(This essay was originally published as “Is Trump the 21st Century Cincinnatus?” by the History News Network [online] on February 26, 2017)
In dire times the ancient Romans would appoint a dictator, giving him unchecked power to lead the Roman Republic out of the crisis. In electing Donald Trump, a threatened, indignant white and older America, still with its strength in numbers, elected their hoped-for savior. Exit polling data collected by Edison Research for the National Election Pool indicate that 63% of white male voters and 53% of white female voters chose Trump. Also, the majority of voters older than 40 voted for him.
Before Rome was an empire, it was a republic—literally a “thing of the people”—with primary power in the hands of the Senate, composed of 300 senators, while two consuls served as chief executives. In extraordinary times, the Senate would appoint a dictator, a single man with supreme power, normally appointed for six months and normally leading an army into action against a specified enemy. He could rule by decree, change any law, and act as the supreme judge, with no appeals allowed after his judgments. After leaving office, he could not be legally charged with any wrongdoings during his tenure.
The most legendary dictator was Cincinnatus who was appointed dictator in 457 BCE to defend Rome against the invading Aequi. The Roman historian Livy tells us that Cincinnatus, leaving his three-acre farm, accepted the position, raised an army, and defeated the Aequi.
Cincinnatus chosen as dictator. By Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1612–1660) – Jastrow, CC BY 2.5
Clearly the analogy has its limits. America faces no literal military invasion; however, white and older America, fears fanned by Trump’s vision of reality, senses an invasion of immigrants from Latin America and terrorists from Muslim countries. While he is no dictator, his supporters would be happy to see President Trump use his executive powers to the fullest to “drain the swamp” and fix these problems. Also, damn to the environment and down with regulation, they would praise him for giving full throttle to unchecked economic development in a quest to bring back jobs supposedly given away to foreigners but in reality eliminated more by technology.
The biggest difference is that Cincinnatus epitomized Roman virtue and unselfish civic action; Trump epitomizes egotism. As dictator, Cincinnatus became the first servant of the state: He resigned his office within fifteen days, even though he was appointed for six months. Following his lead, George Washington, the first President General of the Society of the Cincinnati, chose voluntarily to retire from the presidency after two terms in office, setting a precedent. Trump will try to bend reality and the state to his will and interests. He is our first president without a scintilla of prior public service. And at seventy years of age, it is doubtful whether his love of self and wealth, St. Augustine’s cupiditas, will be transformed to love of God and others, what Augustine called caritas.
Demographic trends indicate that the white-alone American majority is vanishing. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that between 2010 and 2015, the white-alone population (not Hispanic or Latino) decreased from 63.7% to 61.6%, while Hispanic or Latino, Black, and Asian populations all increased marginally, totaling 36.5% of the population. In March of 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that by 2020 more than half of the country’s children will be minority race, and that this shift will take place for the population as a whole in 2044. It also indicated that the fastest growing segment of the next decades will be people from “two or more races.”
Demographics were eventually an important factor in the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. Once it had reached its largest extent in the 2nd century, migrating and invading Germanic and Asian tribes repeatedly breached and occupied the overextended Roman frontier. When the Germanic leader Odoacer took power from the teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476, Germanic control of the Western Roman Empire was essentially a fait accompli.
For America then to retain its vitality and exceptionalism, it must debate and reaffirm its basic principles, ethical code, and constitutional order, and the future caramel-colored, multi-racial American people must embrace these as legitimate.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, RI, and is writing a novel on Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside.
I totally disagree being a 71 year old white male. Our fears are well founded and accepted by not only older white males and females but also blacks, latinos and other minorities…both young and old.. The invasion of millions of illegals, refugees from Islamic countries, threats from terrorists from around the world and the constant push to ignore the rule of law is our new reality. Of course the sanctuary cities and states run by the left wing Mayors and Governors play a big role in the breakdown of our judicial system. Then throw in the Professors and High School Teachers who have forgotten to teach our children the lessons of patriotism and our historic fight against Socialism and Communist (for over 100 years) and you have a recipe for disaster for our Republic.
College campus use to be a place to have open discussions about both sides of an issue but now we have a shutdown of our freedom of speech because of left wing radicals…Ann Coulter can’t speak at Berkeley without fear of violence? Your piece is identity politics with demographics to support your thesis. Trump: White American Cincinnatus depicts President Trump as an egotistical tyrant who with his “Old & Young white deplorables” would wreck our country if given the chance is “Horse _hit!” I suspect you are very disappointed that Donald J Trump won the election? Why not give him a chance to help get America back on the right track?
If you want to compare someone to Cincinnatus why not former President Obama who has setup a non-profit shadow government called OFA which is funded by George Soros to the tune of 50 million dollars and have 35 thousand demonstrators and followers plus over 350 offices nationwide. Obama has setup the shadow government 3 miles from the White House and vows to fight President Trump on every issue with help of Jarrett, Rice, Michelle, Lynch, Holder and the rest of the old regime. Where in American history do we have a precedent for a shadow government? No Fred I am not afraid of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Poor, Wealthy people no matter what the demographics are …I am afraid of people like Obama who talks about “Social Justice” and Community Organizing but really is interested in only one think like Cincinnatus…Tyranny!
President Lincoln was approached by his Cabinet about how General Grant maybe be drinking again and to remove him from his command…Instead President Lincoln said, “Let’s get a barrel of what he is drinking and give it to our other Generals, because he FIGHTS!”
President Donald J Trump with all his egocentric picadillos I predict will go down as one of Americans greatest Presidents! One of the reasons I feel this way is because he has invoked
such animosity and vitriol from the Progressives, Socialist…
Remember: The democratic party is no longer the party of JFK of the 1960s
Mr. Obama used his intellectual tools to usurp the office of the President during his 8 years. A lie is a lie no matter how it is served. Just think about MIT’s Dr Jonathan Gruber explanation of the passage,of the ACA…Let’s hope Obama is the last of our philosopher-kings…spoon feeding us poor white
Again, thank your for your passionate commentary. Nice quote from Lincoln. Had not heard that one in a while.
Be careful in over-generalizing. I agree with your point on freedom of speech at our college campuses; I am not sure how broadly the criticism applies.
Perhaps I was not clear on Cincinnatus. He was the exact opposite of tyranny, so much so that the Society of Cincinnati was established in our Revolutionary War period with George W as its first president. Cincinnatus gave up dictatorial power when he could have retain it for another five months.
Though critical of many of his traits and statements, I still continue to hope that President Trump will grow into the job.
I needed to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoyed
every little bit of it. I have got you book marked to look at new things you post…
I think I already replied