caesar & trump: the paradigm of tyrannicide and moral cowardism

at the start of his campaign for president of the united states, joe biden made the following statement about incumbent president, donald trump. “i believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time…but if we give donald trump eight years in the white house, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”[1] this statement, and the narrative of biden’s campaign more broadly, has tried to characterise donald trump as a historical accident, and stands in stark contrast to the narrative that has been put forward by nearly all of biden’s competitors for the democratic nomination, who have universally portrayed donald trump and the alt-right as the historical outcomes of a long history of policy decisions by both democratic and republican elected officials, going as far back as ronald reagan in the 1980s.

under the narrative of biden’s rivals — a more persuasive narrative — republicans pursued a set of policies that deregulated the american economy, defunded important social programs and infrastructure, and buttered up the rich with lavish tax cuts, while democrats at best offered weak resistance, and at worst promoted watered-down versions of those same policies. such policies not only promoted income inequality, but economically hamstrung many heretofore-middle-class people and created a desperate, vulnerable audience for a political ideology that had not been relevant since 1945. surprisingly or not, moreover, the era in which these policies were being created also saw the rise of micronationalism (not counting the first micronation, sealand), as primarily-middle-class individuals in europe and america looked at the policies coming from the political class and began to ask whether they themselves couldn’t do it better, if only as a symbolic gesture of resistance.

that biden wishes to dismiss donald trump as a fluke is unsurprising, given that he himself has been a leading member of both the legislative and executive branches of government since the 1980s, and helped to craft many of the policies that his fellow candidates impugn. biden’s interpretation of events, however, finds significant parallels in the end of the roman republic. while i often groan at the tired old line about learning from history, i do think that the episode i will discuss offers us an unusual opportunity to examine the consequences of the kind of willfully-blind optimism that biden is promoting.

i want to qualify the comparison of trump to caesar that is suggested in my title. this is an equivalence that is drawn frequently in opinion pieces, and usually deployed in order to smear trump as a power-hungry thug running roughshod over the laws and norms of public life. while i wouldn’t necessarily disagree with those characterisations of trump, such a comparison of him to caesar strikes me as intellectually facile. instead, my comparison rests on the idea that the events of both 9 november 2016 and 11 january 49 b.c.e., when caesar crossed the rubicon, were crisis points when political systems that had seemed to be limping along tolerably well revealed themselves to be long-since broken. rome’s crisis was preceded by laughter, as political insiders like cicero joked about dysfunctional negotiations between pompey and caesar. that laughter soon faded into concern and then alarm as the chance of a happy outcome dimmed and war loomed. we can imagine too well, i think, the sense of unreality that followed the war, as business went on more-or-less as usual, meetings went on, debates were held, albeit all under the gaze of the victor, who allowed the system to go on, even as he periodically voiced his contempt for it all.

like our constitutional crisis, the crisis of the roman republic was preceded by decades of growing inequality, as the conquest of the mediterranean made a few wealthy men unimaginably wealthy, while those citizens who were not members of the business class found themselves politically marginalised as the elite blocked, occasionally through violence, the creation of social programs to help them look after their basic needs. the phrase “basket full of deplorables” could almost have been coined by an elite roman. rome’s lower classes, in turn, threw their support behind a series of anti-establishment politicians who, however disruptive they might have been, seemed to recognise that the needs of much of rome’s citizen body were not being met. one of the last in this line of demagogues was caesar, whom the people rewarded for his advancement of popular causes against the will of the senate with command of an army in a war of his own creation, a war in which he would prove phenomenally successful.

some even responded to the dysfunction of the roman state in a way thematically similar to micronationalism. cicero, we know, found comfort in philosophy, and in two of his works, the republic and the laws — both responses to another quasi-micronationalist, the greek philosopher, plato — he sought to imagine his own roman republic, and how he would set up a state, if given the opportunity.

which brings us at long last to the parallel for biden’s kind of thinking: caesar’s assassins, the self-proclaimed liberatores. much ink has been spilled trying to examine such questions as the philosophy behind tyrannicide, and why a mixed group of caesar’s supporters and opponents from the civil war were united around this one issue, but what strikes me as interesting and important is how little thought they put into the aftermath of the murder. they had made no plans to take control of the city or prevent future riots, and had no plan for what a post-caesar government would look like. perhaps most significantly, they made the humane choice to confine their violence to caesar himself, which had the unfortunate consequence of leaving many of caesar’s most important supporters and allies in power. like joe biden, caesar’s assassins saw their opponent not as the symptom of deeper systemic problems, but as the problem itself. they genuinely, even naively, seemed to believe that the world would go back to what it once was, if only they could get rid of him. it uhh…didn’t work out that way. what followed instead were more civil wars, the death of much of rome’s political class, and the emergence of a monarchy that only became more absolute with time.

my point here is not to predict the future, and i don’t think that biden’s viewpoint, should it prevail, would spell the end of american democracy. like rome, however, america’s troubles are the product not of one decision, but of decades of decisions that have prioritised the needs of the political class and the business class over the needs of the people that vote. seeking to reduce the problem down to one man is an abnegation of shared responsibility and will do little to heal a divided society.

jan dewitt


[1] https://www.vox.com/2019/5/13/18535239/joe-biden-trump-aberrant-aberration

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