First, we’ve had one president who’s become a reality TV star—Barack Obama, and now we have a reality TV star who wants to become president—Donald Trump. Trump has shocked all observers with his upending of the Republican establishment and his success despite the frequent, politically incorrect and ludicrous gaffs he makes on and off the camera. But, is the Trump phenomenon really so unprecedented? A wealthy real estate mogul and egomaniac, vying for elected office? Has this really never been done before?
Here are 5 historical precedents for the Trump candidacy throughout world history.
5. Aaron Burr (1756-1836)
Like Trump, Aaron Burr was an ambitious New York politician who fought bitter duels with his political rivals, notably Alexander Hamilton. Of course, while Trump only seriously wounded the career and ego of Marco Rubio by mocking his small hands, Burr actually put a bullet into Hamilton who had mocked his character and integrity in New York’s heated political scene.
FATE: After mortally wounding Alexander Hamilton, Burr fled into Louisiana in hopes of turning 40,000 acres he leased from the Spanish into a feudal kingdom with himself as its ruler. When this failed, he lived out the rest of his days in relative peace and obscurity in New York, albeit with considerable debts and one of the worst reputations in American history. While we cannot know as of yet how Trump will exit the political stage if he loses, it is entirely possible he will turn the Trump property empire into its own private state and perhaps even try to secede from the rest of America. It could happen.
4. Croesus, King of Lydia (595-546 BC)
Lydia was a small state in western Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) that became immensely wealthy since it stood at the confluence of trade routes across Europe, Egypt, the Aegean, the Black Sea, and the Near East. Lydia’s King Croesus grew so rich his name has since become a byword for fabulous wealth. To be “as rich as Croesus” was to have possession of an inestimable fortune. Croesus’ wealth provides 1 parallel with Donald J. Trump, in that Trump’s own name has practically become synonymous with great wealth and opulence (remember, he announced his candidacy riding on a solid gold escalator. That’s a far cry from the log cabin William Henry Harrison did all his campaigning from.).
FATE: The sad, ironic demise of King Croesus of Lydia does not necessarily provide a parallel yet for the candidacy of Donald Trump. Croesus consulted the Oracle at Delphi to see if he should attack Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, and expel him from Asia Minor. The oracle told him that in such a battle, Croesus would destroy a great empire and, emboldened by the oracle, immediately attacked Cyrus the Great’s forces. When Croesus went home for the winter, Cyrus the Great followed him, defeated his forces, and captured him at the moment Croesus realized the “great empire that would fall” would be his own.
So, what’s the parallel? Trump is pitting his global real estate empire against the formidable political empire the Clintons have built since . . . well, they read Machiavelli? Their time at Yale? In the battle between Clinton & Trump, who knows whose empire will fall? With the stakes growing ever higher and the debate more bitter and acrimonious, the political and even financial fortunes of Trump and Hilary are riding on their success this November. If Trump wins, Hilary could be in prison, and if Hilary wins, Trump is going to have answer a lot of questions about his taxes . . .
3. Qin Shi Huangdi (247-220 BC)
Given the number of promises Donald Trump has made about building a massive wall to divide the United States and Mexico, the next forerunner on our list is none other than Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Emperor of China and the first major builder of China’s Great Wall. Qin Shi Huangdi united all of the city-states of China and ended the chaotic violence of the Warring States period, in which various Chinese states vied for military and political dominance over the Yellow and Yang-tze river valleys. When Qin Shi Huangdi conquered all of China, he set about joining the various smaller, scattered defenses on China’s northern frontiers into a massive WALL to protect against the hostile tribes of the steppes. With later additions and improvements, these fortifications would eventually become China’s Great Wall (see this link for a TED talk on the Great Wall of China). Certainly, Trump has a lot to learn from an Emperor who initiated a Wall so great it would one day be seen from space.
FATE: Qin Shi Huangdi died ingesting mercury pills, which the Emperor had hoped would make him immortal. Thankfully, Trump has many other ways of making himself immortal aside from drinking mercury, such as his name living on in numerous hotels across the world and in the hearts of his loyal followers. So, to be on the safe side, he should only copy Qin Shi Huangdi when it comes to the wall-building, not the whole pursuit of immortality thing.
2. Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC)
The Roman Republic grew radically destabilized following its success in the Punic Wars from 264 to 146 BC. Soldiers fighting in these wars were unable to maintain their farms and, when those farmsteads turned to rot, Rome’s senatorial elite bought them at a fraction of their potential value, and then settled thousands of slaves captured in the wars with Carthage and Macedon (another imperial rival that ate Rome’s imperial dust) on those farms. Roman commanders like Marius had made matters worse by outfitting, at public expense, many of those poor, downtrodden soldiers clogging the streets of Rome and creating an army all of a sudden loyal to a commander rather than to the Roman Republic itself.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla hoped to maintain the Senate’s firm control over the affairs of the Republic against populist military leaders like Marius, who seemingly wanted to overturn all the elements of Rome’s republican constitution to further their own selfish ambition. So, when Sulla gained enough power as a skillful general in his own right, he marched on Rome, declared himself dictator, and then published a proscription list of all the people in Rome whom it would now be legal to kill. The list was comprised of Sulla’s political enemies and members of a rival faction known as the populares.
So what’s the parallel? Well, certainly Trump is inheriting a United States that is radically destabilized as a result of our success (and many other factors, to be sure) in defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, and then defeating Soviet Russia in the Cold War. As we have seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is very difficult to be the world’s lone superpower. More pertinent to our topic is Sulla’s proscription list, a long list of enemies of whom it was then permissible to go, kill them, and take their property. Now, Trump is unscripted, unpolished, and unpresidential, but he really does not seem to be like Sulla or anywhere near as dangerous. But, Donald Trump certainly has a long list of government agencies he intends to close down, including the Department of Education, the EPA, and the Department of Energy, as well as a long list of Obama’s political appointees Trump intends to fire once he takes office. Once he takes office, you can be that the assets of any number of government agencies or superfluous government personnel will ridden out of D.C. on a rail.
FATE: Sulla, confident his reforms had saved the Roman Republic, added the cognomen Felix (Latin, happy) and retired to an estate near the Bay of Naples to write his memoirs. After what I can only imagine will be 4 long, happy presidential terms, I am sure Donald Trump will retire to Florida with the same self-satisfied look of contentment as did Sulla (see below).
1. Marcus Crassius (115-53 BC)
Given that Donald Trump is one of the wealthiest figures to run for President of the United States, the strongest parallel from world history comes from the moneyman of the First Triumvirate, Marcus Crassus. Crassus made some of his fortune buying, at a discount, the property of those killed in Sulla’s purges, as well as slave trafficking, silver mining, and real estate buys that eventually landed Crassus a fortune upwards of 8 billion in today’s terms (although these figures are notoriously hard to calculate. As of 50 BC, Pliny estimates his fortune at around 200 million sesterces, a silver coin worth about a quarter-of-a-day’s wage). As a member of the First Triumvirate, he financed Julius Caesar’s campaigns in exchange for Caesar, once elected, would pass legislation that helped Crassus increase his personal fortune and his political ambition.
FATE: Emulating Caesar and Pompey’s military successes, Marcus Crassus led a Roman legion against the formidable Parthian Empire. When Crassus was defeated at the Battle of Carrhae, he was taken prisoner before their king Orodes II and, in the coolest death in world history, had molten gold poured down his throat as an ironic way of condemning him for his insatiable greed. If this sounds familiar, it is because George R.R. Martin transplanted Crassus’ death into A Game of Thrones. So, what can we learn from the fate of Marcus Crassus that will help us understand Donald Trump any better? Only that Donald Trump had better learn foreign policy and world history fast if he is going to deal any better with powers in the Middle East, which today includes Iran, ISIS, Turkey, Syria, and, by extension, Russia, than did Marcus Crassus.
After taking a look at the long list of figures who have become fabulously wealthy either before, after, or during their career in politics, the historical precedents for a successful Donald Trump presidency look fairly slim. The figures above grew wildly overconfident as a result of their wealth and power and, in giving wider and wider scope to their ambition, made decisions that led to their untimely and tragic deaths. Moreover, it is a simple truism that immense wealth and success breed the kind of overconfidence that leads to hubris. One need not have read this article to know how bombastic and prideful Trump often is and, as of last summer, Trump has admitted he never sought God’s forgiveness for his sins, even going as far to state that “hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness.” Lord willing, Donald Trump would really and truly humble himself and ask for God’s guidance as his campaign moves closer to election day, lest he make similar decisions as his historical forerunners that yield the same results.