When in Washington, Do as the Romans Do
(Graphic: Brian Covert • Photos: Reference.com / Getty Images)
A damaging impeachment trial, a ravaging global pandemic, a crashing domestic economy and explosive uprisings in cities across the United States: Any one of these factors would be enough to seal the fate of an American president, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, and consign a president’s legacy to the trash heap of history.
But then again, the Fake President of the United States, Donald Trump, is no ordinary president. He has managed to linger on, surviving one of these crises after another. Trump has done so by breaking all the norms of presidential tradition, fostering a culture of corruption and causing deep, lasting damage to the American republic.
If U.S. president George W. Bush, at the dawn of the 21st century, was the Boy King ridiculed for his tongue-twisting public gaffes and condemned worldwide for his illegal invasions of sovereign Middle Eastern nations that made the word “empire” respectable again, Donald J. Trump is the closest thing Americans have to a Holy Roman Emperor. And that says a lot about Trump’s political future and the destiny of the American empire over which he so unashamedly reigns.
Trump’s spontaneous stroll to a photo-taking session on 1 June through Lafayette Square park, opposite the White House in Washington DC, where he resides — preceded by a violent police outburst against peacefully demonstrating Black Lives Matter protesters — was just the latest in a long list of outrages he has brought about since taking office in 2017. But lost amid all the media noise and protesting chants of justifiably angry citizens is a simple, overlooked truth: Trump is no longer the elected president of a country; rather, he has become the self-appointed emperor of an American empire in rapid decline. Seen in that light, every outrageous act that Trump commits makes perfect sense.
Trump would have made one emperor of olden times, Caligula, the third Roman emperor in a long line of them in Italy, especially envious and proud. Ruling from the year AD 37, Caligula worked to increase the unconstrained personal power of the emperor beyond the accepted norms of government. He also undertook ambitious construction projects and had luxurious dwellings built for himself.
Caligula was deeply paranoid and vain — even considering himself a god who stood above mere mortals. He was short-tempered and self-absorbed, and had people killed on a whim (including members of his own family). He indulged in way too much fiscal spending and sexual perversion. He delighted in fighting with the Roman senate and in setting up treason trials to get revenge on his political enemies.
Caligula also had to put down a number of riots and uprisings among the common people during his reign. Legend has it that once, at some public sporting games over which he was presiding, Caligula ordered his guards to throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission to be eaten by the wild beasts, since there were no prisoners immediately available and he wanted some entertainment right then. And by the way, Caligula was widely considered at the time to be insane and mentally unfit to lead the vast empire of Rome.
Are you seeing the Trumpian parallels here?
Caligula was emperor of Rome for only three years and 10 months — about the same length of time that Trump will have been president of the USA by November 2020, when the next presidential election is held. In Caligula’s case, his many personal and political excesses had made him lots of sworn enemies, both inside and outside the government. Members of his own security detail, the Praetorian Guard, were the ones who finally did him in, stabbing him to death at the young age of 28. He was the first of the Roman emperors to be assassinated.
The Roman empire, all in all, lasted from about the year BC 27 to AD 476, just over 500 years from beginning to end. The United States of America, with about 400 years under its belt so far, likely won’t reach even Rome’s modest mark. What we are seeing now, if some credible historians are to be believed, is the decline or downfall of an American empire that has caused as much death and destruction in recent centuries as the ancient Roman empire once did in its time. Trump is just a symptom of that American imperial downfall, not the cause of it.
At age 74, Trump claims to be a student of history, especially when it comes to his political hero from back in the 1970s, Richard Nixon, one of the most crooked U.S. presidents of all. “I learned a lot from Richard Nixon — don’t fire people,” Trump recently told Fox (so-called) News. “I learned a lot. I study history,” he added. “Of course, there was one difference, one big difference. Number one, he [Nixon] may have been guilty. And number two, he had [phone-bugging] tapes all over the place. I wasn’t guilty. I did nothing wrong, and there are no tapes. But I wish there were tapes, in my case.”
Don’t we all? But we have seen enough of Trump on television screens, in news articles, in books, on the Internet and elsewhere in the media over the past three years to know what we are dealing with here: a decadent despot with no moral standing, no moral conscience, no credibility among most of the people of the world, and no concern or respect for life beyond his own personal wealth.
If Trump really knew his history, he would look much farther back than Richard Nixon to find the lessons to guide him into the future. He would look waaaay back to the Roman empire of long ago for his political clues and economic cues in 21st-century America.
Depending on which of the U.S. presidential election campaign predictions you believe, either Trump’s time in office is just about up or he is merely getting warmed up for Act II. Either way, Trump has shown that he wouldn’t hesitate to take the whole country (indeed, the whole world) down with him, if it came to that. And on that score, Trump has much more in common with the Roman emperors Julius Caesar, Caligula and Nero than he does with Nixon, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or any of the other iconic figures of contemporary western history with whom Trump likes to braggingly compare himself.
Likewise, the White House in Washington DC — some protesting U.S. citizens and liberal politicians have reclaimed it as “The People’s House” — with all of its imitation marble columns and bleached palatial façade, is resembling more and more the crumbling stone ruins of ancient Rome than some living beacon of real democracy and hope for the future in our time.
The good news, in the end, is that the royal subjects of the American empire, once apathetic and asleep, seem to have found a voice and a sense of shared humanity in the wake of the murder of a Black man named George Floyd and others at the hands of local police in the U.S. And as human history has shown us many times in the past, when the cowed-down subjects of an empire find deep within themselves something truly precious enough to live and die for, the clock starts ticking on an emperor’s reign. Emperor Trump would be no exception.