Crossing The Potomac

What can we learn from the story of Julius Caesar in an era of Trumpism? 

Julius Caesar famously met his fate in 44 B.C., on the steps of the Roman senate, mythically uttering, “Et Tu, Brute?” as his rivals stabbed him 35 times. It wasn’t always like that, Caesar was the great unifier of Rome. The empire he led expanded across the continent and laid the foundation of modern-day Europe. His oratory skills, political ambition, sexual prowess and skill as a general are still studied today by historians and military strategists alike.

Caesar’s storied ascendency to power, like his fate, was seemingly foretold. He was born in 100 B.C. into the Roman elite to a family with powerful political credentials. His bravery and boldness led him to the highest political ranks, and by 60 B.C., he had built an alliance with Pompey and Crassus to form the first Triumvirate to rule the Republic. Together, they governed for over a decade until Crassus died. That set the stage for an epic showdown which brings us to a small stream in Northern Italy called the Rubicon in the Winter of 49 B.C..

Caesar was the governor of Cisalpine (northern Italy) and Gaul (southern France) where he successfully subdued the natives, amassed a significant fortune and popular support. As his popularity grew, so did the anxiety in Rome. The Senate passed an edict demanding the young governor disband his army or risk being labelled an “Enemy of the State.” Caesar’s allies in the Senate were run out of Rome. Pompey would be expected to defeat Caesar.

The governor received news of the edict as he was due to attend the public games in the small border town of Ravenna. As Caesar presided over the event, viewed a model of a fencing school and dined with friends, he quietly, sent his army ahead. After sunset, he met them by the Rubicon River, which bordered Gaul (which he governed) and Rome proper (Southern Italy). Roman governors were bound by “imperium” which gave them authority in their provinces but if they dared lead an army into Rome, it would be treasonous.

On the banks of Rubicon River in January of 49 B.C., Julius Caesar was faced with the ultimate decision. Crossing the Rubicon, as the idiom now goes, meant a point of no return. Roman historian Suetonius described the moment this way:

A man of strikingly noble mien and graceful aspect appeared close at hand, and played upon a pipe. To hear him not merely some shepherds, but soldiers too came flocking from their posts, and amongst them some trumpeters. He snatched a trumpet from one of them and ran to the river with it; then sounding the “Advance!” with a piercing blast he crossed to the other side. At this Caesar cried out, ‘Let us go where the omens of the Gods and the crimes of our enemies summon us! THE DIE IS NOW CAST!’

Caesar plunged the Roman Republic into civil war. Pompey fled. Later, Egypt presented Pompey’s head as a token of friendship. Caesar became emperor and for 5 years consolidated power, “adorning himself with the trappings of power and wealth.” Under his rule, the Roman Republic expanded across Europe, before he declared himself dictator for life. Some suggested he be King. Rome was a Republic and any attempt to disrupt the  norms were viewed as treasonous and the stage was set for Caesar’s demise. 60 senators, meeting privately in homes, concluded they had to act.

The ailing Roman leader heard rumblings of this rebellion and refused to go to the senate floor but his friend, Brutus, secretly also a conspirator, convinced him to go. The senators rose in respect as Caesar entered but soon things became tense and, at a pivotal moment, the they drew their daggers.

Fast forward 2160 years, and another Republic has a risk-taking leader who marched his army of supporters across a different river. This time, the Potomac, into Washington, DC.. President Donald J. Trump’s ambitions for the U.S. are as great as Caesar’s were for Rome but he would be wise to heed the lessons of history.

To quote Caesar, “the die is cast” and re-litigating an election already won and investigating voter fraud among opponents rightly raises concerns among supporters and opponents alike, that Trump is looking for ways to consolidate power and rewrite the rules of our democracy. President Trump doesn’t need to game the system to win in 2020, he needs to succeed in his goals of bringing jobs back home.

Like Rome, the real power of the Republic lies in its system not in a single leader. If President Trump is to succeed, he’ll need to build partnerships, domestically and globally. We no longer live in a world where senators kill foes (at least not in the U.S.) but we also don’t live in a world where “to the victor, go the spoils,” as Trump suggested about taking Iraq’s oil. With such talk, President Trump risks feeding into a narrative which will increase headwinds and frustrate his attempts to fulfill his election commitments.

Trump is fond of saying the “government belongs to the people” but he seems to draw a distinction between the people who voted for him and those who opposed him. Continuing to play opposition politics, leading only some of the people, will further raise the alarm, increase suspicion over his motives and slow down his measures. This will be disappointing for his countrymen and women and diminish him.

The election is over, democracy is sacred in the United States, nations no longer plunder other nations and the media is not the enemy, as Trump senior adviser Stephen Bannon asserts it is. Former president Obama told his successor, “if you succeed, then the country succeeds”. The infighting is hurting the US domestically, emboldening our opponents and weakening our President.

As Caesar succumbed to his wounds on the steps of the Senate’s lower portico, Brutus and his co-conspirators marched towards the Capitol, proclaiming: “People of Rome, we are once again free!” We live in gentler times, where democratic norms govern a far more civil discourse of words not daggers, but verbal wounds can still be politically fatal. As he advances his vision of a new America, President Trump could avoid the mistakes of Julius Caesar by building bridges to his opponents and championing American freedom, values and rule of law.

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