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Trump is an American Caligula
April 7, 2017
by William P. Meyers

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The Madness Has Begun

Donald Trump bombed a Syrian air force base yesterday. There was no traditional cause of war. Syria did not invade the United States, nor did it invade an ally, nor did it kill a single American.

Trump and his followers justify this action as necessary because, Trump claims, the government of Syria used a chemical gas to attack Syrian rebels, with resulting civilian casualties. Killing rebels is an American tradition, but apparently it is not okay for Syria.

The excuse does not matter. The act is a sign that madness, the kind of madness that starts as a personality defect and is fed by power. The world has seen many mad heads of state in its history. Trump is not exceptional, but his madness is a danger to every person on this planet.

Donald Trump Caligula

In America's revolutionary era, when our system of government was set up, the problem of mad and tyrannical heads of state was well-known. Educated Americans were schooled in history, which in that era was largely the history of England, the Roman Empire, and the ancient Greeks, plus the Bible to the extent it is a historical document. Each offered examples of tyranny and madness. That is why we started with a Constitution that shared power between the states and localities and the federal government, which was itself divided into three branches, in the hopes that madness would not seize the collective lot.

President Trump acted in disturbing ways long before he became President. Sometimes power sobers people, but mostly it unleashes the corruption already lurking inside their personalities.

Asked to describe a historic figure who went mad in office, any of the Founding Fathers would probably have named the Roman Emperor Caligula. His official name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. He had grown up in a Roman legion commanded by his father Germanicus, who was the son of Antonia, who had later married the Emperor Tiberius. Having grown up among Roman soldiers, he was beloved by them. As a surviving heir to Tiberius Caesar, and still in favor with the military, he became Emperor in 37 A.D. His brief life largely overlapped that traditionally assigned to Jesus of Nazareth.

Compared to other emperors Caligula's reign is poorly documented, probably because any positive writings about him were destroyed by his enemies after his death. Even the later writers admitted that Caligula did some good things while in office, like publishing the government expense accounts. In making himself popular, he ran through the Empire's money, then sought more by taxing the rich, including the Senatorial class.

Since his descent into madness was documented by his enemies, it is hard to know exactly what details are true, but they do follow a general pattern of madness amplified by power, the same pattern Donald Trump is exhibiting.

The unleashing of desires is a well known aspect of this madness. Caligula immersed himself in sensuality, and was accused (by men writing long after his death) of having practiced incest with his sisters. He certainly had whatever women he wanted, including other men's wives, including those of Senators. Hopefully Donald Trump, now 70 years old, has gotten past that stage of his life, but his abuse of power over women as a business man and reality TV star shows he has that weakness.

Trump, the blowhard celebrity, was known for criticizing prior Presidents for using military power in the Middle East. Now, just a few days into his new office, he is already playing with his military toys. This is not unprecedented: both Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson campaigned as peace candidates and then almost immediately got the U.S. into wars.

Caligula is one of the few people in history with an ego documented as bigger than Donald Trump's. While the Roman Emperor had come to be revered as a god by subject people as early as Julius Caesar's time, Caligula seems to have taken the god idea literally. He even famously ordered that his statue was to be placed in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, though he was later convinced to drop the demand.*

Trump, of course, does not think he is god. Yet. And he has already learned that just being a blowhard is not sufficient to get laws he wants through Congress. But neither he nor the military seem to think they need the permission of Congress to take military action. There is some precedent for that: Congress has long been in the grip of the military-industrial complex and so allowed Presidents a great deal of leeway. Even Barack Obama, another peace candidate, used the military much more than those who voted for him had expected.

Feedback is important. No one dared contradict Caligula until a few people were so desperate that they murdered him. Trump has less power, in some ways, and will certainly get more feedback. Murder is not necessary, just another election and a decent opposition candidate.

The illegal bombing of Syria was doubtless eagerly pushed by the leaders of the military. It must bring great joy to the makers of Tomahawk missiles, since 59 will have to be replaced by Raytheon at a cost of about $120 million. It's effects on the complex situation in Syria and the Middle East are hard to predict.

But psycho killer Trump has emerged. He's tasted blood, and will screen out negative feedback while soaking in praise. He is a known childhood bully, he is known to prey on the weak, and has only been kept in check by the usual constraints our society tries to put on people, even rich people like Trump.

Watch out.

*It is a peculiarity of our culture that we think a Roman Emperor thinking he was God is a sign of madness, but that a Jewish carpenter thinking he was God was a sign of that he was God.

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