Donald Trump does not have the firmest grasp of history. A man who confesses that he has “never” had time to read a book cannot be wholly cognisant of his heritage. The US may be relatively young but its foundations are rooted in the ancient past. The Senate, Capitol Hill and the ubiquitous eagles would perhaps be less bewildering to the president-elect had he at least a passing knowledge of the interests of the founding fathers. It may be too much to ask that Trump takes Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire aboard Air Force One. A glance at the trajectory of Roman power would be sufficient to show him why people fear the decline and fall of the American republic under his leadership.
For the founding fathers, Roman history offered an important guide to modern life. The year 1776 marked not only the Declaration of Independence but also the publication of the first volume of Gibbon’s history. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton – the 18th-century equivalents of Cicero, Cincinnatus and Publius – immersed themselves in the politics of the res publica. The founding fathers’ Roman alter egos reflected their admiration for men who fought to preserve an equilibrium of power. Just as the Romans had overturned their monarchs and built a republic, so the Americans could now liberate themselves to establish “a government by its citizens in mass”. By heeding the lessons of the past, they could safeguard their republic from demagoguery and collapse – or so they believed.
While the election of a demagogue such as Trump feels like a blow to the long-held ideal of the republic, it is also a reminder that a republic is rarely anything other than an ideal. The balance of power between senators and tribunes in the republic of ancient Rome proved impossible to sustain. There were republican senators who behaved like emperors and later there were emperors who maintained the pretence of living in a republic. Demagogues often arose not from the lower classes but from the wealthy, aristocratic elites they proposed to reject.
Like the greatest demagogues of the late Roman republic, Trump has accomplished the tricky feat of positioning himself against the elites while maintaining his huge wealth. The chutzpah with which he has done so perhaps best recalls the example of Publius Clodius Pulcher, one in a line of popular politicians who contributed to the collapse of the republic by rebelling against the established governing order. Though descended from a wealthy family that had dominated the Senate for centuries, Clodius managed to shrug off his social class in order to champion the interests of the plebeians. He had his most vocal critic, Cicero, thrown into exile. Trump threatened to throw his, Hillary Clinton, into jail.
Trump’s hot-headedness and unorthodoxy, his seemingly off-the-cuff threats, promises and tweets, only exacerbate popular fears that he is incapable of being checked. The year 59 BC went down in Roman history as the consulship of “Julius and Caesar”, after the great populist quelled his colleagues’ attempts to rein him in. Trump’s early appointments have done little to instil confidence in the neutralising abilities of his advisers. Eliot Cohen, a former counsellor of the Department of State, may not be entirely accurate in describing “unquestioning loyalty” as the sole criterion for a place in Trump’s administration, but developments so far have had a distinctly Roman flavour.
In 56 BC, a friend of Cicero found himself being prosecuted by the son of the man he had attempted to jail for election bribery. There is speculation that Chris Christie’s departure from the chair of Trump’s transition team is linked to his involvement in 2005 in the prosecution of the father of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for crimes that included tax evasion.
One can be forgiven for thinking that the end of the American republic is nigh when Trump has done so much to promote his family’s interests. Kushner, who is married to Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, has been appointed as a special adviser. Ivanka and her brothers Eric and Donald, Jr, were on the executive committee of the transition team. Trump’s introduction of family members to the inner fold may be alarmingly reminiscent of Caligula’s first acts as emperor in 37 AD, but this isn’t necessarily unappealing. The republic may be an ideal but America loves a dynasty. The US media have shown considerable interest in the prospect of Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton as future presidents. No sooner had Ivanka Trump made her speech at the Republican National Convention last July than Twitter users were asking when she might run for the presidency. We may or may not have seen the end of the Clinton dynasty but we are almost certainly witnessing the start of Trump’s.
