Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury the GOP, not to praise them;
The voters they need have abandoned them;
The policies they want interred with their bones.
The day has finally come when Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for President of the United States. As he spoke- this time, remarkably, using a teleprompter- he talked about the usual ills that he felt were plaguing America, and repeated his usual slogans. It was the Donald J. Trump that we have come to know (but perhaps not yet to love). What struck myself, and many others, as curious, however, was that Trump portrayed himself not just as Trump.
Perhaps the “J” in Donald J. Trump stands not for John but for Julius. Trump, in his hour-long speech, cast himself as the Caesar of America. Amidst the decline of the values and the strength of the great republic, only he could save her from her teeming enemies, both domestic and foreign. As he said aptly in his speech, “Only I can do it”. As Julius Caesar was the only man who could save Rome in its days of decay, only he could save the United States of America. As The Economist commented, “His Caesarism is not modest.” Politico dubbed it “Donald Trump’s Caesar Moment”. It is, of course, not an easy comparison to make; that this billionaire with quirky hair had anything at all similar with the most famous man of the ancient world. But upon analysis the overlap is indeed striking.
As mentioned, they both branded themselves as the man who could rescue their country from descending into ever-greater chaos. For Trump to play his role as Caesar, saviour of the republic, however, requires a party base that believes the republic actually needs saving. Of course, it is not that difficult to believe that something is wrong with America. The constant reports of shootings, the growth of fundamentalist religious terrorism, the economic decline in its inner cities, the bewilderment of so much immigration: surely something must be wrong? Certainly the United States would need its own Caesar, a man who would be able to ‘Make America Great Again’. And not just great; Trump would, as he pledged through his naming of the themes of the convention, make it safe, make it the first, and make it one. What a bait to the Republican base, and they duly took it. It did not help that the man himself littered his campaigning right from his candidacy announcement to his acceptance speech with hyperboles, exaggerations and outright lies about the state of the union. There was no point being the hero of the republic if the citizens did not believe the republic needed saving. Trump is now known as a world-class liar, a label resulting from his bid to become America’s Caesar.
But Caesar was not only Rome’s saviour. He also eventually became Rome’s dictator. The American constitution confines Trump’s powers with checks and balances far beyond what the consuls of the Roman Republic ever knew. But that does not diminish in any way Trump’s willingness to go far beyond the limits of his authority. Trump has lavished praise on Putin, for example, not despite of his dictatorial tendencies, but seemingly because of his authoritarianism. And like Caesar, it seems that Trump would not be afraid to test how far he can go with his use of power. The “complete” ban on Muslims entering the country would be the most prominent example. Trump will not be able to declare himself dictator. He could, however, attempt to expand the powers of the executive branch in ways that previous presidents could only envy.
Behind the Caesar the dictator, however, was also Caesar the populist; the man never shied away from throwing triumphs and lavishing treats for the Roman people to enjoy, and who himself came from a long line of populares politicians that championed the cause of the plebeians. Trump, likewise, is a populist, but a dangerous kind of populist. He appeals not just to the people’s resentment against globalisation, expressed through his vehement opposition to free trade, but also to deeper, darker attitudes, namely the longstanding racism against blacks and Hispanics. When he said that “Mexicans are rapists”, there is no statistical evidence to back that up. But it was something that his voters wanted to believe.
Rather than standing as an independent populares with his own platform, however, Trump chose to seek and win the nomination of a party that espoused conservatism as its ideology. Caesar was also an iconoclast who rejected old values; Trump represents a wholesale abandonment of them. Like Caesar, who ended up turning the very traditions of the Roman republic he claimed to protect on its head, Trump promptly ignored all the trappings of conservatism and turned the GOP into the Party of Trump. He could play lip-service to the various tenants of his ideology- he loves William Buckley, for example, and he was willing to pretend to listen to Paul Ryan talk about the need of a balanced budget- but in the end his ideas were his own. The GOP platform now officially endorses building a border wall.
Most important of all, however, is the sheer ambition and self-obsession that both share. Did Caesar care more about himself than Rome? This we would never know, but there is no doubting the self-interest that Caesar had as he laboured to bring himself to the pinnacle of the Roman political order. Trump, on the other hand, clearly cares for nothing save himself. He can scarcely give a speech without praising himself. Self-advancement, beyond anything, ranks as the ultimate goal for both men.
And so we have it. This is the man the Republicans have nominated. They threw their die, and in the most unpredictable fashion the 17-sided die has fallen on this most unique, unfortunate face. But that is done, the die is cast, and Never Trump will never have their way. The GOP has elevated a perpetually lying, dangerously populist, self-obsessed man who cares nothing for their values as their standard-bearer, their Caesar, one step removed from the most powerful position on Earth.
It is remarkable that we have come this far. It is also unfortunate that the fault lies not within the stars, but in the Republicans themselves; they are reaping what they have sowed by fuelling racism and xenophobic ideas. But it is too late. This is the man they have, and they will need to play their card the best they can. They will now be crossing the Rubicon with Donald Trump to a road with no return. They have comprehensively abandoned the 2012 autopsy conducted by the Republican National Committee on how to win in 2016. They have abandoned their values in favour of a brash billionaire, Caesar he may be. They have embraced a dark, grim vision of the American state. They do so to fight an enemy that enjoys so many advantages: popularity among minority groups, a greater degree of party unity, and a built-in lead in the electoral college. The banks opposite beckons towards what increasingly looks like a disastrous defeat. If only Trump knew that Caesar did not end well. Hillary Clinton must be gleeful, for it does not look like she will end with the same fate as Pompey.
But of course, before the Republicans get too fearful of repeating history, it must be remembered that Trump and Caesar share one big distinction. Caesar was a political and military genius who spent his life in public administration. Trump has shown he cannot be bothered to learn even the basics of policy. Who knows how much comfort the party will derive from that.