Donald Trump is Cleon (brash, populist, unscrupulous, dangerous). Or Alcibiades (rich, ambitious, unscrupulous, dangerous). He’s the Paphlagonian in Aristophanes’ Knights, or the Sausage-Seller, or both (vulgar, greedy demagogues). Danielle Allen has suggested a switch into the Homeric mode, urging Jeb Bush to step up as Achilles to Rubio’s Patroclus, making Trump… Hector (the enemy who must be slain)? Agamemnon? With Mitt Romney stepping into the fight as Menelaus, or Philoctetes. The great thing about Homer is the sheer number of larger-than-life characters on offer for such comparisons. I can’t believe – nothing came up on Google – that no one has yet done Trump as Thersites, for the torrent of bile and resentment fuelling his candidacy. Maybe that risks making him seem too much like the man of the people he claims to be…
Roman analogies are just as popular. Trump is one of the Gracchi (populist demagogues). Trump is Crassus (rich, ambitious). Trump is Caesar, dragging the Republic into civil war because of his personal ambitions (expect Middle Eastern entanglements). Or maybe Antony, with Cruz or Rubio as Lepidus (doomed) and Clinton as Octavian, seizing power by taking advantage of the divisions and failures of rivals despite lack of obvious talent. Or Trump as Catiline, bidding for power in the traditional manner but willing to resort to violent insurrection and overthrow the system if thwarted. Which would put Clinton in the Cicero role, figurehead of the establishment, playing up the threat to support her own ambitions, setting herself up as the voice of totae civitates foederatae Americae. Meanwhile, Republicans look for a virtuous Cincinnatus to lay down his plough and save them…
No, of course these comparisons aren’t consistent. Indeed, they tend to become sillier if you try to make them too consistent with the historical evidence: if Trump is Caesar, then who’s Cleopatra, or Spartacus..? The key question to ask is not whether the analogy is plausible, but what work it’s doing as a rhetorical move. Martin Wolf claims that it’s natural to think of such analogies, which may be true – but it’s never wholly innocent. Most of these classical Trumpisms are simply ways of presenting him as a vulgar demagogue, with the implication of dire consequences if he gets his hands on power – the insinuation of a fascist threat without falling foul of Godwin’s Law. Vote Trump, and you’ll be retreating from a disastrous attack on Syracuse before you know it. Sulk in your tent, Jeb, and you’ll regret it when Rubio gets killed by the delegates.
The more interesting approaches are those, like Wolf’s article, which take Trump to be a symptom as much as an agent: his rise to prominence shows how far the system is falling apart as well as threatening to break it completely (or, laying the groundwork for catastrophe in a decade or so, if we follow the Catiline analogy). This works best with Rome: not just because of the historical influence of Roman examples on the institutions of the United States (which is the argument often put forward for taking the analogy seriously) but also because of actual structural parallels between the two systems and their situations: a self-serving oligarchy suddenly finding that its usual means of control aren’t working properly, a systematic inability to do anything to solve the growing problems of society at large, massive inequality and cultural fragmentation, a ferocious competition for power and prestige that involves ever greater amounts of money and polarising political rhetoric… Not just Trump, but most of the other Republican contenders, and Sanders, fit the mould of the popularis pretty well, while Wolf’s idea of “pluto-populism” works as a fair description of Rome in the late Republic – except for the absence of political parties and the incoherence of any idea of “right wing” ideas within Roman discourse.
That absence is not insignificant. The problem with all these analogies – the thing that the use of analogy seeks to make you forget by elevating the contemporary situation to the level of compelling historical drama – is how much they leave out, smoothing over all the fundamental differences between now and then. America is not the New Rome, as Vaclav Smil argued plausibly (if in a rather literally-minded way), and this is equally true if the comparison is with the late Republic rather than the Decline And Fall And We’re All Doomed period that has been in vogue over the last couple of decades. The past can reveal possibilities, but never destinies.
Historical analogies work rather like war memorials: they invoke the past as a spur to action, while ushering complexity and ambiguity out of sight. I’m as horrified by the possibility, however faint, of a Trump presidency as most if not all the people likely to be reading this blog, but I also can’t help feeling uneasy at the way that these dramatic evocations of Great Scary Demagogues of History are also serving to distract attention away from the deficiencies of what well-meaning moderates and liberals would be working to save. Clinton is so obviously the Lesser Evil that the actual evilness of her candidacy – closeness to the old plutocracy and all – tends to disappear from view.
Catiline must be stopped. Cleon and Alcibiades are always dangerous. Caesarism is always a scarcy threat to liberty. Although… Perhaps the spectre of a modern analogue to the Augustan Revolution, bringing an end to the civil wars and ushering in peace and prosperity is not such a bad thing in the eyes of those more concerned with their personal circumstances, their marginalisation in a system that is ever more dominated by the wealth, than with an abstract idea of libertas which was only ever properly meaningful for the rich. The scariest thing I’ve read this week relates not to Trump’s ambitions or rhetoric, but to the possible reasons why he’s gathering support: the rise of American authoritarianism. In other words, Trump really is just a symptom, and presenting him as a pantomime historical villain is to misdiagnose the situation, just as understanding the collapse of the Roman Republican system in terms of larger-than-life personalities is to misunderstand what happened.
[Quick update: I should stress that Danielle’s resort to Homeric analogies is wholly self-aware and clearly ironic; it’s a means of presenting an argument grounded in analysis of the current situation, rather than a substitute for such an argument. Not at all sure this applies to all the others…]
[Further update: Tom Holland reminds me that he’s been comparing Trump to the Emperor Nero since last summer: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/11/07/is-donald-trump-the-modern-nero.html]
[D. Franklin has reminded me of the piece by Robert Kagan which starts by comparing the Republican Party to Oedipus, trying to discover the cause of the plague (Trump) which, it turns out, he has brought down on Thebes himself…]