Sunday, May 14, 2017

Is Trump Like Caligula?

Is Trump Like Caligula?

No, I'm not saying he's insane or sleeping with his sister or about to kill a third of the billionaires or thinks he's a God. But there is one alarming aspect of Caligula's reign that Trump parallels:  Like "Little Bootikins" did to the Principate, Donald Trump is using the true and massive power of the executive that his predecessors had hidden behind republican/constitutional forms tradition and good manners be damned. Like Caligula Trump has dropped the facade of moderation and the fiction of the 'res publica' that predecessors had maintained.

Don't believe me? Here's a little Roman History.

Caesar Augustus and the Civil War finally destroyed the Roman Republic for good but Caesar feared an elite shorn of status and authority ( what the Romans called "Autorictus") and smoldering with resentment would be susceptible to conspiracy, coups and assassination. So Augustus hid his autocratic exercise of power behind traditional constitutional forms. He insisted he was only the Princeps - First Citizen, he refused to be deified in life as was the norm for great Kings and Emperors in antiquity. He even let the Senate thwart his plans from time to time just to sustain the fiction that the Republic still lived. Tiberius, his successor largely did the same although towards the end his paranoia got the best if him and he let the mask slip a bit.

But his successor, Caligula had no taste for Republican play acting. He knew he had the whip hand of power and was the single focal point for the Empire and he was going to jolly well play the part. It's interesting that observers at the time claimed he was a megalomaniac - power mad. But he had the same powers Augustus had, he was just more honest about the reality. So he announced that he was a God and he exercised the prerogatives of absolute power by taking what he wanted, killing whom he pleased, and indulging his whims. Not the strongest mind, Caligula let all of his power get the best of him, slipping into madness.  As a result he was eventually felled by an elite conspiracy that dressed up its murder with promises to restore the Republic. But the Republic was dead and another Emperor simply rose to take his place. And eventually all Emperors acted with the impunity and assumed the deity that was inherent in the power that they held.

Likewise the American Presidency and its associated Federal bureaucracy has radically expanded its power and reach, particularly over the last 16 years. But up until now Presidents have been careful to sheath this incredible and largely unconstitutional power in the velvet of constitutional forms. But Donald Trump has no desire to disguise the real state of affairs and doesn't have the personality to do so if he wanted to. The result is the so called 'ruling elite' is outraged at the effrontery of a President demonstrating to the the country just how the Presidency completely dominates the nation's governance. So like with "Little Bootikins" they are targeting Trump for removal. If they can dress it up in some thin veneer of legality, so be it. But mark my words, in back rooms they are sharpening knives and thinking the unthinkable.

But Americans aren't Romans and Donald Trump may be crude and reckless, but he's a survivor. This is going to get very ugly.  Perhaps it was unwise to vest so much power in one office at the center of the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

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