Trump Watch: Caesars, The Appresident and Dead Cats

When Hunter S. Thompson was writing the article series for Rolling Stone that became the book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, for my money still the best book ever written on US politics, he combined factual reporting, interviews and out-and-out hallucinatory fantasies to give both the facts and atmosphere of the events that led to both the re-election and resignation of Richard Nixon. Hunter has been dead now for twelve years, having blown his brains out in his kitchen/office, tired of living in his broken and exhausted body. If he’d made a different choice in 2005, decided to have stuck with us a while longer, I wonder what in hell he would have made of this summer of 2017.

The summer months, as you know, are named for two of the great Caesars of the Roman Empire, Julius and Augustus. Julius, or Big Julie as no one ever called him, was the most famous general of his time, turned the Roman Republic into a Dictatorship, and pissed off the Senate so royally that they stabbed him to death. His entire reign as Dictator lasted just five months, from October 49 BC to March 48 BC. Donald J Trump has now been in office as President for six months and so I am sure in his mind he is already a greater leader – or to use his own tortured language a ‘winningest winner’ – than Big Julie.

What did Big Julie in was his insistence on packing the Senate with his own partisans and later choosing all the magistrates, eliminating that whole annoying voting thing. He insisted on loyalty to himself, because Big Julie knew best. When the rebellious Senators, sixty of the old guard, finally had enough of all this they pulled out their blades leaving Caesar to his last words, ‘You too, child?’ spoken in Greek. Shakespeare spiced that up to the more famous ‘Et tu, Brute?’ whereas others, including Plutarch said there were no final words. Big Julie’s adoptive son Octavian, later Augustus, succeeded him after a Civil War and on went the Roman Empire until it all fell apart from decadence, decay, and invasions from the East.

That’s one route of comparison that Hunter Thompson might have chosen in following the Donald Trump death watch, for surely it must be that. At some point, one thinks and hopes, the US Senate will re-discover its gumption and replay the scene in 1974 when a delegation of Republican Senators led by Barry Goldwater came knocking at the White House door to tell Nixon that the jig was up, resign or be impeached.

The parallels with the final days of Julius Caesar are actually quite striking and closer than what I expected when I began writing this first of a series of Trump Watch columns. (How many there will actually be depends on events, although God knows I’m hoping to write ‘The End’ in weeks rather than months or years.) Trump hasn’t hand-picked Senators, yet he has certainly threatened several, and he has attempted to seize control of voters’ lists from the fifty states. He has definitely warped the US Government departments to the bizarre views of his far right-wing base, what with appointing a climate change denier in Scott Pruitt to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency as the most egregious example. Even that number of Senators that stabbed Caesar – sixty – absolutely reeks of irony, as sixty is the number of Senators required to pass most of the Trump-suggested legislation. It is a number that Trump, from his recent tweets, hates. He demands that the Senate change its rules to one of simple majority, 51 out of 100. So far, the Senate resists.

Of course, there are other routes of comparison, some better and some worse. There is also the comparison with Trump’s previous career as front man for the US version of The Apprentice. The comedy writer, broadcaster and social commentator Harry Shearer (yes, also the voice of Mr Burns) on his weekly podcast Le Show has re-worked that into The Appresident. That too fits, given the revolving door of advisers, assistants, spokerpersons and lackeys all competing in the White House for both the President’s attention and what can loosely be termed his mind. Here is a short list of the departed since Trump took office on January 9th:

  • Katie Walsh (Deputy Chief of Staff, resigned)
  • Preet Bharara (former US Attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan, fired)
  • Sally Yates (acting Attorney General, fired)
  • Michael Flynn (National Security Advisor, resigned)
  • James Comey (FBI Director, fired)
  • Walter M. Shaub Jr (director of the Office of Government Ethics, resigned)
  • Michael Dubke (White House Communications Director, resigned)
  • Sean Spicer (Press Secretary, resigned)
  • Reince Priebus (White House Chief of Staff, resigned)
  • Anthony Scaramucci (White House Communications Director, fired)

You will of course be reading more about many of these names as they variously testify, are charged with crimes, or in Spicer’s case possibly even re-emerge in their old jobs. After all, don’t all reality game shows bring back old favourites as contestants?

But really, all of this can warp the view as the comings and goings of the White House staff can be seen as either an accidental or purposeful version of the ‘dead cat strategy.’ I’m not quite sure who first coined that vulgar expression but it was best defined by a man who himself is no stranger to occasional vulgarity, Britain’s own Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson:

There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

For here we are, one thousand words in and we haven’t said a word until now about Russian interference in the 2016 election. That will be coming soon in this series, very soon indeed. Hang onto your hats and hold onto your beer, for as Hunter might well have put it:

We were just outside of Bethesda, on the outskirts of Columbia, when the drugs began to take hold.

To be continued, and … Be seeing you.

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