A recent front page of the Philadelphia Daily News features the all-too familiar likeness of a certain would-be U.S. presidential candidate in the act of delivering what resembles a Nazi salute, accompanied by a lurid headline: “The New Furor.”
The candidate in question is Donald J. Trump, of course, who now advocates barring Muslims from entering the United States, the most recent in an extraordinary succession of outlandish declarations that, while horrifying some, have further cemented Trump’s already worrisome support among a seemingly ample contingent of like-minded Americans.
Meanwhile, the man’s many critics — much like the Daily News — are now drawing disturbing parallels between Trump and Adolf Hitler.
As well they might.
After all, we now have a pretty fair idea of what a Donald Trump presidential candidacy would be like: a toxic mixture of excess, hairspray, and insult. But what if he actually wins? Would he prove to be a bouffant version of Hitler then? Maybe. But I have a feeling he might more closely resemble a certain vainglorious Mexican potentate who haunted his country nearly two centuries ago.
Meet Antonio de Padua María Severino Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez de LeBron, a.k.a. “The Napoleon of the West,” the Hero of Tampico, the Hero of Veracruz, His Most Serene Highness, or, simply, el Presidente.
Among historians, the individual in question is better known by his Spanish surname, Lopez de Santa Anna, or just plain Santa Anna for short.
He was a soldier by trade, and a caudillo, or strongman, by personal preference and popular demand.
From 1833 until 1855, Santa Anna served as Mexico’s president for 11 terms of varying lengths — pretty much whenever the spirit moved him. Sometimes, he deigned to be elected. Other times, he just marched into the National Palace and sat down.
During the years with Santa Anna in charge, Mexico’s geopolitical landscape was a brutal tableau of war, war, and more war. Despite his reputation for decision and valour, the man achieved little of note, while playing a losing role in a series of frontier battles that finally ended with the loss of roughly half his country’s national territory, including what are now the U.S. states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, not to mention much of Colorado. By this time, Santa Anna had already lost Texas.
According to one typically jaded assessment, the Mexican leader “left a legacy of disappointment and disaster by consistently placing his own self-interest above his duty to the nation.”
The very opposite of an ideologue, Santa Ann tended to espouse whatever cause seemed likely to benefit him most. To quote the Encyclopedia Britannica, he “fought on both sides of nearly every issue of the day.”
He was energetic, eccentric and charismatic as hell, but he was also astoundingly vain. Sound familiar?
Here’s an example.
During the so-called Pastry War of 1838, in which France attacked Mexico to force repayment of certain debts, a young Santa Anna fearlessly led his men into battle, only to suffer a leg wound so severe the appendage had to be removed.
Years later, during a difficult stretch in another of his many turns as president, Santa Anna decided to plump up his political fortunes in a novel if typically egotistical fashion.
He ordered that his former limb be disinterred from its resting place in the state of Veracruz, placed in an urn, and conveyed to Mexico City under armed guard. There, a state holiday was declared and the heroic body part was re-entombed, this time with full military honours and in the presence of la crema of Mexican society, not to mention the assembled diplomatic corps.
Not his heart. Not his brain. His leg.
Several years later, during the Battle of Cerro Gordo in the war against the Americans, the monopedal Santa Anna was forced to flee a surprise attack by the northerners. In the rush, he left behind his prosthesis, which was made of cork and wood. It is now on permanent display at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, Ill, still a source of some tension between Washington and Mexico City, which would like it back.
Despite his self-aggrandizing ways, and his disastrous performance while in office, Santa Anna remained uncannily popular among his compatriots, who kept returning him to the presidency: a dynamic that repeated itself again and again until, finally, it didn’t.
In 1855, Santa Anna was banished into exile and did not return to the land of his birth for nearly 20 years. Impoverished and largely ignored, he died in Mexico City in 1876, aged 82.
The Old Furor, you might say.