IDEAS

Kutarna is co-author of Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of our New Renaissance

Though the epic presidential battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may feel unique, these same personalities have clashed before.

More than 500 years ago, the prophet Savonarola enthralled Renaissance Europe while Machiavelli, chief policy wonk of the age, scorned the showmanrsquos demagoguery. Trump and Clinton are replaying those partsmdashand will leave similar marks on history.

Trump is a prophet. That is the clearest way to understand the manrsquos methods, his popular appeal and his psychology. His improbable presidential run has followed closely the script set forth by the chief doomsayer of the Renaissance, Girolamo Savonarola.

A friar and political outsider, Savonarola exploded from obscurity in the 1490s to captivate the city of Florence, sweep away a Medici establishment that had ruled for half a century, and incite a mass campaign against liberal values that ended with his historic Bonfire of the Vanities.

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How did Savonarola do it? First, by shouting an apocalyptic message that stoked peoplersquos deep anxieties. Ottoman Muslims loomed to the east. The French invaded and carried away the cityrsquos wealth in a lopsided peace deal. In a vague way, Savonarola had predicted both and concluded, to quote Trump: #8220We donrsquot win anymore!#8221 The moment called for strong leadershipmdashboth moral and politicalmdashbut as Savonarola said: #8220O Florence, Florence, your cup is full of holes.#8221

Second, he owned the news cycle. Print media was just emerging, and Savonarola harnessed its potential better than any. He delivered fiery sermons to crowds of thousands, and then print houses helped him reach thousands more with the sure-to-sell printed version. Popes and princes repeatedly declared him false. Every time, Savonarola answered by flooding the streets with cheap pamphletsmdash15th-century tweetsmdashthat twisted those denunciations into proof of elite corruption.

Third, he believed. Savonarolarsquos most fervent follower was himself. He believed God had appointed him the task of renewing the city, and so whatever words he spoke, they were true. That ecstatic confidence was his greatest strength. It drew to his every sermon a horde of sensation-seekers, plus citizens who had lost faith and longed to have it restored by the manrsquos reality-bending powers.

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