Cicero, Catilina & Trump
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
I dried a spat of sweat with the back of my hand with a sigh of relief. It was hot, unbearably hot, and I could not blame some of my students or colleagues for trading the heat of the library for some shade and fresh air. I myself sat under the university portico trying to read.
‘I can’t believe it!’ cried my friend as he ran toward, visibly upset. ‘I can’t believe that after all what Mueller has said and wrote Nancy Pelosi won’t start the procedure to impeach President Trump!’
‘O tempora, O mores ! Senatus haec intellegit, consul videt; hic tamen vivit?’ (What times, What morals! The Senate knows of his crimes, the Consul see them; and yet this man still live?)
‘Spare me the Latin quote, would you?’ He said as he sat down next to me. ‘This is pretty serious! The man tried to obstruct the course of justice!’
‘I think the quote is quite appropriate!’ I smiled enigmatically. ‘I happen to think that Speaker Pelosi is doing the right thing!’
‘What?! How come?! How can you support the Democrats doing nothing??’
‘Because of event which happened 2000 years ago in Rome –'
‘Oh no, not that crap again about Ancient Rome and modern time!’
‘Bear with me a second, would you? Do you know the Second Catilinarian conspiracy?’
‘Absolutely, no idea what you’re referring to!’
‘It is a plot devised by the Roman Senator Lucius Sergius Catiline to overthrow the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero – the famous Roman orator and political philosopher - and Gaius Antonius Hybrida in 63 B.C. The two sources we have for the events are four speeches that Cicero gave at the time and later published, and an history of the event – Catilina’s War - written by Roman politician and historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus, known as Sallust’
‘According to them, Catiline with the support of a group of Senators and veterans planned to take power in Rome by killing the consuls and a large numbers of Senators and then marched on the city with an army they had assembled in the North of Italy. The plot however was discovered when one of Catiline’s men warned Cicero of the assassination’s plan against him. Having learned about the upcoming coup d’état, Cicero assembled the Senate and denounced Catiline in a famous speech, which I quoted when you arrived.’
‘Ok, great?! But what does it have to do with Trump, the democrats and the impeachment?!’
‘Well, in the first place, Trump and Catiline share many characteristics. First, they are both populists. According to Sallust, Catiline gained the support of part of the population, especially indebted army veterans and senators, because of his promise to erase all debts. Trump appealed to the disillusioned American middle classes by promising to bring back jobs and to re-open closed factories. Both men actually came into frontline politics in similar circumstances. At the time, Rome was undergoing an economic crisis, because of a decrease in trade and a loss of income revenue, leading to high unemployment in the city. Trump came in during the recovery period of a recession, in which inequality between rich and poor had greatly increased as well as debt levels.’
‘Second, in a way, Trump and Catiline are a product of their time. From Sallust’s moralistic history, it is hard to judge Catiline’s personality. He is portrayed as the epitome of all that was wrong at the time with Roman society (money, leisure, and lack of morals). Trump is similarly the product of a permissive form of capitalism developed in the last decades where everything is allowed as long as you win, and you win money. Finally, despite Trump and Catiline presenting themselves as men of the people, they were both part of the elite of their society.’
‘OK, still not helpful….’
‘Let me keep going! Both Trump and Catiline had their actions judged by a person of the high moral integrity. OK, Cicero’s intention may be shady at times but he would be the equivalent of our modern day Special prosecutor Robert Mueller. Unlike Mueller’s report which is quite cautious in its conclusions, Cicero’s accusations were quite damning. Catiline rejected Cicero’s accusations and to show his good faith proposed to the Senate to go under house arrest, only later to escape the city with his men.’
