I recently got carried away, in one of my Latin classes, dissecting and translating chapter five of Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae. Sallust’s text is vibrant, eloquent, powerful. The depiction of Lucius Sergius Catiline, the nobleman ringleader who organized a plot to overthrow the Roman republic in 63 B.C., is psychologically rich and dramatic. The writing is elaborate and precise, with its well-structured sentences, its careful choice of lexicon, its play with interlocking word order and the other rhetorical devices Sallust uses with a double objective: first, to intensify the portrait of Catiline as a man of excess (almost a “larger-than-life” character); second, to contrast the innate positive traits of Catiline’s character with his abundant personal flaws. Suddenly, I found my thoughts drifting to contemporary political commentary. Thinking out loud, I challenged my students with the following question: “Isn’t Donald Trump some sort of modern day Catiline? Equipped for the best, but maybe fatally attracted to the worst?” The class went silent. Lack of knowledge to pass judgment? Lack of interest? Maybe just no desire from any of my students to put his or her political views out there? For Trump is—no doubt about it—a polarizing figure, just as Catiline was.
A mixed bag of good and bad
Sallust’s description of Catiline is the portrait of a man with immense talents and natural qualities. He was intelligent and persistent; a “decent” speaker (according to Sallust), he possessed the ability to understand human nature, and he was clearly capable of attracting people to his cause and inciting extreme loyalty among his followers. A bit later on in the text, Sallust describes Catiline’s spirit or soul as “fierce” and “unrelenting” (“ferox animus”; “crudelis animus”). Sallust’s Catiline is a mixed bag—and so is Marcus Tullius Cicero’s. Cicero, the great Roman orator and statesman who, serving as a consul in 63 B.C., uncovered Catilina’s plot and spoke in the Senate in favor of Catiline’s conviction, depicts Catiline as “so active, so prepared, so cunning”—but he also labels Catiline, in the second part of this description, “so vigilant in evil, so industrious in crime.” (Years after the event Cicero showed his admiration for Catiline’s qualities a bit more openly.) If only Catiline, Sallust’s and Cicero’s reader feels, if only Catiline had utilized those positive personal qualities for the “right cause”!
I see Trump as a similar blend of good and bad qualities. Nobody can doubt Trump’s charisma, energy, talent, determination, cunning, political intuition to gain advantage, and strategic intelligence. Without a doubt Trump is also skilled at capturing the people’s imagination. His ability to read the moods and minds of the American public is undeniable. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be where he is right now—on the verge of seizing the Republican presidential nomination.
But Trump’s multiple flaws seem to counterbalance his positive qualities. To mention just a few: his recklessness, his irreverence, his ability to provoke and to engage in futile verbal fights, his capacity for hurling insults (and even sinking into downright vulgarity at times), and his tendency to lower the level of political discourse. Above all, there is Trump’s excessiveness, his lack of verbal moderation and mental rigor. (Sallust brilliantly summarizes Catiline’s excessiveness and lack of moderation with a memorable gradatio: “His insatiable mind always craved the excessive, the incredible, the impossible.”) If Trump could only rein in these flaws… He could become (he could be!) the perfect presidential candidate the GOP has so desperately sought. Yet, as many analysts have pointed out, without the flaws, the excesses, and the larger-than-life personality (and the hair!) Trump wouldn’t be Trump any more.
There is a trend of thought in American public opinion that argues hat Trump is “measured with a different stick,” and that “he gets away with a lot.” Embedded in Sallust’s text is the same idea about Catiline’s sort of untouchability, his ability to defy the establishment and threaten Rome’s stability. Cicero, speaking on the senate floor on November 8, 63 B.C, stated the idea in the famous opening line of his First Catilinarian—his first speech against Catiline: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?” “To what extent, pray tell, will you abuse our patience, Catiline?” Reasonable Americans tired of putting up with Trump’s nonsensical comments no doubt often feel something similar. Consider this gem, uttered at a campaign event at Sioux Center, Iowa, on Saturday, January 23: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot people and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Trump’s rhetorical defiance is limitless. To what extent, Donald, will you abuse our patience?
