Matt Smith examines the similarities between two of today’s most prominent American Presidential candidates and two politicians from a very different age.
I always like a good quote. They allow us to sound smart and intelligent whilst merely repeating the words of somebody who has often been dead for thousands of years. But in these nuggets of poetic and eloquent observation we can often see a reflection in the real world. A mirror image that seems to justify that pretentious sentence used to start an essay or article by accurately summing up a situation or event in one neat, witty or perhaps longwinded quote. So, in keeping with this tradition, I shall begin with one I particularly like.
Harry S. Truman once said “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” This is one of many quotes that praise the role of history in our understanding of the modern world (the fact I study history does not make me biased, honest), and so I ask you to cast your mind back to a series of events that took place over 2000 years ago in the ancient Roman Republic, to a part of history you may not know, but will have certainly seen reflected of late.
In the mid-second century BC two brothers from a patrician (noble) family, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempted to push through a series of reforms, mainly agrarian in nature, that were seen as so revolutionary and dangerous to the power of the ruling elite that they were both murdered in a horrifically violent manner.
In 133 BC Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune of the Plebs (a position designed to protect the lower class citizens from the power of the ruling upper classes) thanks largely to the funding of Rome’s richest citizen, Crassus (imagine Donald Trump turned round and donated his life savings to Bernie Sanders). Tiberius aimed to use the position to distribute newly gained Roman territory to the poorer citizens, and generally address the growing issue of unemployment created by slavery. Tiberius is also thought to have attempted to introduce a sort of welfare system by using the state treasury to subsidize grain within the city of Rome.
Though Tiberius was hugely popular with many of the lower class citizens, however his reforms made him the ultimate bogey man for the Senate, and like Jeremy Hunt in a Junior Doctors meeting, they turned on him, eventually clubbing him, and ~300 of his supporters, to death outside the Senate house (admittedly the Junior Doctors would just resort to verbal insults rather than murder).Gaius suffered a similar fate, himself cut down alongside, supposedly, 3000 of his supporters. Gaius had attempted to push through a much wider and more complex series of reforms that essentially took the form of tax increases being used to pay for public works and grain subsidies, both of which helped the poor by increasing employment and solving, or at least mitigating, the issue of urban starvation. In order to implement these reforms Gaius stood for election in 123 BC, on a similar platform to his brother, and it is widely believed he had the support of many of the lower classes his reforms aimed to assist.
Now I ask you to cast your eyes away from antiquity to a very different, yet eerily similar place, the United States of America. At this moment in time the country is in the midst of a tumultuous presidential race, and this provides the perfect opportunity for me to quote Truman. You see the electoral appeal of Donald Trump, and in particular Bernie Sanders, is not unlike that of the Gracchi brothers. Though obviously their reforms are not really comparable to each other, these two sets of politicians, though separated by more than 2000 years of history, have a surprising amount in common.
This is because both sets of politicians are seeking to subvert their party establishments and push their agenda through popularity with the voters. Both Trump and Sanders, it can be said, are appealing to a portion of the electorate that feels excluded from politics. They are appealing to people who do not vote often, to people who share the immense anger and dissatisfaction with the establishment that Trump and Sanders give a voice to. A Gallup poll conducted between February the 3rd and 7th in 2016 showed that in response to the question “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?” 81 percent of Americans sampled disapproved of the way Congress is currently handling its job. This shows the strength of anti-establishment feeling amongst many Americans, and this is something Trump and Sanders are attempting to tap into in much the same way the Gracchi tapped into the dissatisfaction of the poorer Roman citizens.
In much the same way as the Senate and wealthy Roman elite did, the other Presidential hopefuls, at least the ones traditionally backed by the establishment (like Hillary Clinton and to some extent Marco Rubio), have attempted political assassinations on both these modern Gracchi, albeit slightly less literal ones. Ruthless attacks have been made, particularly by Republican candidates, against Trump and Sanders by members of their own parties, and it is clear that these establishment figures see them as a threat to their own power. Once again we can see how the actions of these two politicians are echoing those of their antiquarian predecessors, they are both attempting to utilise a disaffected portion of the electorate, and are both targeted by the establishment whom they are attempting to undermine.
Though they lived over 2000 years ago, the Gracchi brothers provide a shining example of how politicians can utilise the power of the disaffected, those disillusioned with the political establishment who are desperate for change. Though there may be many differences between them, Trump and Sanders do share one thing, and that is a talent for persuading their modern American counterparts of the Gracchi’s supporters to vote for them. Though standing in a very different time, and on a very different platform, the anti-establishment rhetoric that resulted in the assassinations of the Gracchi, is currently winning Donald Trump the Republican nomination, and has made Bernie Sanders a credible threat to Clinton. So perhaps Truman was right, perhaps there is “nothing new in the world, except for the history you do not know.” Perhaps this Presidential race has given rise to a pair of modern Gracchi.