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Roman Parallels: Plutarch and the Trump Election

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Plutarch’s analysis of statesmen and regimes through analogy and dis-analogy makes him a promising guide for reflection on what the election of a man like Trump reveals about the condition of contemporary America and its constitutional order. Examination of the Roman republican regime, and especially the role in it of the office of tribune, sheds light on a deficiency in the American constitutional order that Trump has exploited. Placing post-Cold War America in parallel with post-Punic War Rome reveals similarities in the conditions that set the stage for Trump and those that prompted the populist agenda of the Gracchi, as well as in their rhetorical appeals. Trump is no Caesar, but raises the specter of the possibility of a Caesar.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-74427-8_3
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  1. 1.

    Ross Douthat, “The Trumpiest Roman of Them All,” New York Times, June 14, 2017.

  2. 2.

    For a brief introduction to the Lives as a form of political reflection, see Hugh Liebert, Plutarch’s Politics: Between City and Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), esp. 2836.

  3. 3.

    Mark Shiffman, “Why Publius?” in Promise and Peril: Republics and Republicanism in the History of Political Philosophy, ed.Will R. Jordan (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2017).

  4. 4.

    Plutarch, “Corio lanus,” in Plutarch’s Lives, Volume I (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 302.

  5. 5.

    Polybius, The Histories III, Books 5–8, VI.11.11–18.8 (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 2011), 329–347.

  6. 6.

    John Adams, Defence, Volume I, Chapter VIII, accessed August 4, 2017.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., Volume I, Chapter VI (emphasis in original), accessed August 4, 2017.

  8. 8.

    Though he scrupulously avoids the term, Martin Gilens shows (on the basis of extensive quantitative analysis) that government in the United States has become oligarchic in the classical sense. See Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

  9. 9.

    “The Changing Face of Congress in 5 Charts,” Pew Research Center, accessed August 3, 2017.

  10. 10.

    “America’s New Aristocracy,” The Economist, accessed August 3, 2017.

  11. 11.

    Nate Silver, “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote for Trump,” November 2, 2016.

  12. 12.

    The phrase comes from James Burnham 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution. For an application of Brunham’s analysis to contemporary developments, see Michael Lind, “The New Class War,” American Affairs I.2 (Summer 2017), 19–44.

  13. 13.

    For a journalistic mea culpa, see Will Rahn, “The Unbearable Smugness of the Press,” CBS News, accessed August 3, 2017.

  14. 14.

    Plutarch, “Coriolanus ,” in Plutarch’s Lives, Volume I, 305.

  15. 15.

    Plutarch, “Tiberius Gracchus,” in Plutarch’s Lives, Volume II (New York: Modern Library, 2001), 361.

  16. 16.

    See Polybius, The Histories I, Books 1–2, I.10.3-9 (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 2010), 27–29.

  17. 17.

    Plutarch, “Tiberius Gracchus,” 360.

  18. 18.

    Guglielmo Ferrero and Corrado Barbagallo, A Short History of Rome: The Monarchy and the Republic (New York: Capricorn Books, 1918), 244; Michael Rostovtzeff, A History of the Ancient World, Volume II: Rome (London: Oxford University Press, 1927), 101.

  19. 19.

    Rostovtzeff , History, 115.

  20. 20.

    Plutarch, “Tiberius Gracchus,” 360.

  21. 21.

    Ibid., 359.

  22. 22.

    Ferrero and Barbagallo, Short History, 247–249.

  23. 23.

    Plutarch, “Tiberius Gracchus,” 361.

  24. 24.

    Ibid., 363.

  25. 25.

    Ferrero and Barbagallo, Short History, 257. In the popular assembly, the Romans voted according to the tribes into which the citizens were divided, the majority vote within each tribe determining the vote for the tribe as a whole.

  26. 26.

    Plutarch, “Tiberius Gracchus,” 364, 367.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., 369.

  28. 28.

    It is perhaps noteworthy that Trump, according to CNN polls, had 53% support among Americans over 45, which is to say those who came of age before the fall of the Berlin Wall (“How we voted—by age, education , race and sexual orientation,” USA Today, November 9, 2016).

  29. 29.

    See Peter Nolan, Capitalism and Freedom: The Contradictory Character of Globalisation (London: Anthem Press, 2008), esp. 104–105.

  30. 30.

    The data, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is discussed by Jon Greenberg, “MSNBC’s Ed Schultz: Trade deals closed 50,000 factories,” PunditFact, April 23, 2015

  31. 31.

    On the decline of the American middle class and the new socioeconomic landscape, see Joel Kotkin, The New Class Conflict (Candor, NY: Telos Press, 2014).

  32. 32.

    For post-election critiques of the Democratic Party by Democrats, see Thomas Frank, “Donald Trump is moving to the White House, and liberals put him there,” The Guardian, November 9, 2016; and Michael Reeb, “I’m a Lifelong Democrat. Here are 3 Reasons I Voted for Trump,” The Daily Signal, January 3, 2017.

  33. 33.

    Matthew Continetti, “Trump’s Brand is Crisis,” National Review, May 13, 2017.

  34. 34.

    Emily Bazelon, “Ground Rules,” The New York Times Magazine, July 16, 2017,10.

  35. 35.

    Plutarch, “Caius Gracchus,” in Plutarch’s Lives, Volume II, 374.

  36. 36.

    Emily Bazelon, “Ground Rules,” 11 (emphasis in original).

  37. 37.

    Rostovtzeff , History, 115, 134; Ferrero and Barbagallo, Short History, 256–259.

  38. 38.

    Rostovtzeff, History, 125.

  39. 39.

    Plutarch, “Caesar,” in Plutarch’s Lives, Volume II, 218–219.

  40. 40.

    James Fallows , “Why Paralyzed Politics Are Making America More Unequal,” The Atlantic, March 17, 2015. Jill Lepore, “Richer and Poorer,” The New Yorker, March 16, 2015.


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Shiffman, M. (2018). Roman Parallels: Plutarch and the Trump Election. In: Sable, M., Torres, A. (eds) Trump and Political Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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