Certainly, Catiline was no saint—and neither is Donald Trump. But some reasonable voices out there will argue that it’s not fair to compare Donald Trump to an outlawed Roman politician whose ambition and selfish interest led him to stage a coup-d’état and openly wage war against the Roman government. Agreed. But Catiline ran twice for consul—and lost—before taking to extreme measures and having recourse to open insurrection. And open insurrection is—at least vocally and rhetorically—what Trump proposes and what he is doing on the campaign trail. Some of the measures he would put into practice if elected president seem to be at odds with the law: analysts have argued that several of his proposals are unconstitutional, e.g., that his intention of “bombing everybody” and resorting to lethal military force whenever America is challenged abroad could lead to a breach of the Geneva Conventions. On Chris Matthews’s “Hardball,” I have heard a guest speaking of Trump as “a psychological assassin.” Matthews commented: “Trump certainly finds [in his opponents] the one thing of value to attack.” A good portion of the GOP is up in arms trying to stop Trump’s nomination, in part because of Trump’s divisive and controversial public image. “Trump is someone destructive of the efforts of the party,” former RNC leader Douglas Heye commented on The Rachel Maddow Show. Which leads me to the second important parallel between Catiline and Trump: their revolutionary public persona.
Populism and Radicalism
Sallust depicts Catiline as a revolutionary troublemaker and anti-establishment figure—although this portrait should be slightly nuanced: on the one hand, classicists believe Sallust exaggerated a bit Catiline’s radicalism; on the other, Catiline enjoyed the backing of several wealthy, powerful political figures in his consular campaign of 64 B.C. Yet even with this caveat it’s clear that the figure emerging from both Sallust’s monograph and Cicero’s speeches is one of a man who is ready to throw the state into chaos, to overthrow the republic, and to burn Rome (literally) for the sake of his political advantage. He is described as a populist and a radical. His political program, had he been elected consul, certainly would have included radical legislative proposals—among them, eliminating the financial difficulties of his followers by canceling all outstanding debts, and a bill to settle the urban poor on parcels of public land. Classicist John T. Ramsey writes that Catiline “appears to have directed his appeal more and more to the down and out, those who had burdened themselves with debt and those who have suffered from the upheaval” caused by Sulla’s tumultuous dictatorship.
This is an important link between Catiline and Trump: a populist appeal that translates into the rhetorical ability to promise thin air. “You are going to be so happy.” “I’ll make you rich.” “It will be so much better.” Trump promises the restoration of a national dream. Mainly those who belong to the lower socioeconomic strata of American society have bought into his message. (I use the term “lower strata of society” in a descriptive, not dismissive or disrespectful, way.) The poor. The uneducated. That’s what mainstream media say. Exit polls in the New Hampshire primary indicated that Trump defeated Kasich 41% to 13% among voters with no college degree (45% of New Hampshire’s voters with an education less than high school voted for Trump), and 39% to 11% among voters with a yearly income under $50,000. It’s striking to me that Donald Trump obtains wider support among those Americans.
Evan Osnos, of The New Yorker, has been arguing all along since last summer that Trump’s frankness and lack of political correctness appeals to those at the fringes of society (including white supremacists and neo-Nazis): “These are people who have felt as if that they have fallen away from the main current of American life, politically and economically, and culturally, and all of the sudden they discovered Donald Trump, and within two weeks after his announcement they had endorsed him.” In a piece in USA Today on February 25, Glenn Reynolds spoke of the “plebes mak[ing] the Donald increasingly acceptable.” According to Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator, Trump’s movement is a “class revolt.” “Few writers cared to defend the memory of Catiline, or present him in a favorable light,” writes John Ramsey. For his second consular campagin, in 63 B.C., Catiline did not have the backing of influential supporters. Trump’s first endorsement from a high-profile political figure was New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie, on February 26, a day after CNN’s Texas Republican Debate. And Trump loves to present himself as “an outsider.” His closing statements in that CNN debate were a desperate effort at trying to distance himself from elected politicians: “I am not a Washington guy” (“like those ones over here,” he meant to say, thinking of Rubio and Cruz). Few elites have dared to embrace Trump publicly or to admit their support for Trump’s campaign. As Catiline had Rome divided and in a state of panic, so Trump has half of the country (and half of the GOP) shocked and disgruntled, worried about the direction the nation would take under his presidential leadership.