Frank DeFilippo: Ancient Greeks, Machiavelli Anticipated Trump

 Bedtime reading can cause a loss of sleep. It’s not the time invested nor the text itself, but the afterthoughts that ricochet like a post-Freudian tweetstorm from some unquiet grave. The midsummer nightmare is especially acute if the book(s) is about politics. One book on the nightstand was “The Birth of Politics.” It’s by Princeton University professor Melissa Lane and it delves way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and the rudimentary ideas of democracy. In those bad old days, as every political hobbyist knows, the highest calling was service to the state. The book talks of Greek and Roman ideals, or virtues, and advances such novel concepts as “wisdom,” “justice,” “honor,” and “decorum.” Politics, to the philosopher-kings, was a noble calling and public speaking was the apogee of the art. One remarkable passage popped out: Every official upon leaving office was compelled to undergo an exit audit to determine whether they had benefited from public service. Misfeasance in office could be punished by death, at worst, and financial ruin, at best. The ancient Greeks wrote the first draft of an emoluments clause.  Frank A. DeFilippo  Another arms-reach volume is Niccolo Machiavelli’s dog-eared, underlined and marked-up copy of “The Prince,” in which the 15th Century Italian courtier counsels his patron, Lorenzo di Medici, on achieving political dominance. In one essay, the author, a skilled diplomat, advises his prince that occasionally it serves the sovereign well to create a problem so that he can solve it and thus put his political skills on public display. By now you’ve guessed where this is going. Ask any political consultant for the most desirable trait in a public official or candidate and they’ll probably tell you “likability.” In the pathology of politics, this is a modern paradox.  Niccolo Machiavelli  There is nothing at all likable about President Trump. He is mean and petty, a vile man who enjoys humiliating others, and he behaves like the snot-nosed brat on the block who picks the wings off flies or sets cat’s tails on fire. He displays none of the attributes of early Grecian virtue, which are, generally, in short supply in today’s spitball politics. Trump’s pettiness was on full display during the period of mourning for Sen. John McCain, of Arizona. He offered not a hint of sympathy, nor its emotional corollary, empathy, nor could he even allow the White House flag to remain at half-staff, as is customary, until the senator was in his grave at his beloved Naval Academy. Only when the American Legion stomped on him did Trump relent. Another who has endured the humiliating sting of Trump’s tweets and taunts is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. His offense was to recuse himself from the Russia investigation instead of remaining to take a stout-hearted hit for Trump. Sessions’ only protection is that Trump can’t risk another “Saturday Night Massacre” by firing him, lest it cause a ruckus that leads to rebuke or is viewed as an admission of guilt. As for his problem-solving bravura, the result of Trump’s tariff war with Mexico and Canada is that your new car will cost more, America got mostly what it already had and we re-gained what Trump rejected when he canceled the Obama administration’s Trans Pacific Partnership. Congress must approve any changes to the existing NAFTA agreement, and Congress says it’s withholding its imprimatur until Canada is included. Thus, Trump created a problem that didn’t exist so that he could solve it with little or no effect but to claim a Pyrrhic victory. And let’s remember how Trump was snookered by two tin-pot dictators. In Helsinki, Trump sold out America and in return Vladimir Putin tossed him a football. In Singapore, Trump promised Kim Jung-Un a future filled with condominiums and malls in exchange for denuclearization and North Koreans later called Americans “gangsters” for their demands. As usual, Trump declared victory while Russians and North Koreans sniggered and celebrated after he left town. Negotiator? Dealmaker? Trump couldn’t close a door, let alone a deal. No sane person would even take him car shopping. As far back as 600 B.C., the Greek framers of their nascent democracy anticipated that some day a scallywag such as Trump would come along and game the system. They prepared for it. So, the most intriguing remnant from the reliquary of ancient Greek and Roman democracy is the exit audit, which was designed to weed out those burgeoning public officials with sticky fingers and ill intentions and to take appropriate action if they ignored the penalties or slipped through the cracks.         Trump is a first-rate sleaze with mobsters in his background and a Tony Soprano vocabulary in his foreground. And the 36-percenters who applaud him, and the American system of justice that protects him, are allowing Trump to get away with – if not high crimes and misdemeanors, then a con man’s deflection and a snake charmer’s confidence. His tweets and tirades have little purpose but to distract and deflect attention from the Russia investigation. Alternative realities, as Trump would have it, exist only in Oz. From the very beginning of his inkling about running for president, Trump has resisted the idea of public scrutiny of his far-flung business interests. He has refused to make public his tax returns, as every candidate since George Romney has, and he has declined to place his assets in a blind trust, as most modern presidents have. Presumably, he continues to profit personally from them, if he chooses. Many suspect that Trump’s shielding his books because there isn’t as much wealth as he’d have us believe. But we may soon find out. What else can we expect from a president who’s a documented liar. By The Washington Post’s fact checker’s latest count, Trump has made 4,229 false or misleading statements in 558 days. There are no doubt dozens more since the fact checker’s last report. But one way or another, the public may soon get the exit interview envisioned by the early experimenters in democracy. There’s a swatch of lawsuits – including a critical one involving Maryland – that may require Trump to finally open his books for the courts and the public. We may learn that Trump’s entire life is one big Ponzi scheme. What’s more, his long-time chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, along with his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is cooperating with federal investigators into allegations of hush money payments to hide Trump’s sexual dalliances with a porn star and a Playboy model. Trump has both denied and confirmed the allegations and lately has confirmed the payments while we wait to discover what other dark secrets lurk in the National Enquirer’s safe. “When sorrows come, they come not in single spies, but in battalions,” Shakespeare wrote. There’s no question that the White House is under siege on many fronts. Trump’s worst nightmare, and a possible explanation, among many, for his febrile behavior, is the likely take-over of the House by Democrats in November’s midterm elections. It would unleash a blizzard of subpoenas and impeachment articles that even Trump couldn’t twitter himself out from under. That is, unless the Mueller probe into collusion with Russia ensnares him first.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.

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