Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Donald Trump and the Establishment's Ides of March

The Ides of March are here. Over two millennia ago, on this day, Julius Caesar was struck down in the forum of Rome by his inveterate enemies.

Well, it was fairly clear they weren’t fans. Stabbing knives are a bit of a giveaway.

Since that time, commentators have tended to see the event in one of two ways. There are those to whom the assassins were making a last-gasp stand in defence of the republican virtues and time-honoured freedoms of Rome against a would-be military dictator. Others instead see the conspirators as reactionaries trying to defend an old and outdated dispensation that needed a hero to overthrow it.

My own view is of the “plague on both your houses” variety. Brutus, Cassius and their mates were aristocrats of the old elite that had run, and indeed owned, Rome for centuries. They weren’t there to defend ancient liberties, or at least ancient liberties for anyone but themselves and their class. The common man? He was of interest to them only insofar as he could further or resist their plans for themselves.

As for Caesar, he was a megalomaniac with all sorts of weird delusions – I mean, what kind of man writes his autobiography in the third person? An aristocrat himself, he won an enviable reputation – for those who envy military reputations – by waging bloodthirsty war on the inhabitants of Gaul, who’d done him no harm at all but provided him with a good ladder towards power.

Then he’d used his military might to seize that power back in Rome.

Isn’t that so like what’s happening on the Ides of March in 2016?

The primary elections in the US today are pretty much the last gasp for the old American elite – the people we tend to refer to as the Republican Establishment – to try to block the road to power of a megalomaniac who, like Caesar, is convinced that only he can save his nation from itself. Unlike Caesar, Donald Trump is no military leader. On the other hand, to be a military leader Caesar had to raise millions to fund his legions; Trump too has raised colossal financial power to fund his legions of foot soldiers. Not all that different.

Are the Republicans heading off into a long dark night?
And will they drag the rest of us with them?
Caesar’s violence was of a different order. But Trump’s movement is dipping that way now, with increasing violence at his rallies. And isn’t it interesting that they are rallies? These arent forums for debate, they are mass adoration sessions where the providential man tells his followers what to believe, and they reward him with their worship in return.

A major difference is that the freedoms at stake aren’t merely those of an elite. One of the most striking, and admirable, characteristics of the United States is that it has a remarkable Constitution. A mere 7000 words long, it laid the foundation for a system in which no one could exert excessive power, because another body would counterbalance theirs and keep it under control.

I’m not aware of any time in history where that admirable state of affairs has ever been under greater threat than today. Sam Brownback, who is to the state of Kansas what Trump is to the entire nation (but with the additional flaw of actually being in office), has signed into effect legislation that would allow him to impeach any judge that struck down a law that he favoured. The chances are that such a step, which denies the possibility of an independent judiciary, would be thrown out by the Supreme Court in any government led by a president committed to upholding the Constitution; but would even the Supreme Court be able to resist the bullying of a President Trump, with his contempt for the Constitution?

You don’t believe he has contempt for the Constitution? Look at what he has been saying about the media. He hates journalists, he says. If elected, he claims, he will bring in legislation that would make it considerably easier to sue media outlets for libel. In other words, this keen supporter of the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms, wants to circumscribe the effects of the First, which upholds the right to freedom of speech.

Sadly, aligned against him are only the tired old figures of the Republican establishment, as weirdly Conservative as he is. They are unlikely to succeed tonight in defeating Trump. In that respect, they are once more not unlike the conspirators against Caesar: although they did assassinate him, the act only rebounded on them, as Caesar’s party rallied its forces and crushed the assassins in war, thus ending the Republic anyway and ushering in the autocratic rule of the Roman Empire.

When it comes to Trump, there really is only one hope left of stopping him. A diminutive, not particularly trustworthy or popular woman, Hillary Clinton. An unlikely and uninspiring figure to be the last best hope of American liberty.

But, hey, we don’t always choose the weapons to defend ourselves. We just have to reach for the best we can find when we’re up against an urgent threat. Thats likely to be Hillary, and boy do we need her. 

Because being Trumped is about as threatening, and as urgent, as it gets.

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