How Ancient Rome Defeated Donald TrumpHistorians in the News
tags: Donald Trump, classics
Did the Donald Trump presidency create a constitutional crisis? Will it continue to do so until Inauguration Day, or even after? For the most part, questions like that are best left to legal scholars (and Bloomberg Opinion has three of the best: Noah Feldman, Stephen Carter and Cass R. Sunstein).
But there are other people to turn to, some of them dead for more than two milleniums. That’s the view of Tom Ricks, anyway. Ricks is best known as a military correspondent, part of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and as the author of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005.”
But his latest book involves a much older war, the American Revolution, and how the founding fathers used ancient thinking to forge a new kind of nation. It’s called “First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country.” Here is a lightly edited transcript of a talk I had with Ricks, who currently teaches history at Bowdoin College in Maine.
TOBIN HARSHAW: Where do we start? With the founders, I guess. In the book, you explain a bit about why you wanted to go back to classical sources that you hadn’t read since school. Did current events give you some impetus?
TOM RICKS: Sure, it goes back to the day after the presidential election of 2016. I woke up in the morning and said to myself, “I don’t understand what happened last night. I don’t understand why people would put a person like Donald Trump in the presidency. Clearly, some people have a different conception of this country, and Donald Trump has a different sense of the presidency, than I do.”
So, you go back to first principles. I went downstairs and took my old copy of Aristotle’s “Politics” off the shelf, and reread it in the context of the election. Immediately, I found it interesting. For example, as an aside, Aristotle says that oligarchies are the least stable form of government — and that intrigued me, because it cast a new light on the Trump administration.
That led me to other ancient Greek philosophy and history, and then I found myself turning more and more toward Rome, because I saw that’s where the founding fathers had gone.
That then led me to the Enlightenment’s interpretations of Roman history. Montesquieu invented the idea of the liberal democratic state — tolerant, with the rule of law and with civil liberties such as freedom of opinion, and a division of power, and trying to balance equality and liberty — and he was hugely influenced by studying the Romans. And that led me to the Scottish Enlightenment, and its role in the founding of America.
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