The Triumph of Trump

After 4 weeks in office, President Donald Trump held a rally in Melbourne, Florida. What was the purpose? To make an early start to his re-election campaign? Seems unlikely. To reconnect with the loyal supporters who delivered his election win? Possibly. To celebrate the achievements of his first month as president? That’s exactly how he treated it.

Still operating in campaign mode, Trump used the occasion to list all the successes he had achieved and the promises he had kept since coming to power. He received the validation he craves from his audience and identified common enemies in the media, the political establishment and the world in general.

In ancient Rome, a military commander who achieved a great victory was awarded a triumph — the honor of marching his army through the streets of the city, displaying captured spoils and parading his vanquished enemies. During the Roman Republic a triumph could only be awarded by a vote of the Senate. But as Rome entered its imperial phase the more deranged rulers began to award triumphs to themselves.

Caligula staged a mock triumph at Baiae, where he built a pontoon bridge of boats across the Bay of Naples, possibly to demonstrate his divinity by showing he could walk on water. Caligula had begun as a popular ruler, adopted by the army and winning approval for crowd-pleasing policies like staging games, restoring democratic rights and building aqueducts. As his reign progressed his actions became increasingly erratic. In addition to awarding himself a triumph, he put senators to death, tried to make his horse a consul, and declared war on the Atlantic Ocean.

During four long weeks in power, Trump has demonstrated that he has no intention of obeying the traditional rules of presidential behaviour. He has undermined the intellligence service and the judiciary. Declared war on the fourth estate, denouncing the mass media for dishonesty. Trampled over American exceptionalism — the idea that America holds itself to higher standards than the rest of the world — by claiming moral equivalence with Putin’s Russia. Alienated long-standing allies by criticising the EU and NATO. And sidestepped 20 years of US diplomacy in the Middle East, implying that he will personally broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s been a busy month.

It’s not yet clear what is happening in the world of politics. Andrew Sullivan claims that the US has reached a state of hyperdemocracy — the point where it has become so liberal and tolerant that it cannot hold together and is collapsing like a neutron star. Many of Trump’s supporters would agree with that view. But the force behind his rise is deeply conservative.

Trump owes his success to a true critical mass — a huge groundswell of marginalised voters who found in him a megaphone and a magnifying glass. Trump is merely the stone they chose to throw at the window of the establishment. But now that he is part of the establishment, he continues to wreak destruction.

Political commentators wait for him to start acting in a presidential manner. Instead he’s acting like the winner of a reality TV competition. Which to be fair, is precisely what he is. He seems immune to criticism, embarrassment or good advice. Hardly surprising for someone with an attention span of 140 characters.

Trump has accelerated the dumbing down of politics from soundbite to social media post, bypassing the ‘fake news filter’ by providing a direct news feed to the faithful. He is not the first world leader to realise that propaganda can be more persuasive than facts, and that people are more willing to swallow a big lie than a small one. And he feeds his franchise with bread and circuses — populist policies that delight his supporters while America’s international standing plummets. The world looks on in disbelief as it sees the most powerful office on the planet occupied by a person who is not fit for the job.

Who will rein him in? Not his supporters, who regard all politicians as liars, so they might as well have one who speaks their language. Not his political opponents or allies, unless they can act with common purpose. Not the media or intelligentsia, whom he holds in contempt. Nor his family, who cleave to him like remora.

The people who brought down Caligula were his praetorian guard — his closest protectors and confidantes — who witnessed all his excesses until finally they had seen enough. They dispatched him and replaced with him with a man they considered a half-wit, anyone being preferable to their former master.

At a Roman triumph, the victor shared his chariot with a slave who would whisper in his ear to remind him he was mortal, and repeat the word respice — look behind you. There seems to be no-one close to Trump telling him how to behave, or warning him to watch his back. His key advisors seem to feed on his energy and derive a buzz from his ability to tear up the rule book. But they are savvy enough to know that you can’t build a long-term political strategy out of disruption and chaos.

Trump’s team of advisors are right behind him now, and they will be right behind him when he finally goes too far. The day that Trump announces that he is declaring war on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or has appointed Mister Ed as Secretary of State, he won’t have far to look for his deliverance. Respice.

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