“Beware the Ides of March,” so says a soothsayer attempting to warn Julius Caesar of his impending doom in Shakespeare’s rendition of the calamitous events that led to the final collapse of the Roman Republic. Should America also “Beware the Ides of March” on March 15 as we approach the possible coronation of Donald Trump as the GOP standard bearer in November’s election?
On Tuesday, March 15, Donald Trump may, for all practical purposes, secure the GOP nomination for President. While he will still be a way from achieving the magical number of 1,237 delegates needed to officially secure the nomination at the GOP Convention in Cleveland this summer, a victory in the two key states of Florida and Ohio will largely vanquish his opposition.
Though, as of this article’s publication, it remains possible for Ohio Governor John Kasich and Florida Senator Marco Rubio to rain on Trump’s coronation parade, it is time to fully examine the implications of Donald Trump’s rise to the near pinnacle of political power.
Donald Trump is a wealthy man who was already one of America’s most famous celebrities for decades prior to announcing his run for President in the summer of 2015. Trump has cast his entire campaign in the light of becoming a “man of the people” who will aggressively defend the downtrodden who have been discarded by the political and economic elite. He wants to “Make America Great Again,” by getting tough on illegal immigration, running government better, and stopping bad trade deals, especially any having to do with China. He has portrayed himself as a virile “Man on Horseback” who even suggests getting tough with disruptive protestors at his rallies.
Julius Caesar was similar. In fact, he was the prototypical “Man on Horseback,” to whom all future potential “Man of the People” saviors in Western history have been compared. Caesar was also a wealthy man who also was one of the greatest military commanders of the ancient world. By writing of his own exploits in Gaul, Caesar was able to become quite the celebrity in his own time.
Caesar also defended his troops against the sniping and aggressive elites of Rome who were perceived to have hijacked the republic and manipulated things to their own advantage. After destroying the vanguard of the elite, Magnus Pompei, Caesar was left as the only man standing in a Rome tired of decades of civil war. Further, Caesar pledged to right the wrongs of the elite and to dispense with atrophied institutions that became subterfuges through which the elite were able to hide their avarice. He also planned to give a lot of money to “the People.”
Of course, we all know what happened. A conspiracy of Roman elites feared that Caesar was really just using the people in order to achieve his own self-aggrandizement. They feared that Caesar’s main goal was to topple the republic and crown himself as a king. After being given the title of “Dictator for Life” by the Senate, this was not an unreasonable conclusion. This was particularly anathema to the elite who recalled the overthrow of ancient Etruscan kings nearly half a millennium before which had ushered in the Republic in the first place. Not only was Caesar distasteful, he was dangerous to the elites as he threatened their grip on power and prestige.
Consequently, as Shakespeare so eloquently describes, a plot was hatched and Caesar was assassinated on the floor of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The killers dipped their swords and hands in Caesar’s blood; in their mind christening a new beginning for the Republic. In Shakespeare’s play, Brutus is a well meaning and honorable man who really wanted to protect what he considered the freedom of the Republic. In reality, he merely set the stage for what would be the irreversible fall of the Republic.
Embracing the ethos of “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” the elites assumed that the “People” would support them as the liberators who saved them from a would be self-centered tyrant. Cassius and Brutus would soon discover that “People” thought no such thing. Under the skillful propaganda of Mark Anthony and, subsequently, Caesar’s great nephew Octavian, the conspirators were hounded out of Rome.
A series of further civil war battles ensured, Brutus and Cassius died (and in Dante’s Inferno they were perpetually gnawed by Satan himself for their transgression), and eventually Anthony and Octavian would contend for power. Octavian ultimately won, largely through the skillful generalship of his friend Agrippa. As the years moved on, Octavian would become sole ruler of Rome and was bestowed, by the Senate no less, with the title of Augustus, or “revered one.” The forms of the Republic remained, but the actual power was consolidated into Augustus’ hands and the Roman Empire manifested itself and bestrode the classical world. Augustus finished what his great uncle had started.
In a final analysis, Julius Caesar began the end the Republic. He was able to do this due largely to the republic’s inability to withstand the internal cleavages that had wracked it since it began an exponential expansion of territory. The Roman Republic was a decrepit facsimile of its earlier days by the time Julius Caesar entered the stage, crossed the Rubicon and knocked over its emaciated husk. The similarities to our own era really are striking.
The American Founders knew something similar could happen to their new experiment in government. They were obsessed with the Roman Republic’s fall. In large measure, they drafted a constitution to avoid that fate. One of America’s greatest President’s, Abraham Lincoln recognized this too and spoke eloquently on the need to keep faith in our institutions. Lincoln defended the republic’s constitutional institutions in his famed “Lyceum Speech.” He prophesized a coming Caesar:
“Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?–Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.–It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others.”
Lincoln concluded that only a calculated defense of American republican institutions could prevent the rise of this figure.
“Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.–Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.”
Yet, despite the Founding Fathers and Lincoln’s astute observations, the eventual decay of America’s institutions was always a possibility, maybe even likelihood. Ben Franklin saw that in his famous “republic if you can keep it” statement.
It may seem difficult to see Donald Trump playing a role like either Julius or Augustus Caesar. He is no general. While displaying legitimate political prowess since beginning his quest for the White House, he has yet to prove to be an equal to Augustus in the dark arts of political intrigue. However, in a way, Trump represents exactly the same kind of forces in the United States that they represented in Rome two thousand years ago.
To many Americans, politics is now about the spoils of victory and power with principle being a shield to hide behind but not a spear to lead with. They feel betrayed by their political elites. They are tired of losing jobs and confronting what seems to be ever more economic insecurity. They are ready for someone to defend them from what they see as rapacious traitors who have sold them out in order to make a buck. This is the sentiment Trump either exploits or gives voice to depending on where you stand on his ultimate motivations.
No presidential candidate in recent memory has been more effective at this than Trump and the political establishments of both parties are flailing in their efforts to stop him. The #NeverTrump movement and the movement of the establishment GOP as well as historical conservative organs like the National Review have all joined forces to derail Trump. Yet if he wins, on the upcoming Ides of March, in those critical states of Florida and Ohio, these efforts to block him will have failed.
Though it might seem melodramatic to say that what is transpiring now could be analogous to the momentous occasion of the Roman Republic’s fall, America does face deep challenges that have not been addressed in a generation. Into the maelstrom of disaffection, Trump has offered himself as a repudiation of over 30 years of general consensus on economic and trade policy. To a many disgruntled Americans, he is even an avatar. A figure that promises an end to the conspiracy of corruption that has destroyed the country they know and have loved. To the elites, he is a traitor and a dangerous demagogue to be stopped at all costs. This is a combustible mixture of raw emotions on all sides. It is very much like the situation Caesar found. Trump, no less than Caesar, is looking to make a break with a corrupt past in this oddest and most unlikely of historical rhymes. Whether he can be successful will, in some large measure, be determined by what happens on March 15.
So as violence at Trump rallies become more prevalent and Trump’s opponents get increasingly desperate, March 15 may be a watershed for the American Republic no less than the original Ides of March was for the Roman one. Only time will tell.
*Greg R. Lawson is a contributing analyst at the web-based geopolitical consultancy,Wikistrat. These views are his own.