Gaius Julius Trump and the end of the Republic- preparing for a successor
The role of Ivanka Trump, and her consort Jared Kushner, in the Trump White House is clear: Trump is preparing her to be the first female President of the United States.
Whether she becomes the President of the United States is another question, but from Donald Trump’s perspective, why not? It is time for a female president. President Bush Senior and President Bush Junior showed that it is possible for the presidency to go from parent to child in the modern era. We almost had President Clinton Husband and President Clinton Wife. Ivanka Trump’s friend, Chelsea Clinton, might also end up becoming President.
In this article History Future Now explores how the historic balance of power in Roman era politics was skewed by the rise of ultra wealthy citizen generals. With their newfound wealth they were able to consolidate all political and military power- and thus turn the Republic into an Empire. Trump is the first billionaire President but he may only be a precursor to a fundamental shift in the American republic as other ultra wealthy businessmen enter the political arena.
During the era of the Roman Republic dynastic political families were also common. In many of the atriums of rich Roman households you would find sealed boxes. In the boxes were “imagines” the death masks of family members. The masks would be taken out on special occasions, including the funerals of the recently deceased, and would remind everybody of the family’s distinguished ancestors. Some of the masks would be of former senators, a few of former consuls – the highest political office in the Roman Republic. Young Roman citizens were encouraged to be better than their peers and to match, or exceed, the feats of the dead. This fierce competitive spirit was one of the driving forces behind Roman dominance.
By the time of the generation before Gaius Julius Ceasar, the competition between Romans of the patrician class had reached murderous levels. Gaius Marius (157 BC – 86 BC), another great Roman general related to Caesar by marriage, became consul a record seven times. Gaius Marius was famous for his reform of the Roman army. Prior to Marius’s reforms, Roman soldiers needed to provide their own weapons and uniform – which was a great expense – and were unpaid. This kept the fighting force of Romans confined to the richer parts of society. Marius created a new army of lower class citizens who were paid. This force was loyal to its paymaster – nominally the Roman state – and significantly larger than the old army.
The new army was critical to Rome’s territorial expansion. Previously, the army was small and was restricted to fighting for specific times of the year when it was least disruptive to farming. The new Marian Army was large and could fight in any season. As the army conquered territory after territory the balance of power in the patrician class started to change dramatically. Generals in charge of a successful campaign would routinely take up to a third of the spoils of war. This made certain generals far wealthier than their peers who had not been involved since Rome was invading some of the richest parts of the ancient world. At the end of a campaign generals would grant their veterans free land and a pension; further cementing their power and influence.
Marius’ time as both consul and general were marked by great conflict, including fighting off a German invasion of Italy, and a series of civil wars between rich patricians and their armies. In 88 BC Marius’ protege, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, was elected consul and took over the Roman army waiting to fight against King Mithridates. He used the army to march on Rome – something that had never happened before and created the precedent for Julius Caesar’s march on Rome in 49 BC. In the civil war that followed, thousands of Romans were killed. The patrician classes were particularly hard hit.
Julius Caesar would follow in the traditions of Marius and Sulla. Roman patricians were jealous of his military success. But this jealousy was not merely because Caesar’s successful expansion of the territories controlled by Rome made him a conquering hero. The expansions made him rich and gave him direct control over military forces that were primarily loyal to him as an individual. They tried to curb his power through legal means. He brushed them aside and took his trusted soldiers from his wars in Gaul and invaded Rome. A civil war followed, which he won. Eventually, he was murdered by his fellow patricians in 44 BC.
He bequeathed his name and his fortune to his great nephew, Gaius Octavius, who became known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. He dropped the name Octavianus and his contemporaries simply referred to him as Caesar – and it is for this reason that we now think of the Roman Emperor as a “Caesar”. In 42BC he declared that his father – his great uncle had posthumously also adopted him – was a God and so came to call himself Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius (Son of the Divine). Later he dropped the “Gaius Julius” part of his name and switched it over to “Imperator” – which is the title that troops gave their leader after military success. This is also the reason why we now talk about Roman “Emperors and the Roman “Empire”. In 27 BC he tacked another name onto his name, “Augustus” which means “venerable” and is the origin of our calendar month August (July comes from Julius Caesar). Historians don’t consider Julius Caesar as the first Roman emperor and many historians even debate whether Augustus should be thought of as the first emperor. But it is clear that they had started something that would become known as the Roman Empire.
