If Trump is Caligula, there could be some unexpected benefits

Those who survived Caligula's reign most unscathed were probably the Pences rather than the Faucis

Eric Lewis
New York
Friday 29 May 2020 17:07 BST
President Donald Trump with Attorney General William Barr, make remarks before signing an executive order in the Oval Office that will punish Facebook, Google and Twitter for the way they police content online
President Donald Trump with Attorney General William Barr, make remarks before signing an executive order in the Oval Office that will punish Facebook, Google and Twitter for the way they police content online

The ancient historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman emperor known as Caligula intended to appoint his beloved horse, Incitatus, as consul and only failed to do so because he was assassinated in the fourth year of his reign, before the appointment could be made. One modern historian, Aloys Winterling, suggests that the equine elevation was not so much indicative of madness — although there was plenty of that — as it was a showy humiliation ritual to demonstrate to the senators and senior politicos of Rome that their work was so trivial to his grand project that a thoroughbred could do it as well as they could.

So let’s see — a narcissistic power-grasping man of doubtful stability or genius decides to humiliate everyone else in government by appointing his horse to one of the top positions in a huge empire. And to be fair to Caligula, he really loved that horse, giving it a marble stall, an ivory manger, and meals of oats mixed with gold flakes (giving new meaning to mucking out a stall). While few mourned Caligula, his idea of appointing a horse to high office might not be such a bad idea in today’s world.

Yes, Incitatus was only appointed because he had connections: He knew the emperor; his rising to the top of governance was not due to being one of “the best horses.” But then would a horse appointed today because of his “in” with our emperor talk about cancelling the election or propose a Middle East peace plan that even Likud might find too hard-line? Would a horse with origins elsewhere seek to prevent other horses from coming into the country? Would he try to separate mares and foals?

Horses are known to form long-term social bonds of attachment and empathy with other horses. Close alliances between unrelated horses are common. Horses rely on the herd for safety; they do not think there is only one horse that can save them. Horses comply with doctors’ orders. This administration could use some more reliance on the wisdom of others and a sense of mutual commitment rather than blind adherence to a single stallion of doubtful skills.

Horses frequently show acute distress when a companion or companions die. Presumably if 100,000 horses died, our new consul, Incitatus CCC, would be even more acutely troubled, which would make him a very valuable member of this administration. He would not need and would not read from a teleprompter as if he were being held hostage. He would show genuine interest and upset.

There are so many things that a high-ranking horse could accomplish and so many errors that he could prevent in today’s world. A horse would not attempt to excuse the murder of a beloved Arabian companion when it was clear who did it. A horse would not seek to deprive horses in other states or countries of food or veterinary care just because other horses didn’t nuzzle him enough or agree to attack horses for no reason. A horse would not try to get rid of trainers or grooms who make sure that the horse is monitored and does not stray from what is healthy for him and for horses generally.

Horses don’t have conflicts of interest. They don’t steal. They don’t accuse innocent people of murder or treason. They cannot use Twitter. They don’t start wars. They don’t trade on inside information. They don’t lie to the FBI or the Senate. They don’t order $31,000 dining sets for their stalls. They don’t need to sleep on fancy mattresses sold by the Trump Hotel. If you want a horse to wear a mask around its muzzle, it will do so. It will even accept blinders to prevent it from getting distracted and going off on a wild tangent.

The current president has channeled Caligula in so many ways. It is certain that the humiliated Roman officials, who were nearly outranked by a horse, spent many anxious hours each day for four years figuring out how to execute the emperor’s instructions without doing permanent damage while still bluffing theeEmperor along that his fantasies of absolute control were being enacted. The most successful courtiers were probably the ones who did not show too much conscience, the Roman Pompeos and the Pences, not the Faucis or the Mattises. Very few people will tell him that his ideas are creating grave dangers and many people are dying. But if our Caligula thinks about appointing a horse, we might want to tell him to go right ahead.

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