Last week, in the Wall St. Journal, journalist Lance Morrow wrote an opinion piece wondering what kind of treatment Plutarch would give Donald Trump. The article is probably behind a paywall, although you may have more luck accessing the title through google than through my link.
The theme of the article is plus ça change; Trump’s supposed unique faults are identified in U.S. presidents past. Near the end, Morrow opines that the one outlier may be Trump’s outsized ego, which he suggests is somewhat unprecedented in its manifestation and may, indeed, lead to his downfall. In pursuit of this theme, Morrow bounces from president to president, so as to note where they can be compared or contrasted to Trump.
However, for a good chunk of the article, the comparative president is FDR. To the extent that he suggests a specific Plutarch-esque pairing, this would be it. As Morrow points out, Plutarch preferred to pair similar figures who, nevertheless, could be contrasted with each other. Identifying similarities between Trump and Roosevelt, Morrow also highlights some significant differences where Donald Trump comes out the better. As examples, he notes FDR’s failure in his attempts at business endeavors and some (possibly, to our modern ear probably) racist pronouncements.
Given my literary predilections, I eagerly read this article when I saw the title. As I understood Morrows thesis, however, I wondered about an implicit implication thereof. Plutarch paired his biographies so as to compare a Greek figure to a Roman figure. This contrast may be less of cultures* than of eras. Although not true in every case**, the comparisons are often figures separated by the centuries; Greek ascendancy having passed, the equivalent Roman figure being foundational to the present.
So if we were to write a series of Parallel Lives today; one that would feature Donald Trump, what would we be comparing and contrasting? What is the comparative era? What is the comparative culture? In other words, what would be the stand-ins for Greece and Rome? As I suggested, I think the Roman era, the Trump era, must be our present, which we compare to our own American past. But how far need we go to find something that feels like a different time, a different culture.
There was some self-satisfied chuckling going on in some corners of the internet last week. Apparently, the was a meme going around asserting that the Democrats have tried to impeach every American president since Eisenhower. Snopes declared it “mostly false,” as nobody tried to impeach the unelected-fill-in after Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford (although two women did try to shoot him). Doesn’t the exception all but prove the rule? In Snopes‘ defense, their point is that the articles of impeachment brought against Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes were not widely supported and can’t be laid at the feet of the Democratic Party.
In bringing this up, my point is not to argue the details but rather to suggest that, for most of us, our Nation took a turn around half-a-century ago. Perhaps, when it comes to American presidents, it was John Kennedy who marked the end of that era. Somewhere between LBJ and Nixon, I’d say, starts a different America.
Or maybe that its not that clear. What do you think? Are we in a “new America?” If so, when did it become so?
*Without a little applied scholarship, I’m not sure I’m qualified to opine on this. Plutarch was Greek, but he was also Roman. Did he see himself as Greek in contrast to Roman culture? Or did he see himself as part of a “modern” Greco-Roman culture?
**For example, Greek Alcibiades is closer to a contemporary than Roman Coriolanus. One must consider this as a contrast of two cultures within the same “age.”