As we close in on tonight’s first forensic cage match between “Imaginary She-Devil” Hillary Clinton and Donald “the Human Dumpster Fire” Trump, I’ve been (completely coincidentally) brushing up on my Roman history, reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. And let me tell you, Plutarch has me worried.
The trouble is the more I learn about Julius Caesar and the rest of that era’s brave little gang of generals, plutocrats, and dictators-in-waiting, the more I see America’s present, the more I fear that much as we want or even pretend to learn something from history, we never, ever (or “ever, ever, ever, ever, ever” to wax Trumpian) do.
I know it’s a cliché, a terrible cliché, but the phrase, “Those who fail to learn history’s lessons are doomed to repeat them,” has been rattling around in my head, costing me sleep. The other thing that’s been knocking around up there—the necessary, unwelcome corollary—is that you can never completely discount clichés. You can never discount them because clichés are born of truth.
Across the slate-blue Atlantic, thousands of miles and a score of centuries in history’s hazy distance, there was a republic, the greatest the world had ever known, the Republic of Rome. Founded on a contradictory mix of freedom and slavery, myth and memory, the Roman Republic was the precursor to the Roman Empire, a historical force for progress and order, oppression and conquest, that shapes our world to this very day.
In the epoch of Roman history that centers on the transition from republic to empire, there were plenty of outsize historical figures. Not just Caesar and his heir, Octavian (the first, true, titular “Caesar,” known later as Augustus); but Mark Antony and Pompey Magnus; Cato and Cicero; Cassius, Crassus, Brutus, and last but in no way least, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the dictator who first gained control of the Republic through force of arms, the man who, in many ways, made Julius Caesar’s ascension not just possible, but perhaps inevitable.
To liken Donald Trump to Caesar or George W. Bush to Sulla may seem simplistic, even unfair. The temporal depth and factual shallows of history mean that we see the figures who presided over the death of the Roman Republic as epic, larger than life, at this point more fictional characters than anything else. Trump and Bush, on the other hand, may seem all too human. They may seem like buffoons. The trouble is that buffoons can be just as dangerous as legends, if not more so; that the buffoon and the legend may be more alike than we realize when their common denominator is power, their common catalyst an ambition for war.
A president barely elected by a nation apathetic at the extent of its own good fortune—interest rates and unemployment historically low, the stock market soaring; budget deficits seemingly a thing of the past—George W. Bush did much to dismantle America’s power and prestige even as he purported to enhance them. A real war of choice, a phony war on terror, reckless deregulation, vast damage to the American and world economies, a blind eye to the withering environment–by the end of his second term, not even Bush’s own party wanted him on the campaign trail or at the party convention.
There can be little doubt Dubya’s was a failed presidency, perhaps our worst ever. Still, there is one consequence of the Bush years that remains in doubt. Perhaps, all things considered, we will look back and see it as the very worst outgrowth of our 43rd President’s disastrous tenure—the fact that he made the idea of a know-nothing president somehow acceptable.
I remember the run-up to the 2000 election, how the contest centered on various canards about Republicans and Democrats, more specifically Bush and Gore, being the same. There was a third party candidate running from the left, Ralph Nader. Though Nader wasn’t a threat to win, he pulled 3 percent of the national vote—this time, in 2016, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have anywhere from 5 to 15 percent—a margin that in two states (Florida and New Hampshire) vastly outstripped the additional votes Gore would have needed to win. So, even though Gore did, in fact, win the national popular vote in 2000, he lost in the Electoral College, Dubya inaugurated as our 43rd President.
Perhaps more than anything else about that election, I remember Dubya’s appearance on a local TV station in Boston, where I lived at the time, an interview with a reporter named Andy Hiller. The interview consisted of Hiller asking Dubya various questions about foreign affairs. A sample:
Hiller: “Can you name the general who is in charge of Pakistan?” (Referring to Pervez Musharraf who had seized power by military coup in 1999 and would in the not-too-distant future become central to Bush’s War on Terror)
Dubya: “Wait, wait, is this 50 questions?”
Hiller: “No, it’s four questions of four leaders of four hot spots.”
Dubya: “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected he’s, he’s, not elected, this guy took over office. He appears he’s gonna bring stability to the country and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent.”
Hiller: “And you can name him?”
Dubya: “General. I can name the general.”
Hiller: “And it’s…”
Hiller: “Prime minister of India?”
Dubya: “Uh, the new prime minister of India is, uh … no.”
Bush continued, speaking in vagaries about Taiwan, Chechnya, and foreign affairs in general. He neither had the requisite knowledge, nor even seemed to care that he didn’t.
(Does that remind you of a certain orange-hued, complexly-coiffured advocate for nuclear proliferation in Southeast Asia, nuking Europe, and attacking Iran over rude gestures?)
Bush seemed, at least in my eyes, to disqualify himself, completely and utterly. The man was so clearly out of his depth; so obviously a lesser figure than his opponent, Vice President Al Gore. There was no way America could possibly elect George W. Bush. And, yet, we did.
Regardless of whether we want to argue about the Florida recount, the Supreme Court’s partisan decision in Bush v. Gore, Gore’s poor campaign, President Clinton’s lies and dalliances, or the impact of Ralph Nader’s third party candidacy, the fact is that Bush became president. As the years went by, we’d realize just how unready George W. Bush had been for the presidency, and how much that lack of readiness mattered, so much it seemed obvious we’d never do something like that again. All that said, eight years after throwing that bum out, we’ve got a new bum we’re courting. We’re listening to the same tired lines of logic once again, too.
“The Democrats and the Republicans are all the same.”
“We need to shake up Washington.”
“What have we got to lose?”
“Safe states and swing states.”
“Votes of protest and conscience.”
“The lesser of two evils is still evil.”
“Deeply flawed candidates.”
“We need a strong leader.”
To paraphrase: We need Donald Trump even if he has no idea what the realities of NATO are, speaks blithely of using nuclear weapons on our allies, and refers warmly to America’s chief geopolitical antagonist, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” Trump said in a statement in December of 2015. “I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
Ironically (or not), this is how Dubya described Former KGB Chief Putin in 2001, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”
Since Dubya’s statement, and prior to Trump’s, Putin’s Russia has pursued aggressive military activity against its neighbors Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, invaded Syria, and continues to conduct a vast cyberwarfare campaign against America and its western allies, going so far as to harbor fugitive data-thief Edward Snowden and to work with Julian Assange (of WikiLeaks fame) in an attempt to influence the outcome of our election.
There’s a debate tonight. Did I mention that?
In one corner: Lifetime public servant and noted policy wonk, former First Lady, former Senator, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the other corner: sexist, racist, religious bigot, xenophobe, bellicose nationalist offend-a-tron, and Vladimir Putin-adoring policy neophyte Donald Trump.
If Dubya made it acceptable to become President without much conception of the greater world, Trump has raised that to an art form, made crudeness and ignorance into virtues. (“I love the poorly educated.” “I love the deplorable.”) More than this, Trump has made being a jerk cool. That’s his contribution to what comes next. Whereas Dubya seemed like a nice enough guy, willing to speak up in defense of other faiths and races, Trump clearly is not. At worst he’s a white supremacist thug, at best someone willing to traffic in such beliefs in order to gain political power.
The question I come to, in the end, as I consider this all in light of Plutarch, isn’t whether Trump is dangerous. That question has been answered again and again by the candidate himself, and proven in spades by the tenure of George W. Bush. No, the question is just how dangerous Donald Trump can become. Whether his arrogance, ignorance, and militarism have the potential to do to America what Julius Caesar did to Rome. More than that, the question is whether we’re going to sit by and watch as history repeats itself once again.