Peter Jones

The Nero in Trump

Ancient and Modern: like the despotic Roman emperor, he demands loyalty but does not reciprocate it

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Donald Trump, whose word no one can believe and actions no one can anticipate, looks to blame anyone but himself for the chaos of his administration. The result is an inability to attract staff and a deep paranoia among those already in White House trying to work under him. But how to withdraw from serving such a man without recriminations?

Seneca, the philosopher and adviser to Nero, took the view that entering politics was honourable as long as there was no good reason not to, and suggested that no state could be so bad that a man could not serve it at some level or other. But when the Trump in Nero emerged, no one had the remotest idea what he would do next or whether what he said was true or false. All the emperor seemed to know was that people were stopping him doing what he wanted to do, and a bloodbath of decent men ensued.

Seneca now pondered retirement. But how to do it? In letters to his friend Lucilius, he advised a gradual retreat, step by step. Do not boast about it by saying that you were retiring to do something better, but find a reasonable excuse — ‘poor health, body not up to it, simple laziness’. This would prevent people from talking about you (the last thing a retired person wanted) let alone reproaching you. Further, keep your head down, and do not offend those in power, especially by suggesting things had become so bad that you had no other option: emperors were vengeful beings.

So it turned out. When Seneca asked Nero for permission to retire and promised to return all his gifts, the emperor refused, saying that people would conclude Seneca had retired because the emperor had been mean and Seneca feared his cruelty. Seneca took the hint, but it did him no good. An order to commit suicide eventually followed.

Trump is a businessman who is used to getting his own way. He demands loyalty but does not reciprocate it. He remembers those who cross him. No wonder his staff are paranoid.