It seems one of the iron rules of US politics that Americans, whenever the country finds itself in trouble, reach for parallels with ancient Rome. Bernie Sanders, speaking at the Virtual Democratic Convention last night, came up with a particularly memorable soundbite. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs.”
"Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs" – Bernie Sanders
— Bloomberg (@business) August 18, 2020
The comparison is an unfair one. Nero’s response to the great fire of Rome, which over the course of a nine day period in July AD 64 swept the world’s largest city, and left anything between a quarter and a third of it as smoking rubble, was highly impressive. Although he had been absent from the capital when the inferno broke out, he showed admirable energy in tackling it the moment he was brought the news.
Hurrying back to Rome, he found crowds of smoke-blackened refugees huddling wherever they could, while behind them the silhouette of the city was topped across its expanse by a towering tsunami of flame. Immediately, battling to create firebreaks, Nero took command of a frantic labour of demolition. He opened up both the public buildings on the Campus Martius and his own private estates to the homeless. He constructed emergency accommodation. He slashed the price of grain. If Trump had responded to Covid-19 with even a fraction of the focus and resolve shown by Nero when faced by the great catastrophe of the fire, the United States might be in a happier place today.
Yet Sanders’ comparison was not wholly wrong. The story that Nero fiddled while Rome burned — dismissed by Tacitus, a historian ever ready to believe the worst of the emperor, as mere ‘rumour’ — was believed, not because it was authentic, but because it seemed as though it should be. Nero, like Trump, had recognised a profound truth about his countrymen: that in their fascination with the shocking and the fantastical there lurked opportunity as well as menace. Scandal was corrosive to the authority of a natural showman only if there were an attempt to cover it up. Flaunt it, revel in it, rub the nose of the respectable in it, and there was no reason why people should not thrill to the spectacle.
Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned — but he did, throughout his reign, treat the city as a stage-set for a drama in which he was the one, the only star. Trump, over the course of his presidency, has been similarly impatient to bend reality to his own understanding of it: an understanding bound to the mighty wheel of his own ego. His lies, his fantasies, his displays of braggadocio are potent, not because people necessarily take them at face value, but because — at least until Covid-19 reached America’s shores — they tended to be more entertaining than the truth.
“American life,” Bruno Maçães proposed in his most recent book, History Has Begun, “continuously emphasises its own artificiality in a way that reminds participants that, deep down, they are experiencing a story.” Sanders’ comparison of Trump to Nero, a man still remembered 2,000 years on for his displays of flamboyant showmanship, is, to that degree, a compliment: an acknowledgement of his malign genius as an entertainer.