The outcome of the US Senate’s trial of Donald Trump, following his impeachment by the House of Representatives, was a foregone conclusion. But it nonetheless laid bare the president’s win-at-all-costs approach to governing. The fact that Trump escaped punishment at the hands of the Senate and even saw a bump in his poll numbers suggests that his obsessive concern with image and ruthless treatment of enemies are effective strategies. They are reminiscent of a Roman emperor.
To see this, look no further than Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus’s Lives of the Caesars, one of the most shocking accounts of bare-knuckled leadership ever written. Presenting the biographies of 12 Roman emperors, Suetonius shows how these men used their extraordinary power to indulge their own passions and peccadillos, no matter how weird or reckless. Suetonius, for his part, mostly deplores the emperors’ transgressions – like Nero’s singing during the Great Fire or Tiberius’s all-night drinking parties. Yet, for all these figures’ outrages, Suetonius also seems to appreciate their political instincts.
America’s own caesar seems to have taken some of the “leadership” lessons highlighted by Suetonius on board. For starters, you should find a way to hide the fact that you are bald. Julius Caesar, a tall and muscular man who liked to flaunt his good looks, was distressed by nothing more in life than the premature loss of his hair, especially because it gave his opponents something for which to mock him. At first, Caesar relied on a comb-over, before finding a better solution: he convinced the Senate to grant him the right to wear a laurel crown on all occasions. The brutal Caligula took a more drastic approach as his bald spot grew: Whenever he ran into a handsome man with a full head of hair, he ordered the offender shaved immediately.
A second lesson is to plan your public appearances carefully. Having been fascinated by music and acting since childhood, Nero yearned to perform onstage himself. To ensure that he wasn’t a flop, he trained as hard as any professional, avoiding the consumption of fruits that he thought might harm his voice. He even created a squad of more than 5,000 men to cheer him on in the theater.
The tight-fisted Tiberius, on the other hand, dreaded nothing more than public shows. Not only were they expensive to stage, but the crowds – like pesky journalists today – would sometimes ask him hard questions. Tiberius avoided the games as much as possible, until it occurred to him that he should move permanently to the isle of Capri – his own Mar-a-Lago in the Gulf of Naples.
Third, never pass up a chance to commission a statue of yourself. Statues offered a great opportunity for publicity you could control, similar to cable television appearances or advertisements today. Even Tiberius allowed statues to be put up in his honor, so long as he didn’t have to pay for them; and some caesars went further. Caligula, for example, ordered the most famous statues of Greek gods to be brought to Rome with their heads removed so that he could attach his own. And Nero erected a statue of himself that was 120 feet tall.
Fourth, promote your accomplishments. If you don’t really have any, make some up. In Nero’s own mind, his greatest accomplishment was his yearlong tour of Greece, where he competed in all the festivals, including the Olympics. Not surprisingly, he always took first place. He celebrated with the Roman equivalent of a State of the Union address: a triumphal parade, riding into Rome on a chariot once used by Augustus. The floats bore all the crowns he had won, and he arranged for placards to announce the names of everyone he had defeated.
Caligula, by contrast, compensated for a failed military expedition to Germany by hiring local students to stage a fake attack on him and his troops. For his self-awarded triumph, he rounded up the tallest Gauls he could find, dyed their hair blonde, and taught them to grunt a few words in German so that he would have some impressive captives to display back in Rome.
The last lesson is to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. All the caesars lived by the first half of this Corleone family code. Julius Caesar, for example, put his own household slaves in charge of the mint and state revenues. And Caligula even toyed with making his favorite horse consul of the republic. Tiberius was more cunning. After realizing that the head of his security forces was plotting against him, he promoted the man to the consulship and dangled the hope of marriage into the imperial family – until it was safe to discard him. Trump has done something similar with numerous GOP figures.
In the end, these emperors’ misdeeds caught up with them. Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Senate by irate colleagues, and Caligula was murdered by an officer whom he had taunted one too many times. Nero, after losing all support, took his own life with the help of his secretary. Only Tiberius seems to have died naturally. Or perhaps not: Suetonius cannot help reporting a rumor that Tiberius might have been poisoned by his successor, Caligula.
Trump survived impeachment. Will he make it through November’s elections? And, looking further ahead, are there already new caesars in the making? These are questions that all Americans must now ask themselves.
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