How can we have ended up with him? In God’s name, him? I’ll tell you how. I’ll even tell you why.
A billionaire once dwelt, and flourished, in the metropolis of the world’s only superpower. He gave off a strong smell of banditry. Pretty much everyone found him horrible. But he was so connected – he was so close to the ruling elite, had bribed so many politicians, had arrangements with so much organized crime – that no one could touch him.
It was often said of him: He’d be the worst man of our age – if he weren’t the father of his son. And sure enough the son, a lifelong delinquent, did in due course become head of state. And was a monster. To no one’s surprise.
The city in question was Rome, the tycoon was called Gnæus Domitius Ahenobarbus. But it might as well have been New York and his preposterous brassy name could have been Frederick Christ Trump.
Fred Trump was a slum landlord who corrupted so many politicians he escaped conviction for wartime profiteering, violation of civil rights, racketeering and graft; his only arrest was for participation in a Ku Klux Klan riot. He might count as one of the most hateful Americans of his generation – except for what he begot. His son makes him look tolerable.
After all, Trump père did at least make money: He turned the modest family fortune (founded on brothel-keeping) into a vast one (whereas Trump fils is a serial bankrupt). And Fred was notable for his philanthropies – ostentatious philanthropies to be sure, but solid enough.
Donald, though? Since he withholds his tax returns, we can’t tell if he’s ever given anything to anyone. It’s hard to imagine: Hard to reconcile such an act with his ghost-written books. (“The point is that you can’t be too greedy,” he sort of writes in The Art of the Deal.)
Why did Domitius not become Emperor? It’s a serious question. The quick answer is: He wasn’t vile enough. He was a crook, but competent enough at his loathsome trade, and sane. The Empire was looking for something else.
It’s a standing paradox of Roman history that the Empire – incomparably rich, cultivated, efficiently-governed, amply supplied with impressive statesmen and soldiers – had difficulty filling its top office. Often the Emperor was a decent man. But again and again Rome found herself saddled with a ruler who was a horror.
And at the end of the first century, Rome was (this is a word we are going to get used to) a kakistocracy.
Kakistocracy means rule of the worst: It’s a riff on the word aristocracy, which means rule of the best. Kakistos is the worst; kakke is Ancient Greek for shit.
There was a kink in the way the Roman State worked. It sucked up the foulest men and flung them to the top. Why have a bad person as emperor when you can have the worst?
The great G. K. Chesterton pointed out, a hundred years ago, that it is a sign of sharp sickness in a society when it is actually led by some special sort of lunatic. That is, it’s not just bad luck to end up with a malignant madman as your head of state. It implies that society’s gone wrong. It’s developed perverted tastes. It’s decided to gobble shit.
Theology uses a technical term, mysterium iniquitatis: The mystery of iniquity, the curious allure of evil as such. It can’t really be explained, but, by God, it’s out there.
Domitius’ son was named Nero. He was so unspeakable, even as a boy (“spoiled, angry and unhappy”) that he stood out. Once Emperor, he proved himself “the enemy of mankind.” But what’s chiefly remembered about his reign is personal, rather than political evil. He was a psychopath, deviant, narcissist, matricide and pseudo-artist. It is Nero the man who has haunted our historical imagination for two thousand years.
Nero has become a black proverb, says Chesterton, not merely because he was an oppressor, but because he was also an æsthete – that is, an erotomaniac. He not only tortured other people’s bodies; he tortured his own soul into the same red revolting shapes.
Now the United States is, for the moment, a kakistocracy. There are many dreadful people who might have been selected to lead a populist, authoritarian and protectionist administration – if that (appallingly) is what the electorate wants. There are many profligate billionaires’ brats in America, many half-witted blowhards and lurid vulgarians. But the Donald has always stood out amidst the scum. Since youth he has striven for notoriety. He has kept his name and (increasingly sin-scarred) face in the tabloids with sexual antics. On television he clowned his way to popular infamy as a bully-buffoon. His campaign was a circus of extraordinarily unpleasant personal revelations.
And for those reasons he was imposed on the Republican Party, then on the country.
It goes without saying that Trump’s government – inasmuch as it has coherent aims – is committed to grotesque policies, that it’s chaotic, that it’s staffed by villains with villainish faces: Bannon, Conway, Miller.
But politics aside (and in elective monarchies like America and Rome it’s worth remembering that the head of state is not just a political position), Trump is a person. He’s the person chosen to represent the people, to be their symbol and representative man. And in a mood of infernal rage, of resentment, perhaps of self-loathing, they have chosen this person to punish the Establishment, and themselves.
Why not the worst?
Nero didn’t last: The Senate deposed him and he committed suicide to avoid trial, exclaiming Qualis artifex pereo, “What an artist is dying here!” – not so far from Trump’s “I’ve been known as being a very smart guy for a long time” (Quod sapiens homo sum!).
Yet for decades afterward, Nero remained the darling of the mob. There was an odd popular cult of him, an unsettling faith that he was in hiding, and would return to power.
That’s what troubles me most about the XLVth President. His régime’s too egregious to last; he’ll fall, perhaps soon. But we can’t unknow him. We can’t unknow the spasm of popular iniquity, choosing as most powerful man in the world the worst man who lay to hand -- different in kind from his 44 predecessors.
For everyone who came afterward, says Chesterton, the Roman Empire was never quite cleansed of that memory of the sexual madman. The republic has dirtied itself. An ex-kakistocracy can’t return to innocence. Centuries hence, we’ll still have to think about him.