Thursday, December 08, 2016

Trump and Crassus

There is an intriguing article on the Buttonwood blog section of the Economist website called

Dude, where's my Toga?

which compares present-day America with the latter days of the Roman Republic and Donald J Trump with Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Buttonwood observes that

"the republican system eventually turned into plutocracy or 'rule by the rich'. In her history of Rome, "SPQR", Mary Beard writes that
'The first qualification for office was wealth on a substantial scale. No one could stand for election without passing a financial test that excluded most citizens'

This is not to say that the poor were ignored. Ms Beard adds that
'The votes of the poor mattered and were eagerly canvassed. The rich were not usually united, and elections were competitive.' 
The nature of that competition, however, would often depend on the amount of food and drink that candidates were able to supply to the voting public; indeed political slogans were often inscribed on the bottom of wine cups, so you saw who to vote for after you had finished your drink. Never mind 'drain the swamp'; this was 'drain your drink.'"

Of course, the main thing which puts standing for senior elected office almost entirely out of reach for anyone but those who have, or have the support of people who control, great wealth in the modern USA is the lack of any cap on campaign spending such as we have in the UK and many modern democracies likewise have.

The US doesn't operate such rules because campaign spending limits are deemed to contravene the constitutional requirement for free speech.

To me this is an extreme example of the law of unintended consequences.

Of course, Donald Trump wasn't elected purely because of his wealth - other very rich men who tried to stand for election funding their own campaigns never got as far as he did and only those with significant charisma got anywhere. But Trump spent vastly less than the traditional presidential campaign - he used his almost universal name recognition, a media and social media operation which whether you love him or hate him was brilliantly successful at publicising his name and campaign themes even though it also publicised what everyone thought were big negatives about him.

It would appear that fame and a message which millions of people like (not necessarily everyone) are at least as important as money.

Trump also appears to have tested, in something close to a reduction ad absurdum, the theory that all publicity is good publicity.

Please note that in the following anecdote I am not comparing anyone to Hitler.

Many years ago a friend of mine, Dmitri Coryton, seeking to disprove the argument that there is no such thing as bad publicity, told a training seminar "after all, Hitler got plenty of publicity."

Some bright spark called out "He did win the election!"

but Dmitri won the exchange with "Yes, but he lost the War!"

The Buttonwood article concludes by noting that Crassus died leading his troops in a futile war in the area which was to become present-day Iran.

Let's hope we can avoid any more of those ...

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