‘With the help of Gauls who were approached to join the conspiracy, Cicero managed to arrest five conspirators who were still in Rome. And here come the interesting part of the story! Despite having receive emergency powers to do everything possible to deal with the situation, Cicero called the Senate to debate the fate of the conspirators as he was afraid of the political consequences of any action he would take unilaterally. He had two choices, he could either execute them immediately without a trial – the right thing to do as they were dangerous - or place them under house arrest to bring them to courts. Sallust tells us that the debate was long as the Senate wavered from one option to the other, and was the setting of a rhetorical joust between Julius Caesar, the famous general, and a senator name Cato the Younger. Caesar was at the time a young, ambition man who was slowly going up the political ladder and Cato the Younger came from an old illustrious family and was an extremely influential senator. Caesar wanted to place the conspirators under house arrest to give them a proper trial while Cato supported to kill them immediately. In the end, the Senate sided with Cato and the conspirators were killed’
‘I am still failing to see your point!’
‘It will become clearer once I am done! Cicero was right to worry about killing the conspirators without a trial because five years later, one of his most bitter political enemy, Publius Clodius Pulcher passed a law which exiled any Roman who had ordered the execution of a Roman citizen without a proper trial. The law applied retroactively and was in fact targeting Cicero who devastated went into exile in 58 B.C., only to return to Rome a year later.’
‘In a way, the Democrats have a similar choice than Cicero – to kill off the presidency of Trump right away through impeachment or to let it run its course and give it a trial in the only political area which matters, a democratic election. Speaker Pelosi is right to be cautious about impeachment. Just as in the case of Cicero, this course of action could come back to bit the Democrats and prolong their time out of power.'
‘OK, fair enough. But how would it hurt them? They would be doing the right – the moral – thing to show that no one is above the law! ’
‘Without a majority in the Senate, the impeachment procedure have little to no chance to succeed. Republican will simply block the proceedings. The Democrats will lose the battle, wasting a lot of political capital, and ultimately look weak. Speaker Pelosi also understands that any attempt to impeach Trump - or God forbids his actual impeachment - would infuriate the people who voted for him, giving the Republican party a weapon in the next cycle of elections.'
‘Oh God, you are right! I didn’t see it this way before!’
‘At the same time, Speaker Pelosi knows that she needs to keep the possibility of impeachment on the table as it helps galvanise the Democratic grassroot and independent voters who don’t like or are disillusioned with Trump.’
‘What do you think the Democrats will do?’
‘I suspect they will use a two-prong approach. On the one hand, they will look into Trump’s ties to Russia and its finances using the full power of the House of Representatives and the judiciary courts long enough to energise their base and get the attention of independent voters. On the other hand, their candidates for the presidential election will talk to those voters about issues that matters to the Democrats such as healthcare, education, etc… on which Trump’s record is poor.’
‘Once the presidential election cycle is in full swing, the issue of impeachment will fall into the background as voters who don’t like Trump won’t care about whether he is going to be impeached anymore but will have to decide who of the Democratic candidates can beat him in the presidential election.’
‘Clever! So, Speaker Pelosi just then has to hold off on the impeachment till early next year?’
‘More or less!’
‘OK! But don’t you think that by not impeaching Trump, the Democrats are vindicating Trump’s actions and confirming what Trump had been saying all along - that he “did nothing wrong” and that the whole Russian story is a total “witch-hunt” by the Democrats and the Establishment?'
‘Indeed, in a way they are. But Trump’s defence resonate mostly with his base. By continuing to look into Trump’s ties to Russia, Democrats are trying to remove him the benefice of the doubt. Will it work? We will know at the end of the investigation.’
He paused to think. ‘I guess you are right. I just don’t like it!’
‘You know sometimes – and I think this is the moral you could draw from Cicero’s handling of Catiline’s conspiracy – in politics doing the right thing, taking the moral high ground, is not necessarily the best course of action. You may not gain as much as you think you would as voters may not see it this way.’
'Yeah you may be right!', my friend conceded. ‘By the way, what happened to Catiline in the end?’
‘We don’t exactly know. Sallust tells us that he died on the battlefield as his army was destroyed at the hands of the Roman consul Cicero had gotten elected instead of Catiline.’
‘Let’s hope Trump’s political career ends the same way!’