America Is Eerily Retracing Rome’s Steps to a Fall.
Like Trump, Julius Caesar was already a celebrity when he took the highest office in Rome—and despised by much of the ruling class. As a leader, questions were constantly raised about his fitness for office; more than simply unconventional, he operated within an entirely new set of rules, overturning procedure and bending the law whenever it was expedient. He was regularly derided for his personal foibles. Embroiled in numerous shocking sex scandals, he never shook the rumour that as a young man he had had an affair with King Nicomedes IV, prompting the derisory nickname, “the Queen of Bithynia.”
Caesar was mired, too, in crippling debt—accrued in the promotion of his own image as he sought to deliver the most ostentatious festivals and gladiatorial games. Deeply concerned with appearances, he performed lavish demonstrations of wealth, exhibiting a penchant for displays of as much gold as possible—and did so by taking on eye-watering amounts of credit. Opponents even ridiculed the way he attempted to hide that he was balding, wearing an oak-wreath to disguise his thinning hair.
Most objectionable to his critics, however, was the explosive form of his message, which threatened to tear the fabric of the state apart. Like Trump, Caesar spoke directly to the people, railing against traditional elites, complaining about noncitizens taking jobs and encouraging violence. Romans had assumed their Republic could weather the threat of iconoclastic populism, that their norms were sacrosanct, that their system couldn’t be brought down. But the consulship of Julius Caesar shattered this illusion in the same way that Trump and Trumpism have radically reconfigured the boundaries of acceptability in modern U.S. politics, revealing cracks in the ability of institutions to withstand the creep of authoritarianism.