TRUMPING ANCIENT ROME

by Geoff Olson

According to Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 AD), the mad emperor Caligula attempted to install his beloved horse Incitatus in the Roman senate. Historians believe the stunt was  intended to humiliate senators, by implying their work was so meaningless an animal could do it. In any case, the assassination of Caligula by members of his own Praetorian Guard pre-empted the political installation of Incitatus (“At Full Gallop”).

trump-toupeeA succession of late-Roman sleazebags and crazies emptied the treasury to finance wars in foreign lands and gladiatorial spectacles in the Imperial city. I’m certainly not the first and last commentator to make a connection between Rome’s decline and America’s twilight, which seems more palpable with the rise of real estate magnate and reality TV fixture Donald Trump as the front-runner in the Republican horse race.

Although Trump will likely return to his gold-plated stable before the presidential selection, the fact that he’s now at full gallop is a good measure of the bread-and-circuses state of the US electoral process.

Up until this year, the curiously-coifed real estate magnate, described by comic John Oliver as a “clown made of mummified foreskin and cotton candy,” supplied fodder for comedy circuits rather than campaign launches. His bizarre candidacy speech, in which he condemned illegal immigrant Mexicans as ”rapists,” was initially seen as a spectacular act of political suicide, certain to derail his quixotic campaign before it even got started.

Nope. As of this week, the Donald is reportedly at 24 percent support in polls, twice that of Florida governor Jeb Bush. Apparently some US voters appreciate Trump’s habit of freely spilling the contents of his head – however tiny the container and toxic the contents.
In the US, television dialogue has been reduced to yelling matches between talking heads. Print media annotates trash-talking exchanges between rappers and other celebrities. In the online world, chat rooms and Twitter feeds are spittled with cheap shots and slurs. Trump seems like the next logical step in this culture of snark and bark: a celebrity Internet troll who’s taken the digital age dictum to “brand yourself” to its terminal station: the Oval Office.

The casino owner’s unapologetic tirades make Jeb Bush seem like a model of serious statesmanship, which conveniently moves the whole Donkey/Elephant spectrum of debate (“Overton’s Window”) another step to the right.

That said, the guy is no slave to consistency. He has a few surprisingly progressive if feigned ideas, including universal health care. When questioned at last week’s Republican debate about Hillary Clinton attending his 2005 wedding, he responded that she had to because he gave money to her charitable foundation.

Seriously off-script as always, he implied that politicians are bought and sold like soap by moneyed interests, which is obviously true.

Instead of supporting a pre-owned candidate, he’s saying, the public should vote directly for a billionaire – himself. The GOP is now terrified that he will make good on a threat to run as an independent candidate, and split the vote on the right.

Speaking of going solo, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is running as as a Democratic rather than independent candidate. After Hillary’s foregone coronation as the Dem’s choice for president, the socialist-minded senior will be reduced to a historical footnote – a Socrates without the hemlock. The Elephant/Donkey duopoly is all about foreclosing any meaningful changes to a system which is shambling toward collapse.

Regardless of who gets to be hood ornament on the national security/surveillance juggernaut, “they” still win, at least for the short term. They being the .01 percent enriched through Wall Street’s Ponzi schemes, the Pentagon’s wars of aggression, the IMF/World Bank’s international loan-sharking, and patrimonial capitalism.

“The class stratification of Roman society was extreme. By comparison, Victorian England might seem a laboratory of equality. Rome’s wealthiest class, the senatorial aristocracy, constituted, by one estimate, two thousandths of one percent of the population, then came the equestrian class, with perhaps a tenth of a percent. Collectively these people owned almost everything,” writes Cullen Murphy in his short but substantial 2007 book, Are We Rome: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America.

Sounds familiar. Trump, a 21st century Incitatus, doesn’t have to occupy the Oval Office to highlight America’s decline. Another donkey will do just fine.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 13

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