Has the Trump presidency fallen into a 'Tacitus Trap'?

By blog writer Matthias Jarosz

Last November the notion of a ‘Tacitus Trap’ began to circulate in Beijing. The term references Tacitus, Rome’s greatest historian, who is famous for his penetrating analysis of the Julio-Claudian emperors in The Annales. Tacitus’s history principally narrates the degeneration of Roman politics as corruption and incompetence became rife under the fractious dynasty. 

Lately this Tacitean legacy has been appropriated by Xi Jingping’s premiership in order to highlight the political obstacles blocking the rejuvenation of China. Essentially, the Tacitus Trap denotes a tipping point, after which a government, through corruption or mismanagement, loses all credibility. This supposedly happens to such an extent that even sincere policies are viewed with suspicion by a hostile public. Consequently, a gulf emerges between rulers and ruled, making insurrection inevitable.

Considering the popular furore caused by the recent release of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury one might well wonder if the Trump administration has fallen into a Tacitus Trap of its own. Wolff exposes a White House worthy of the Julio-Claudians described by Tacitus; full of insanity, intrigue and infighting. Many commentators have already rushed to herald the imminent fall of this modern Rome following the book’s meteoric success.

Throughout all of Wolff’s pages Trump emerges as a decidedly Tacitean figure, although his personality could be plausibly compared to any number of Roman emperors. His narcissism is worthy of Nero, whilst his repeated retreats to the Mar-a-Lago resort are reminiscent of Tiberius’s island exile on Capri. 

Yet, it is ultimately Tacitus’s portrait of the Emperor Claudius which fits best with the interpretation of Trump tabled by Wolff. Within The Annales Claudius is presented as a Saturnalian ruler - a reference to the Saturnalia festival, where Romans celebrated a brief reversal of social roles as part of the festivities. Emperors dressed up as fools, slaves were served by their masters and women ordered around the assembled men as Roman society became briefly inverted for one night. 

For Tacitus, Claudius’s reign was a thirteen year-long Saturnalia. Tacitus presents the Emperor as an idiot, singularly incapable of making of simple decisions without guidance. Claudius was an outlier who had never been expected to attain power. That was until the Praetorian Guard pulled Claudius from behind a curtain, where he had been hiding following the assassination of his nephew Caligula, and pressed the unwilling royal into imperial service.

Under Claudius’ passive authority court politics become focused on physical access, and therefore influence, over the Emperor’s fickle whims. Slaves came to decide policy instead of senators. Ruled by both of his wives, cuckholded by each of them, and allegedly poisoned by the last Tacitus treats Claudius as a case study in misrule.

This is also the presidency Fire and Fury claims to unveil. Following the book’s publication Trump is now considered by some to be a madman who exists as a cipher for the interests of others. While ‘The Donald’ gorges alone on cheese burgers, decisions are fought over between his family and advisors. Caustic feuds between Steve Bannon, Ivanka, and the Republican establishment read like a war over the succession, with the heir of Trumpism being selected before the incumbent is barely a year into his term. Fire and Fury consequently creates the impression of an unsustainable presidency which will soon implode.

Yet, does the Trump administration actually face a Tacitus Trap - a point of no return - following the release of Fire and Fury?

One of the many issues with Wolff’s book is that it demonstrates the faults of Tacitus’s own analysis. Tacitus relied on a certain amount of speculation to deduce events within the walls of the imperial palace. Yet his larger aim was to recount the decline in imperial government which the tantalising, but unsubstantiated, stories of Claudius’s political impotence served only to confirm. This engendered the author of The Annales to occasionally rely upon rumours about Claudius in the absence of credible sources. 

That said, there is nothing wrong with presenting an interpretation of events within the White House. What is problematic is Wolff’s implicit assertion in Fire and Fury that his own interpretation is authoritative. On page ten Wolff offers a disclaimer for this methodology; 

“Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances I have, through a consistency in accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”

Wolff therefore admits to having presented the Trump administration as he believes it to be. Yet the book’s omniscient narration suggests that Wolff enjoys intimate access to the ‘truth’, whatever that may be. Wolff was certainly given unprecedented access to the White House, however, Fire and Fury misleads the reader through its claims to insights which are little more than the author’s own impression of events. Wolff, like much of the news media, is part of a liberal community of ideas which considers the Trump presidency to be anathema to its own cosmopolitan sense of identity. Is it really surprising then that this highly personalised ‘fly on the wall’ presents the White House in Saturnalian tones? 

If anything Fire and Fury is a patricide, having been evidently spawned from the same climate of ‘post-truth’ discourse which it rages against. Wolff’s portrayal of Trump seems true for the same reason that the Tacitean Claudius did, namely, it confirms what many suspected already to be true. Having said this, it is a chilling indictment of our politics that perceptions of reality now seem more pertinent than reality itself. 

The Tacitus Trap should therefore be used to denote not merely the process but also the misidentification of decline. Tacitus reviled the imperial system and therefore believed that Rome was in a state of terminal decline under the misrule of successive emperors, which the incompetent principate of Claudius typified. Never mind that Claudius would preside over a period of relative stability throughout the Empire or that emperors would continue to rule Rome for several centuries after his reign. 

This is not so different from the way in which many modern commentators continue to prophesise the Trump administration’s imminent collapse with every toilet-seat-tweet or scandalous leak. Turning points are usually discernible only with the luxury of hindsight. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that the publication of Fire and Fury will ever constitute one. 

Sources and Further Reading

Image: 'Ave Caesar! Io Saturnalia!' by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, WikiArt 

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