Updated: Jun 23, 2019
Friday nights were spent drinking at the university bar, alone or with my friend. At two pounds the pint of beer university-subsidised alcoholism never had better days.
‘Urgh! Have you seen Trump’s latest tweet?’ said my friend while scrolling his twitter feed.
‘Nope, I haven’t!’ I replied sipping on my four pint of the night. ‘And, I really don’t care. He usually talks shit!’
‘I still can’t believe that THIS man is president of the United States! Obama was so great. What were American voters thinking?’
‘Yeah, well it’s true that the man does not fit really our ideals of an American President! But I think American voters have been quite consistent with their votes!’
‘What do you mean?!’ said my friend surprised.
‘Well, Obama and Trump are structurally very similar!'
‘What?! how?!’ He shouted with extravagant gesture. “How can you SEE any SIMILARITIES between that orange, useless, outrageous baboon and Obama?’
I laughed heartily at the image of Trump as a monkey with his orange hair magically floating.
‘On the surface, you’re right! It’s hard to find more opposite public persona. One is the antithesis of the other, but if you look beneath the structure, if you look at the structure of their political message and how they present themselves to the American public, you will find great similarities.’ I said taking a sip of my beer, my friend looking at me sceptical.
‘No sorry, I don’t see it!’
‘OK! To make you understand what I mean, we need to go back to Ancient Rome.’ I added winking.
‘Oh god, here we go again! You and your thought experiment!’
‘Well I want to show you how it works and you are the only person happy to listen!’
‘ Why are we friends again?!’ he said while I laughed. ‘I hate being your guinea pig, but yeah, go ahead!’
‘At the beginning of the first century B.C. the Roman Republic was beset with problems. Political rivalries led to civil wars, the most important was between two powerful roman general Cornelius Sulla and Marius. Powerful foreign enemies threatened the empire, the most important was the king of Pontus, the equivalent of modern day Azerbaijan, Mithridates, who kept attacking Greece, and pirates all over the Mediterranean were disrupting communication and trade.’
‘Interestingly at the time, Romans generals started to appeal to a complex and old concept called Felicitas – felicity – to present themselves as the man for the moment and acquire the political and military power necessary to deal with Rome’s issues. Pompey for instance – best known as the enemy of Julius Caesar - used his Felicitas as a mean to get the greatest amount of power ever given to a man not holding public office in the Roman Republic on his mission to get rid of the pirates in the Mediterranean sea.’
‘OK, cool, but what is that Felicitas thingy?’
‘Well it is hard to define. In a very famous speech given in 63 B.C., the orator Cicero defines felicitas as a sort of special relationship between the general and the gods. It was according to him the fourth most important quality a general must have to be successful because it meant the gods would help, protect and lead the general to win battle even in the most difficult conditions. The general had a sort of good luck given by the gods. This idea of luck given by gods is commonly found in Roman culture. In early Roman comedy written approximatively in the third or second century B.C. you will often found characters - slaves, Romans citizens, etc.. - say ‘Do this or Don’t do that because the gods will make you unlucky, infelicitarent, in sum will curse you.’
‘It is like a bit like blessing.’
‘Yes. But beside its religious meaning felicitas also had a social mean. The word felicitas in Latin is connected to the ideas of fruitfulness, abundance, wealth and most importantly success. To be a felix man in Ancient Rome was to be a successful man by Roman standards. To be a successful man, you had to be rich, have children - preferably sons to carry your family name and keep your land - and contribute positively to society either by being a good soldier or general by winning battle. Simply put you had a sort of good fortune, a good Roman life.’
‘OK! That’s a super cool concept, but I still don’t see what it has to do with Obama and Trump!’
‘Well everything! The key work here is success. As I tried to explain to have felicitas means to be seen as successful by Roman standards. What do you need nowadays to be considered successful?’
‘A lucrative or authoritative job, fame and power!’
‘All ideas on which Trump and Obama more or less constructed their public persona’
‘I think I am beginning to see where you are going’ said my friend, still looking a bit puzzled while I took a long sip of my beer.
‘Now let go back to Obama and Trump! Both men appeal to what I call the American felicitas, most commonly known as the American Dream. This idea of that whatever your social background you can move up in society and get a good American life – good job, good money, fame in your community for your good deeds – or the life you want through your hard work and your abilities.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ my friend said. ‘Now I see. Both Obama and Trump presented themselves as this successful self-made who made it in life through their hard work and abilities. Obama went to study to prestigious American universities, Columbia and Harvard, where he was the first black president of the Harvard Law review. He work as a university professor for a couple of years and as a lawyer. Trump start from ‘nothing’ – despite his family being super rich and him getting a 200 million dollar loan to start his business – and built his massive empire and fame. Just like the Romans general their public persona appeal to the concept of the success’
‘Yes, you got it!’
‘Obama achieved fame by giving back to the community. He was a community organiser, I think, for a couple of years and then went on to do politics to help other people. He became an overnight star by winning a landslide victory to became US Senator. Trump achieved fame by entertaining people with his hotels and with shows like ‘The Apprentice’. Trump failed and went bankrupted a couple of times but always seems to make it back to the top’
‘You are right, and their political ask was -
‘similar to what Roman generals were doing in the first century B.C.’ my friend continued. ‘Basically, they advertise their personal success story as a way to justify or supplement their political vision and get necessary to enough power to enough it. It like saying ‘Hey guys, I have this great vision for the future. Elect me, I have all the quality to accomplish what I promised because I am a very successful person. A bit like your Pompey guy.’
‘Ahaha exactly like my Pompey guy!’
‘This is crazy, now you mention it I totally see!’
‘You wanna know the craziest thing though? For some people the religion dimension of Felicitas has not died. To some, Trump’s felicitas, i.e this unexpected victory at U.S. presidential election, is attributed to God. In some Christian religion circle, Trump is often compared with Cyrus the Great, a sixth century B.C. Persian ruler, which the Old Testament said was chosen by God to free the Jews from Babylon and restore them to their lands. According to some Christian pastors, like Cyrus, Trump was chosen by God to ‘free his people’ and to ‘navigate’ America through what Christians see as trouble times.'
‘That’s pretty INSANE!’ My friend cried.
‘Yeap, that’s it!’ I said finishing my pint of beer. A few minutes later, I had the sudden urge to go piss.
‘Wait! What you said is pretty true of all good politicians.’ My friend said after giving some thoughts to our discussion. ‘I mean even here in Europe in some way politician appeal to this idea of success by promoting their ability and what they have done for the community.’
I nodded as he continued ‘I guess the most interesting question is perhaps why does it work then?’
‘An excellent question – guess what? It is still related to Felicitas’
‘Oh god, my worst fears are confirmed!’
I laughed. ‘But I will take you more about it after taking a leak!’