April 30, 2018

Donald Trump and Rome’s Mad Emperors

President Donald Trump met with members of his administration in Oval Office of the White House in March 2017. (Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House)

We’ve never had to deal with anything half as reckless, delusional, and smug as Trump occupying the Oval Office, so how do we describe him, and the predicament that he puts us in?

By Dr. Kirk Freudenburg / 04.29.2018
Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Classics
Yale University

Since placing his hand on the Bible on Jan. 20, 2017 before tens of thousands of adoring…what shall we call them, infuriables? hilaricides?…Donald Trump has garnered dozens of comparisons to Rome’s mad emperors from among some of the most prominent journalists of our day. Just days after the president swore to the size of his ego before that biggest of all inauguration crowds, Jonathan Jones put a toga on the entire affair in The Guardian with “To Understand Trump, we Should Look to the Tyrants of Ancient Rome.”  Peter Jones followed in The Spectator with “The Nero in Donald Trump.”

Hoping for a more favorable comparison, Victor Davis Hanson issued “Trump … Our Claudius,” only to have Paul Krugman go hard in the other direction with “Trump Makes Caligula Look Pretty Good.

Eight days later Nicholas Kristof offered that “There Once was a Great Nation with an Unstable Leader,” once again referencing Nero, and rounding out this long last year of comparing madly was Jefferson Morely’s Alternet piece of Jan. 17, 2018: “Which Awful Roman Emperor does Trump Most Resemble?

But what do we make of these tendentious comparisons that dress Donald Trump in Nero’s clothes, given how easy they are to make, and how many things they always conveniently leave out?  What “public good” can the authors who write these pieces think they are performing, especially when American readers have so little to work with in judging what is being offered to them as “the truth” about Rome’s mad emperors?

The commentators who write these articles do not seem to realize that they are themselves victims of the fake news industry of the second century A.D., a period when hating on the Julio-Claudian emperors of the previous century was its own burgeoning enterprise; when history was not just politics by other means, but a mode of satiric titillation, freely indulging in tales of asses’ milk baths, poison mushrooms, and golden nipple pasties. These were the Comet Ping Pong conspiracy stories of the second century. Believe them at your peril.

I think that David Remnick said it best when he was challenged by Christiane Amanpour to defend his own recent provocation in The New Yorker  “Is Donald Trump Like Nero?” In a CNN interview that same day he responded to Amanpour by suggesting, with a slightly embarrassed laugh, that “we might be running out of metaphors.” There’s the rub of the matter. He’s absolutely right: the proliferation of Nero comparisons is not about how history repeats itself, or how it serves up “rhymes” that we need to heed as warnings of future doom. It’s about the failure of our language to describe what we need it to describe.

Never in our history have we had to deal with anything half as reckless, delusional, and smug as a Donald Trump occupying the Oval Office, so how do we describe him, and the predicament that he puts us in? In the sentence you’ve just read you will note that I have indulged in a short list of three negative adjectives. I say “indulged in” because it does feel good to pile them on, and four or five more would have felt even better. But such a list, as short as it is, exposes its own shortcomings by already being too long. The single, well-chosen word (the Holy Grail of old-fashioned, responsible journalism) does not cut it anymore—not when it comes to describing Donald Trump. But neither does any list of aspersions, no matter how long.

There is a strong tendency among current writers struggling to capture the unspeakability of Donald Trump to resort to ungainly fusillades of negative nouns and adjectives. “Narcissist. Racist. Bully. Buffoon. Tyrant. Liar. Celebrity obsessive. Fact-denier. You’ve heard them all, and they all apply, in varying degrees.” Returning to Remnick in his Nero article: “Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament.”

In any other age, these verbal deluges would be chalked up to a failure writing. In the age of Trump they are evidence of a failure of language itself. Such was the great conundrum explored by Lucan in his dystopian poem, “the Pharsalia,” written toward the end of Nero’s reign: how to describe horrors that are beyond words (nefas “the unspeakable”) when poems are made of words?

When asked by a Quinnipiac poll in May 2017, “What one word best describes your impression of Donald Trump?” respondents put “idiot,” “incompetent,” and “liar” at the top of the list. Certain positive and hopeful terms (“great” and “trying”) did pop up here and there, but for the most part the poll ended up producing a long list of angry negatives; we write as we poll.

One way to deal with a failure of words is to make the same old ones speak differently by de-familiarizing them—for example, by recalling the mythical origins of the clinical term “narcissist,” which landed solidly in the Qunippiac poll’s top 25. One can also make up new words (neologisms), as in my first sentence above, or one can revive terms that have long ago fallen out of use.

If I had the power to revive just one lost term from antiquity to describe our current president, it would be the Latin adjective temerarius, a word that brings with it the perfect blend of ill-advised recklessness, smug self-absorption, and not giving a damn about who gets hurt. Oh how I wish we had that word right now!

But the main avenue available for making up for what mere words cannot describe has always been the well crafted metaphor. Not by coincidence, writers of the Neronian period crafted crazed and outlandish metaphors at an unprecedented rate: Lucan, Persius, and the Younger Seneca created jarring, dystopian worlds where the structures that normally keep things in place have been smashed; where everything is split apart and spilling at the seams; where anger, greed and lust run amok, and where sense is hard to make out. Persius, the satirist in the bunch, describes a man ejaculating from his eye. They write this way, obscurely, and through disturbing symbols, because describing things straight is not an option. Not one of them made it to the end of Nero’s reign.

As a scholar of ancient Rome, I look forward to the day when Nero comparisons fall out of fashion. While it has been nice to have had such sustained attention paid to classical antiquity, I long for the day when Nero will be thought irrelevant again (I’m having hats made emblazoned with MNIA!). In a best case scenario, Nero will disappear from our political discourse because Donald Trump will no longer invite the comparison; because he will have become thoughtful and, at long last, presidential. But in a far more likely scenario, Nero will disappear because Donald Trump’s outrages have worn us down and lost the ability to shock us. The process is already well underway.

But there is yet one other scenario that is the worst of the lot: the one where Donald Trump isn’t being compared to Nero anymore because another emperor has taken his place—the “good” emperor, Augustus. To have that happen (as it did in Italy in the thirties) can only mean that journalists have given up and fallen into line. After all, it was Augustus, above all, whom Nero wanted to be compared to. That was his era’s most shocking metaphor (Nero as Augustus): not the one that others wrote about him, but the one that he wrote for himself.

Originally published by Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.