So why is this story of Marius, Sulla, Caesar and Augustus relevant to modern America? America already has a professional volunteer army that has shown itself loyal to the government and not to individual generals. There are no new countries to invade and to become rich off. There is no patrician class who strive to outdo their peers and ancestors. We are not at risk of civl war and purges. History does not repeat itself. But it does provide a lens with which to examine current events.
For the past 100 years, US politics has generally been open to most people. If you wanted to run for government you could start by getting elected to a lowly post and gradually move your way up to more important offices. If you had independent wealth, that helped. But even if you had no money there were always wealthy people who would be willing to sponsor you. Eventually, with a lot of organisation and a good message it would be possible to bring in the millions of dollars needed to run for President of the United States – that is the route that Barack Obama went down in 2008 and 2012. Since the dot com boom that started in the late 1990s, however, there are a lot of individuals who made a huge amount of money very young. Think Elon Musk, Larry Page, Jeff Besos and Mark Zuckerburg. At the moment they are focused on their companies and making them great.
But Trump was a significant electoral anomaly. He did not gradually move up the ranks of elected officialdom. He was never sponsored by rich individuals to get into office. In fact, he did the reverse, he donated money to candidates seeking office. He even donated money to the Clintons before he got into politics. He decided to run for President of the United States. He was an outsider who beat all of the other Republican party candidates – including another Bush – and then went on to win the election against Clinton, who was deeply embedded in the Democratic establishment. And he did this using his own money and superior messaging skills.
It is not clear whether Trump really thought he would be President. Nearly 100 days since taking office the evidence suggests that he was completely unprepared for the job. Why prepare if you don’t think you are going to really win? So if he did not think he was going to win, why run at all? There are historical parallels to Joseph Kennedy Sr, the scion of the Kennedy clan and father of President John F Kennedy. Joe Kennedy had made a fortune in business and had achieved some political success – he was the US Ambassador to the UK between 1938 and 1940. But his political focus was for his son, Joe Jr to become President. When Joe Jr died suddenly, in August 1944, he transferred his desire for Joe Jr to become President to his eldest surviving son, John.
What the Trump election has taught ultra high net worth Americans is that it is possible to go direct from the business world to the highest political office in the country in one step. There are many American businessmen who are significantly richer than Trump. Many of those also have a significantly better platform which which to go after the job. They appear more serious, more qualified. Elon Musk’s vision for the colonisation of Mars is literally out of this world. Jeff Besos also is a space pioneer, the greatest online salesperson and owns a newspaper. Larry Page owns Google and the software running most of the smartphones in the world. Mark Zuckerburg owns the largest media outlet in the world. The power that they have is different from those of the Roman patricians who fought for dominance at the transition between the Republic and Empire. But their power is real.
Caesar never wanted to become king, or emperor. At least not publicly – though nobody believed him and that was the cause of his death. Augustus, aware of the fatal consequences of overtly wanting to rule Rome, hid his power. He simply ended up taking over most of the key offices of the Roman Republic and his direct control over Egypt provided him with unrivalled wealth and influence. He was the first amongst equals. Had Augustus not lived as long has he did there is a possibility that the republic would have been restored.
So Trump is laying the ground work for President Ivanka Trump. If he can manage to stay in power for two terms and manages to get a few useful policies enacted, she will be able to point to real political successes. Donald Trump will help her in any way he can. She is his legacy. She should be able to harness the passion that got so many people to vote for Donald Trump without incurring the disgust of so many who opposed him. She will have the added advantage over any aspiring male tech billionaire that she is a woman in a country that desperately wants to elect a female president.
If she gets elected her family wealth could keep the Trumps in power for a very long time.
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