Trump is Living in Nero’s Nightmare

When I was a philosophy major, my favorite philosopher was Seneca. I’m not really sure what it was. He certainly wasn’t the most profound and I never thought much of stoicism as philosophy, even if it seems like a very heroic code to live by. There was just something about the way he wrote, and I’ve never forgotten his lesson that the truly powerful may pardon a transgression; it’s the weak that have to punish excessively to deter.

Seneca was also a tutor and advisor to the Emperor Nero. In the early years, when Nero listened to his advisors, Seneca, his mother, and Burrus, his rule was competent. But eventually, Nero was persuaded that his advisors were getting too popular, too rich, and needed to be destroyed before they challenged him—which was never their intention. Seneca was forced to commit suicide after being implicated in an assassination attempt on Nero 3 years after he retired and which he probably had nothing to do with.

Nero was 17 when he became emperor and obviously had no idea how to rule. Later, when he tried on his own, he was a dynasty-ending disaster. He was corrupt, compulsive, and liked to play music for an audience—he wanted to be loved.

Imagine being Nero. You rule a vast apparatus with deadly serious interests conflicting with each other every day and you’re at the center of it. You know you have no idea what you’re doing, but you’ve been put here by the powers that be and you can’t run away. It’s a total nightmare!

What do you do? You find people who can tell you what to do. You maybe even let them argue with each other a little bit and compete for your attention.

Nero eventually had his own mother executed. We saw that he had Seneca killed later, probably at the behest of his new corrupt advisors. And Burrus died. The wheels came off. Why?

New people who came into his circle saw their chance to get what they wanted, but they had to get rid of the administration-minded advisors who had his ear. To do this, they painted them as rivals. Don’t you resent them, God-Emperor, for being dependent on them? Don’t you think they sneer at your incompetence behind your back, maybe leaking these things to senators and others?

Trump’s administration is not yet 4 months old. He has already stopped listening to the crew that got him elected—and they were the third crew who ran his campaign. Fortunately, his current Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor are competent. But how long before he starts thinking some of his better advisors are “showboats” and dispatches them? Who will replace them?

Trump, like Nero, knows by now he has no idea what he’s doing. He knows that the rules he lived by for 70 years don’t apply anymore. He can’t even say what he thinks without it getting him potentially in legal jeopardy. He can’t even fire someone who wasn’t doing a good job. Government, amirite?! None of his advisors seem to be able to keep him out of trouble, anyway.

It’s a testament to how tightly wound our institutions are that they have continued to run more or less for the last 4 months. There have apparently been some near misses—withdrawing from NAFTA, for example. And there have been some ill-conceived moves. Appointing Michael Flynn, trying to executive order a muslim ban so blatantly, firing the FBI director to stop an investigation—even if it has nowhere to go and especially if it does.

Ironically, the problem with Hillary Clinton was that she was so familiar with government, it’s hard to believe that she would have been willing to crack enough eggs to make an omlette. She seemed willing to gently adjust the cruise control up and down the highway, making everyone drowsy from the monotony. We chose to live in interesting times instead.

In this 4 months, there hasn’t been a true testing crisis. North Korea keeps rearing its ugly head. They tested another new missile today. That’s bad. In reality, while it might not be the best decision, it will be possible to kick that can down the road for a while if that’s what is decided. I doubt very much that they will invade the South or fire directly on US personnel or allies. But they very well could escalate their missile and bomb development to a point that could test us. Ignoring it might have its own consequences later.

Of course, the Middle East is still the Middle East, as Trump is sure to find out next week. He seems to think he can broker the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, as the coalition leaders there who supported his election are now in a state of total panic over Trump’s failure to back them as much as they thought he would. There is almost no way he won’t make the situation worse by talking. Both sides there are very sensitive to language. He’ll return with even more egg on his face, perhaps leaving behind an incipient intifada.

There are other potential trouble areas. A random terrorist attack. Tensions with China. The collapse of Venezuela or another dick move by Putin. Some of these don’t really require us to do anything, but not to answer would send a message too.

I’ve always said I want Trump to be the best President in US history. I want whoever is the president now to be the best president in US history because I’m alive now. But he’s not off to a good start. The best thing he could do would be to say as little as possible. But do you want to be the advisor to tell him that’s what he should do?

Get the hot bath ready if you are.

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