You hear many epitaphs spoken about the new US President: Demagogue, racist, anti-democratic... there are even comparisons to Mussolini and Hitler. But a historical nod with even more relevance would be Julius Caesar. A strong and militaristic figure emerging in a country torn by civil strife, Trump’s victory came as he opposed an establishment figure and railed against an unworkable political system. Like Caesar for the Romans 2000 years ago, Trump has for a sizable portion of Americans arrived as a welcome savior.
January 10, 49 BC: Julius waited with his army on one side of the Rubicon, the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper. After his victories over Germanic and Celtic tribes his popularity soared. Caesar became a threat to the Senate, which called upon him to resign his command and disband his army, or risk being declared an “Enemy of the State.” Pompey, the ultimate insider, was entrusted with enforcing this edict, and the foundation for civil war was laid.
Trump’s crossing from business tycoon to President was not illegal, nor did he declare himself a dictator. But like Caesar, he claimed to be a man of the people. Both managed to unite some of their fissured factions, in Trump’s case a drifting Republican party. As the Democrats clearly moved farther to the left, the Republican party was without a clear brand. So even a maverick like Trump, who many even inside the party labeled as unfit to lead the state, became the new standard bearer.
Even his detractors will acknowledge that Trump is a master at branding his empire and playing to the masses. Trump campaign rallies, replete with sharp rhetoric and promises of reviving the jobs of dying US industries, became the bread and circuses of our century. Just as Trump’s new hotel opened steps from the White House and US Capitol, Caesar’s adopted son Augustus had a similar penchant for promoting the family name, putting his mark on buildings, coins and all public displays.
And, as in the tumultuous times of Caesar’s post-republican Rome, many are loudly protesting the nature of Trump’s rise. After all, Trump bypassed the usual Republican chain of command through his direct appeal to the people.
Many Americans, notably progressives and much of the left-leaning media still cannot comprehend “the why” of Trump’s ascension. Like the establishment senators in Rome, today’s Trump skeptics are largely insulated from average citizens and exist in the echo chambers of power. And perhaps they are less in synch with the general populace’s positive response to Trump’s vow to protect them from foreign invaders… similar to the pledges of protection that allowed Caesar to gain the people’s support as he ran roughshod over the Roman Senate.
We can debate the issues of race, progressive vs conservative, and pundits’ doomsday scenarios, but what cannot be denied, and truly echoes Caesar’s Rubicon crossing, is that US voters were tired of political corruption. They were frustrated with the “Senate Class” and business as usual in their government. They were tired of not working and feeling ignored in the expanding globalist agenda. For many, Obama’s eight years of resisting embrace of national identity and perceived liberal attacks on the “Guns and God” culture, combined to create a combustible openness to a strong outsider.
Between his crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC and his assassination in 44 BC, Caesar sought to bring order back to the Republic. First he had to defeat Pompey, his Hillary. Caesar marched his army into Italy. Trump marched through the primaries, general election and now Washington politics.
The question is how today’s American Rubicon narrative might end. Roman Senators, many of whom supported but didn’t trust him, ultimately betrayed Caesar in a public display featuring 27 stab wounds. Here the literal analogy of course breaks down. No one expects or wishes for a gory drama. Yet, as former critics in the Republican establishment like Ryan, McConnell and Romney have recently lined up behind the new President, the question lingers whether the establishment’s support will prove lasting.
With his self-aggrandizement and penchant for insult, it seems likely that Trump’s own Republican “senate,” not to mention Democrat opposition, will turn on him. McCain and Graham are already fingering their sheaths. Will Ryan, or even Pence, prove to be Trump’s 21st-century Brutus? Will Trump’s final words in office be “E Tu, GOP”?
Or might he learn from history’s lessons and deliver on his reputation as a negotiator to work with the establishment, and prove untrue the general suspicions of his lean toward authoritarianism. Or avoid the 25th amendment as the “knife” that today’s GOP can wield to take down the perceived threat. If so, he can survive – and perhaps even make his Rome great again.