‘War and Peace’ is about Don­ald Trump. Who knew?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - FRED HIATT fred­hi­att@wash­post.com

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 self­con­fi­dent 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, nonChris­tian, 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.

The bat­tle over how we de­fine be­ing Amer­i­can will be won by em­brac­ing each other’s hu­man­ity.

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