Donald Trump as Julius Caesar: The Curtain Raiser
Why Donald Trump resembles Julius Caesar more than does Obama or practically any other figure in recent history.
October 31, 2020
In the summer of 2017, New Yorkers were treated to a Shakespeare in the Park production that depicted a Julius Caesar modeled on President Donald Trump. There he was, with business suit, blond hair, oversized red tie and bronzer, tweeting from a golden bathtub.
Right-wing news outlets sprang into full outrage mode. Indignantly, the National Review presumed a double standard and deplored it. Imagine, it argued the “actual protests and actual rioting if this or any other major New York play gleefully depicted the stabbing murder of Barack Obama.”
Journalists were not slow to point out the National Review’s error. A 2012 Guthrie Theater production had depicted the assassination of an Obama-themed Caesar. Not once in the production’s national tour, including a month-long run in New York City, were there riots or protests of any kind.
Journalists and critics also pointed out that Shakespeare’s play about Julius Caesar is not a celebration of assassination at all, but a cautionary tale about the immorality and futility of political violence.
Moreover, attempts to update Shakespeare for modern times are, after all, a venerable tradition.
Missing the forest for the trees
But political efforts for such score-settling miss a larger point. The Trump-themed production obviously touched a deeper cultural nerve — because Donald Trump resembles Julius Caesar more than does Obama or, for that matter, practically any other figure in recent history.
Many have commentated on this. “Orange Julius,” he has been called. And indeed, Caesar is such a complex and controversial figure, even after 2,000 years, that both admirers and critics of Trump have seen fit to make the comparison.
Time for a real deep dive
All the more reason to take a deep dive into the Trump/Caesar comparison. Three questions stand out:
1. Just how far does the parallel extend?
2. In what ways are the two men very different?
3. And how does exploring the parallel give us more insight into our own times?
Caesar as Aristotle’s great-souled man?
To start off, both men have or had an outsized sense of their own personal importance. They devoted their entire adult lives to realizing that vanity project on a public stage.
Cicero, Caesar’s contemporary, considered Caesar an exemplar of what Aristotle called the “great-souled man,” a man consumed with ambition.
How it all started
Caesar’s outsized self-worth can be seen in the episode where the young impoverished aristocrat, out on an early government assignment, was captured by Mediterranean pirates and held for ransom.
Young Caesar objected to the paltry price they put on his head. He insisted they nearly triple it. (He socialized and drank with his captors until the inflated ransom was paid. Then he fitted out a fleet, chased them down and had them imprisoned for the slave market).
Young Caesar: Outsized ambition and surprising choices
To satisfy his outsized ambition, Caesar continued to make some surprising choices. As a young man, he ran for the office of Rome’s chief priest, normally a position for doddering seniors. He went deep into debt in this campaign, risking being a ruined man if he lost.
Later, forced on a technicality to choose between celebrating a public triumph, the highest honor Rome offered a military man, and standing for election to high political office, he surprised everyone by choosing the latter. And risked his fame and career on the uncertain outcome of an election (and again he won).
Caesar: Military man
Following this curtain raiser on the parallels between Julius Cesar and Donald Trump, one big difference is that Caesar took not only financial and political risks, but also extraordinary military risks.
He was the first Roman general to march an army across the Alps. And his two military incursions into the British islands were astonishingly rash, as he knew little of the place or the people or their style of warfare.
His transports were improvised and not sure of a landing. The whole enterprise was at the mercy of the weather in the Channel, of course, and the trustworthiness of recently subjugated Gaulish tributaries.
On another notable occasion, he attempted to smuggle himself through a blockade in disguise to personally take command of a lagging portion of his army.
Caesar’s many Rubicons
When Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon River into Italy with his army in 49 B.C.E., this move essentially plunged Rome into a new civil war. At the time, Caesar famously declared that “the die is cast.”
In reality, he cast the die many times over the course of his career. Sometimes against long odds, but always calculated. And, of course, always in pursuit of the “great-souled” ideal.
Donald Trump obviously never took anything like the personal risks that Caesar did. While other young men his age were fighting and dying in Vietnam, Trump was excused from military service thanks to a convenient diagnosis of “bone spurs.” But Trump, too, is evidently driven by outsized ambition.
Whereas most inheritors of great wealth might be happy to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and perhaps patronize the arts, Trump sought an entrepreneurial path.
The son of a New York City real estate developer, he was eager to build a business empire of his own. As a businessman, Trump occasionally failed badly but always bounced back.
Trump has courted celebrity — even tabloid celebrity, craving public attention of any kind. As a businessman, he regularly gave interviews under fake names in order to gossip about himself. The point was to keep his name in the news and exaggerate his wealth.
Starting in 2004, he hosted a highly successful reality television show, The Apprentice (remember his initial candid opinion that reality TV was for the “bottom-feeders of society”).
Then, at a stage of life when most accomplished people would be resting on their laurels, Trump chose to enter politics.
And in grand Caesarian style, the big gamble paid off. Trump succeeded not only in upending the Republican Party, but also, against long odds, in winning the presidency.
Stunning parallels: Hair, wives and branding
The vanity and irrepressible confidence of both men are evident in other ways that are quite specific. Both were sensitive about thinning hair and famed for their combovers.
Both were married multiple times — three times each, in fact — to successively younger women, and both were notorious womanizers. “Romans, lock up your wives,” sang his soldiers in the streets when Caesar was finally awarded a military triumph.
The brand dimension
Both men effectively turned their names into globally recognized brands. In Caesar’s case, having achieved kingship in all but name (Rome’s anti-monarchical prejudices ran deep), his name itself became synonymous with kingship. It is, in fact, the root of the German “kaiser” and Russian “tsar.”
Once, during Caesar’s rise to power, an over-eager admirer addressed him publicly as “rex,” or king. Caesar defused the situation by responding with wordplay, declaring that his name was Caesar, not Rex — “Rex” being a common surname then, as “King” is now.
Trump’s entire global business empire rests essentially on brand management, with the name “Trump” emblazoned on everything from hotels to neckties to steaks.
Both Caesar and Trump stand as proof that — with a little luck on his side — the “great-souled” man, driven by extraordinary ambition, can achieve extraordinary results.
But as Caesar’s contemporary Cicero understood, the “great-souled” man also posed a threat to society. This will be explored in Part 2.
Both Trump and Caesar effectively turned their names into globally recognized brands.
Remember: Shakespeare’s play about Julius Caesar is not a celebration of assassination at all -- but a cautionary tale about the immorality and futility of political violence.
Caesar’s outsized self-worth became evident when he was captured by Mediterranean pirates and held for ransom. Young Caesar objected to the paltry price they put on his head.
Caesar took not only steep financial risks, but also extraordinary military risks. He was the first Roman general to march an army across the Alps.
Trump and Caesar were both sensitive about thinning hair and famed for their combovers. Both were married multiple times, and both were notorious womanizers.
Imagine: A Julius Caesar modeled on President Trump, tweeting from a golden bathtub, with business suit, blond hair, oversized red tie and bronzer.
Goodbye, Right-Wing Populism
October 30, 2020