US Politics

Wolff, Trump, and a carnivalesque late Roman Empire presidency

BY Alastair Benn | afbenn95   /  5 January 2018

As a Classics undergraduate, I remember being regularly set Barack Obama’s speeches for translation from English into Latin. Although I was for the most part criminally bad at the Classicist’s hardest discipline, I always enjoyed translating Obama.

Take this extract from “Remarks by the President on America’s College Promise”, a speech made in early 2015: “America’s resurgence is real.  And now that we’ve seen calmer waters economically, if we all do our part, if we all pitch in, then we can start making sure that all boats are actually lifted again, and wages and incomes start rising again.” Obama’s style is marked by a bold, simple, declarative statements that are then coupled with endless subordinate clauses. This is just how Latin works, depending on a limited range of formal syntax.

If Obama, the 44th President of the United States, reached back to Rome for rhetorical inspiration, new extracts from Michael Wolff’s explosive insider account of the Trump presidency ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’, published in The Times, portray the 45th President as an emperor of the Imperial period, where the domestic tensions and arrangements of the Caesar family became inseparable from the real functioning of political power.

The revelations remind us that when America elected Trump, it didn’t elect a normal politician, it elected the head of a business empire, run for the most part by members of his own family with their own private agendas and tensions.

According to Wolff, Trump has “an enforced infantile relationship” with his sons, Don Jr, and Eric, both approaching middle age. Wolff writes that Trump “took some regular pleasure in pointing out that they were in the back of the room when God handed out brains.”

His relationship with his daughter, Ivanka Trump, is framed as a business relationship coloured by familial loyalty: this “was in no way a conventional family relationship. If it wasn’t pure opportunism, it was certainly transactional. It was business. Building the brand, the presidential campaign, and now the White House – it was all business.”

Wollf dramatises Trump’s simultaneous hatred of women and desire for their company, at once calling Melania his “trophy wife” to friends and calling Hope Hicks, his director of communications, “a piece of tail”, to her face.

Although dynastic politics is hardly alien to American political traditions, there is something indescribably sad about Wolff’s account.  The Clinton husband and wife psychodrama may have played out over three decades, but at least these were serious characters with a coherent vision.

The rise and fall of great families (the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, and the Kennedys) and their literary portrayals (the Corleone family) has shaped America’s story in powerful ways, for the better and for the worse. Now, Michael Woolf has written its newest chapter, on the rise and rise of the Trump family, giving its newest dynasty a touch of the mysterious, the bizarre and the carnivalesque.

It is unclear how much of the detail of Wolff’s diverting account is really true, but it does show with clarity how far America has changed from the Obama years. While Obama’s language was easy to translate into Latin, a language that gave politics sublime harmony, and hope, it is the behaviour of Trump and his court that most closely matches the Late Roman Empire – its rulers blinded by lust and desire, and their dependents jostling for favour, influence and power.