Trump: guardian of democratic values or the new Caligula?
Coping: when the democratic system fails to spit out bad apples we’re all in trouble
Roman emperor Caligula: “sexual perversity, sadism and an almost rabid focus on increasing the personal power of the emperor”. Above, Malcolm McDowell in the 1979 film ‘Caligula’.
Caligula, the Roman emperor from AD 37 to 41, had a colourful reputation. There aren’t many reports from the period of his reign, but it’s generally said that he was a moderate and likeable ruler for the first six months or so. After that, things got a bit weird, and Caligula appears to have gone rather objectively insane.
Reports of sexual perversity, sadism and an almost rabid focus on increasing the personal power of the emperor as opposed to moderating it make for some pretty sexy reading. Caligula reportedly loved his horse Incitatus so much that he wanted to make him a consul, which was – ironically – the highest elected political office within the Roman republic. What Caligula failed to grasp in terms of irony, he certainly made up for in sass and sparkle. He has been held up in history as an example of the worst-case scenario when vast power is granted to an individual or office.
If you’re familiar with Plato’s concept of philosopher kings, you’ll know that he deemed philosophers the most capable and qualified people to rule over others. On paper, it makes sense. By Plato’s logic, a handful of philosophers (carefully trained from birth) would surely be the only people who could be handed power and definitely not end up like Caligula. They would always be able to rein themselves in and do the right thing, with or without the advice of a good horse to guide them.
Of course it is elitist an inappropriate idea for the modern world, but it does raise useful questions about how much power individuals can handle, and which characteristics are desirable in those who hold it.
You may be pondering where all this talk of despots and horses and philosopher kings is going. Well, here’s a perfectly ordinary English sentence: Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States of America. If you listen intently, you can hear the desiccated remains of the US founding fathers turning softly in their graves like so many planets pitched roughly off their axes.
The founding fathers created a system that did not wish to test Plato’s theory of the philosopher king. Rather than hand that sort of power to any individual, however noble, they instead created a system – based on enlightenment principles – that limited the reach of the individual.
The structure was designed to protect itself from fools and tyrants. Over the years, various presidents have greatly expanded the power of the executive, most recently in the case of Bush, and then Obama. This wasn’t a world-ending problem. Both men used their power to force change in a way that the founders never wanted for the office, but no one appointed a horse consul. The world kept turning.
Trump is the ultimate stress test for the system. He is not a philosopher king. We can have no idea how cautious he will be with the vast power of the “loaded gun” (in Obama’s words) he has been given. Trump as president is quite literally like a first-year philosophy seminar thought experiment on the limits of power. When asking students about whether it is wise to give too much power to individuals, and the possible abuses that might occur if concentrating power in the executive branch, you might imagine the least responsible sort of person to wield it. It is highly imprudent, we’d argue, to bestow an office with such supreme power. You might indeed get a cautious, informed leader such as Obama. Or you might get Caligula.
With an individual such as Trump we have to be concerned about the creation of a Caligula, and the fear is that Trump will do far worse than make his horse a consul. The current system does not hold him back in the way the original one was structured to do. He has vast power through executive order, a Republican majority in Congress and a vacant Supreme Court seat to fill.
Perhaps we should have more public discourse on the appropriateness of how much power any one person should have over others, because when the system isn’t robust enough to spit out bad apples we’re all in trouble. And I’m not calling a horse “sir”.