I love it when the political winds begin to blow. Sometimes, as the next example will aptly show, politicians tend to reach back and pull from history’s grab bag some well known event and/or person, and then attempt to attach it to their political foes. Willard “Mitt” Romney did such a yesteryear slight-of-hand by comparing President Barack Obama to – of all people – Marie Antoinette; the Austrian-born French Monarch who lost her head by way of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Monsieur Romney’s attraction to the phrase, “Qu’ils manger du gâteau!” (Let them eat cake!), may have something to do with the President’s admitted 2012 campaign strategy: use class warfare to peg the Republican Party as those that defend the über-wealthy. What better way to combat the President in defending an admitted chink in the conservative armor than by going on the offensive: pin “out of touch” elitism on Barack Obama (see the enclosed cartoon by Mike Lester, for example). Seems Romney’s efforts along this strand of thinking will continue – and as it appeared – in a concerted fashion.

This political cartoon by Mike Lester appeared in concert with Romney's comparison.

But comparing Barack Obama to Marie Antoinette just might backfire. As remote as the comparison may be, the French queen does possess one striking similarity to our current president: both she (then) and he (now) have been the targets of serious parodies, satire, and ridiculous misinformation. Take the saying “let them eat cake,” for instance. Though attributed to Antoinette, most historians deny she ever uttered those words. Instead, the phrase was part of a massive disinformation scheme targeted at the queen before, during, and even after the French Revolution. According to historians Laura Mason and Tracey Rizzo, between 1789 and 1792 as many as “two hundred differently titled licentious pamphlets and books”[1] parodied the French queen. Even contemporary observers noted that the only advantage Marie Antoinette held in preserving her life was to remind those that constantly pilloried her to consider a world without her.[2]

Images depicting Marie Antoinette as "licentious" commonly made their rounds in and outside of Paris. Click for a larger image.

The fact is that French print culture was just coming into its own in the late-eighteenth century, just beginning to catch up with Britain in terms of number of newspapers and avenues of disbursement. Nationalism’s gripping hold upon the populace could not have occurred were it not for the flurry of printed materials, posters, broadsides, songs, in fact nearly every means imaginable to convey a political, national or cultural message. The Queen of France was a matter of intense depiction from the beginning; her Austrian heritage becoming instant political fodder. The constant drubbing of unfavorable renderings of the queen defined for French nationalists what a good Frenchman ought to be. Using Marie Antoinette as the antipathy of Frenchness, the queen thus became the butt of many rumors, jokes, and illustrations – some downright pornographic (see the illustration at right from the archives of the British Museum. It reads: “Bravo! Bravo! La Reine se penetre de la Patrie!” or “Bravo! Bravo! Penetrate the queen for the nation!”).

Barack Obama thus shares many Marie Antoinette-esque moments, from Congressman Joe Wilson’s charge of “You lie!” in September of 2009 on the floor of Congress no less, to the inane yet relentless posturing of “birthers.” What to make of the recent comments made by Brent Bozell and Mark Steyn that Obama is – and I quote – “a skinny, ghetto crackhead,”[3] makes comparing the President to the supposed out of touch elitists Marie Antoinette even that much more farfetched. Even Michelle Obama’s posterior drew Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner’s satirical attention – as if this mattered.[4] Instead of attending to our country, seems our congress is busy poking fun at the First Lady’s anatomy.

Comparing Obama to a late-eighteenth-century French royal person will no doubt attract headlines. But it very well may, if it hasn’t done so already, provide ample proof of the lengths Republican strategists will go to excoriate the President. I believe that such attacks are an “ends justify the means” motif made by Republicans to win the White House. However, such attacks are dangerous, especially in the media savvy world in which young American voters live. Such attacks, if not thought through, may provide a boomerang affect, a mirrored response from voters disgusted with today’s politics bent on proving that the means count for something. This is not 1791. This is 2011 soon to be 2012. Americans are by far the most media savvy people on the globe. Republicans will have to do better, as in, find a better historical correlation or face the wrath of the populace come next November.


[1] Laura Mason and Tracey Rizzo, The French Revolution: A Document Collection, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 155.

[2] “At present, the advantage which they [the royal family] derive from the daily threats against her life, is her only security for preserving it.” Edmund Burke, “A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” 19 January 1791.

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aNe8XvqCzU downloaded December 30, 2011.

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