Mock serious or not, these strange displays of affection for presidential dynasties are symptomatic of a broader trend. Imperialism has often gathered strength from outside. Following the fall of the Roman republic, many early emperors made a point of turning down the title of imperator and other obsequies that were foisted on them. Still, imperial cults sprang up thick and fast outside Italy. In Trump’s case, we are witnessing a similar phenomenon. Japan has gone wild for the president-elect’s ten-year-old son, Barron, who is now the star of a manga cartoon. Unlike Milo Yiannopoulos, the brain of Breitbart and the face of the “alt-right”, Trump has yet to make an entrance aloft a throne. His arrival at Manhattan’s 21 Club for a family dinner soon after his victory was, however, met with a standing ovation.
Like the Roman emperors, Trump has done a good job of presenting himself as the proponent of a new age. His America is not “great”, but it can be “great again”. Augustus, Claudius and Domitian peddled the same myth. With the celebratory Secular Games, they signalled that Rome was waving goodbye to one age and entering a new one reminiscent of the fabled days of old.
In contrast to the Julio-Claudians, however, Trump has yet to learn the significance of these “bread and circuses”. After Mike Pence was booed at a performance of Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about the founding father, Trump’s gut reaction (does he have any other kind?) was to criticise the cast for having “harassed” the vice-president-elect and call for the theatre to be “a safe and special place”. By comparison, Cleon, the Athenian demagogue of the fifth century BC and an enemy of Pericles, endured repeated jibes as Aristophanes skewered him and his associates at the city’s theatre festivals. Trump’s failure to exercise restraint over the events at Hamilton sets a worrying precedent that could only damage his reputation as a man of the people.
Trump is the antithesis of Alexander Hamilton in many ways, not least in his personal tastes. Hamilton idolised an Athenian strategist named Phocion, who was well known for his frugality. Mindful of how deeply the Romans had feared the corrupting influence of extravagance, the founding fathers emphasised liberty over luxury. “The decline of Rome,” wrote Gibbon, “was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.”
Much though Trump may deny America’s greatness and thus its susceptibility to decay and decline, his taste for luxury is only too evident. From his favoured private jet, furnished with family crests of his own design, to his nouveau-rococo, Neronian home interiors, Trump’s luxuries are as immoderate as they come. His alleged desire to reside at Trump Tower rather than at the White House – despite the obvious security risks that this poses to New Yorkers – conjures the image of a visiting president. One cannot help but think of Anthony Eden “visiting Britain” in the midst of the Suez Crisis.
For all its troubles, the US has reached a height from which many fear it can only fall. Like Rome after the rapid expansion of the republic, America’s influence has plateaued. At the end of his reign, as if mindful of overreach, Emperor Augustus urged his successors to keep the empire within the limits that he had established for it. By Hadrian’s time, as in Trump’s America, there was little call for interventionism and globalisation. Even the victory-hungry Trajan was remarkably relaxed when he was alerted to a conflict brewing in the east. The report said that Christianity was spreading through Rome’s provinces.
For Gibbon in the 18th century, the rise of Christianity and invasions by “a deluge of barbarians” were two significant contributing factors to the fall of the Roman empire. The German soldier Odoacar’s overthrow of Rome’s last emperor in 476 AD was long taken to mark the fall of the city. The reality was more complicated. Some modern scholars speak not of the fall of Rome but of the steady transformation of its empire, which was still flourishing in the east nearly a thousand years after the Germanic invasion. Others argue otherwise. Regardless of their view, no modern historian can simply place the blame for Rome’s internal failings on Christianity and “barbarians”, any more than Trump’s administration can place the blame for America’s on Islamism and immigrants.
Analogies between Trump and the demagogues and emperors of ancient Rome come only too easily. It is, however, fruitless to despair at the death of the republic or the birth of Caligula II. America’s fall, if it comes, will be protracted and complex. If the pattern of Roman history can show Trump one thing, it is that he would be wise to look not only at the troubles brewing without but also at those brewing within.
Daisy Dunn’s book “Catullus’ Bedspread” has just been published in paperback (William Collins, £9.99)
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era