Donald Trump's America: A Roman reversal?

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Donald Trump: hero or Nero? (Image via @roseedomingues)

Donald Trump sending America down a path that parallels that of the Roman Empire, writes Callum Harvey.

THE CONNECTION one can draw between the United States and the ancient Roman Empire are hard to miss.

Military power in every corner of the known world. A currency used as the standard for all forms of trade. One unifying language. A seemingly intractable empire.

Powers like this are hard to forget. Every day, there are fewer and fewer Australians alive who remember what it was like before the United States was our big brother that could scare off bullies. The same was probably true for Western Europe in the 5th century CE. I have no doubt that before the collapse of the Roman Empire's western half, no one would remember life before the existence of the Empire or the Republic that preceded it.

Rome's collapse wasn't sudden. Years of barbarian invasions, corrupt bureaucratic practices, a shrinking population (perhaps due to the movement of the Imperial capital to Constantinople in 330 CE), and a rapidly deteriorating economy caused by massive inflation all contributed. Death by a thousand cuts, over centuries.

The final cut, however, was drawn not by some rogue Roman emperor, but by an invader who was both part of the established order and separate from it.

In 476, Flavius Odoacer, an Eastern Germanic barbarian at the head of a huge army of renegade Romans & tribesmen, moved into Italy and the city of Rome, deposing and murdering the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, before installing himself as King of Italy (not "Rome").

Odoacer himself was an officer in the Roman army, yet came from non-Italian background; like most non-Italians of the time, he was essentially a mercenary, being more loyal to his paycheck than the Empire. Most of the soldiers under his command possessed a similar loyalty to money and to the man who guaranteed their paychecks: Odoacer himself.

By no means was Odoacer the sole cause of the Roman Empire's disappearance from Western Europe. He is but a symptom, a reminder, one of many supposed final nails in the already well-nailed coffin of Rome. Sure, a fragment lived on in the east, governed from Constantinople, but this was a distinct political entity; there, "Romans" spoke Greek.

The same can be said for President Donald Trump. Not the cause, but a symptom.

Simultaneously part of, and distinct from, the established political order? Check. "Draining the swamp" is sounding more like knocking down an old house and rebuilding it exactly as it was. Meanwhile, the people, including Trump's supporter base, will be affected. Flooded coasts, failing crops, not to mention scuttling a booming renewable energy industry.

In charge of an empire in decline? Check. President Obama attempted to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay and pull troops from the Middle East. The Donald pushes America First by threatening to walk out of NATO and NAFTA, and then withdraws from the Paris Agreement. A pivot away from Asia is allowing a resurgent China to populate the void, as well as most of the South China Sea, with a different imperial vision.

Trump is operating within the framework of a United States increasingly reluctant to be involved. The people are tired of making wars on far-off countries. They're tired of wars being justified for "reasons of national security". And they're tired of all this happening whilst America's inequality grows. The Gini co-efficient measures income inequality from a scale of between 0 and 1: The United States rates at 0.45, one of the highest in the world.

Instead, by superimposing his own values onto a population fed up with foreign interventionism, Trump's retreat is one that endangers the United States' ability to co-operate effectively with other states. Such an attitude to international relations doesn't fit with the definition of “isolationist” put forward by Bill Keller in The New York Times. Instead, Trump lacks any aversion towards war and appears perfectly happy to engage diplomatically — provided that the U.S. comes out on top

This isn't isolationism. Nor is it mere Republican partisan games. This is personality politics operating from the very peak of the mountain of state. As the Mar-a-Lago meetings demonstrate, world leaders interact with Trump first and the United States second. The United States, through the lens of one person's beliefs, or in Trump's case, mistaken beliefs.

The Paris withdrawal is the starkest example of this. The U.S. is now one of three nations who will not be party to the Agreement. Neither of the other two – Nicaragua and Syria – have quite the clout of the U.S. on the world stage. Nicaragua is on track to produce 90 per cent of its energy from renewable sources and is already well on its way to exceed all the goals set by the Paris Agreement. And Syria isn't exactly able to focus on emissions management, but then seven years of civil war will do that.

No empire, the United States included, can dominate the globe while moving backwards. Sure, saving the U.S. coal industry by withdrawing from Paris will guarantee the survival of that sector and the manufacturing jobs that voted Republican. But the renewable sector in the US – which doesn't rely on digging things out of the ground, yet requires jobs in manufacturing and engineering (just like mining) – creates jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the US economy. Staying abreast of economic & technological developments ensures dominance; shots in the foot of this nature can, and will, cripple an empire. One could ignore the climate change implications of a withdrawal from Paris and still view it as borderline suicidal for the U.S. empire.

In spite of this, America may yet benefit from a single difference to Rome in its decline. In 493, Odoacer was brutally killed over dinner by his successor to the rule of Italy: the Visigothic king Theodoric the Great.

Trump may yet break with the Roman tradition.

Or maybe not...

You can follow Callum Harvey on Twitter @HomebrewDrafts and on Wordpress

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Donald Trump's America: A Roman reversal?

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