital, and a surging pandemic, we still have room to worry on a cosmic scale. Worst case: a Trump Restoration in 2024…if not Donald, then Ivanka.
*The idea of Build Back Better, as it was proposed in 2015 by the Japanese at a UN conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, was to restore local infrastructure, culture and environment to what they were before the natural disaster that disrupted them. Only substitute Donald Trump for “natural disaster” and the same dictum, BBB, obtains.