America’s Caligula Culture


The election of Donald Trump prompted a number of people, including historians to make comparisons of Trump’s cult of personality with various historical figures from Benito Mussolini to Roman Emperor Caligula (37-41 A.D.) While such comparison’s make for entertaining reading, they place all emphasis on the individual rather than the system that permitted the individual to rise to power. Hardly an alien from outer space or an immigrant from a distant land, Trump is a product of late 20th century American culture immersed in contradictions that manifest themselves in all domains from the ideological and political arena to the multifaceted socio-cultural landscape that make up the layers of society. Rooted in individualism, the value system makes it easy for the masses to reject the concept of the system creating the environment for a Caligula culture while focusing on Caligula as the culprit for all that ails society, while preserving the system. Refraining from castigating the Caligula culture and promoting political leadership to obfuscate it permits the elites to preserve a system that serves their interests without the stigma of a Caligula in charge diluting a much-needed popular legitimacy.

The persistence of demonizing the individual leader and obsessing with the cult of personality is itself not only a distraction from the reality of the structural order that propelled Trump to power, but in fact a reactionary response to the anachronistic political, social, and cultural milieu slowly rotting away and permitting the worst among society’s elites to undermine society and hastening the downward mobility of the working class. In this respect, there is no comparison with Caligula because the nascent Roman Empire easily withstood Caligula and thrived for another two centuries before the long road to decline following the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 A.D.), the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. The US is already in a ‘post-Marcus Aurelius empire phase’ of a long decline and the Caligula culture is both symptomatic of that reality and a precursor of worse things to come.

The signs are everywhere, most notably in a declining parasitic economy based on ‘financialization’ (transfer income from the real economy to speculative markets) and the strengthening of a militarized police state structure financed by incurring larger public debt. In no small measure, the US as the world’s second largest economy to China’s in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) and declining rapidly under neoliberal policies that massively concentrate capital in the top one percent has precipitated the Caligula culture of chaos and authoritarian populism. Unwilling to undergo systemic change to slow down the inevitable decline, the financial elites whose interests the political class serves is caught between even greater support for a Caligula culture or superficial attempts to conceal it as a stigma that erodes legitimacy to govern under an authoritarian model.;

It is hardly a secret that Trump openly embracing authoritarianism shocks many people not only among the masses deluding themselves about equality and democracy, but especially the elites needing a facade of a ‘democracy’ to operate over a capitalist world order with a cloak of legitimacy. Capitalists and their apologists need a neat and convincing cover of popular legitimacy. By exposing the ugly reality of authoritarianism serving the wealthy while treating the rest of the population with disdain as public policy proves, policy that benefit the elites as a class regardless of whether they embrace or castigate the Caligula culture, Trump has suddenly lifted the cloak of democracy. Beneath the very thin surface of a liberal democracy presenting itself as theoretically egalitarian and just for all people there was always a Caligula culture but without a Caligula like Trump to boldly embrace it while demonstrating contempt for democratic institutions serving as the thin veil of popular legitimacy. Just as many among the Roman masses loved that Caligula attacked the Senate and the patrician class while the Roman system served their interests, similarly a segment of the American masses love that Trump attacks the liberal elites despite the fact that his policies serve the same establishment elite.

Years before Trump emerged in the political arena too busy with real estate and reality TV, Cintra Wilson’s satirical book Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny captured the spirit of America’s Caligula culture belittling the idea that America’s leaders not only embrace tyranny at home and abroad, but they boast about it as a badge of honor for society. Not only is America’s Caligula culture apologetic about exploiting its own masses, invading countries around the world, it makes the victims feel that they deserve such treatment and it is their fault they have fallen victims to the Caligula culture. ‘Hyper-legality’, a form of authoritarianism as the executive rules by decree (executive order in the US), along with the ascendancy of the corporate welfare state and simultaneous decline of the social welfare state substituting the latter with liberal identity politics that further breaks class solidarity, the American hegemonic culture has so indoctrinated the popular culture of the broader masses that they believe only in alternatives within the same Caligula culture of lesser evils.

Even consent theory based on John Locke’s classical philosophy of Liberalism has no place in the Caligula culture of neoliberalism that is more comfortable with authoritarianism as a regime regimenting the social order. The crisis of America’s decline as a world power against the rise of China has diluted if not obviated policy-formation and consent-theory, as we knew it under Pax Americana throughout the Cold War and produced the Caligula culture, itself a distraction from the underlying causes of systemic crisis. Given that the political and financial elites have always manufactured consent, consent-theory is their domain to define and implement to preserve and advance their privileged position. Crises, however, bring out in otherwise docile-conformist citizens tendencies that range from reactionary to revolutionary, from cynicism to “apocalyptic nihilism,” which is what most people act on and understand by the term (as opposed to anarchist or existential). Against this systemic backdrop, the Caligula culture has a face to go with it, namely Trump eager to build a cult of personality and unashamedly celebrate America’s Caligula culture instead of hiding behind a liberal façade like his predecessors. (Michael Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent, 1979; Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent, 2002)

Besides resorting to more austere laws to “contain” dissidence as it arises amid greater socioeconomic problems in a polarized society, the state along with the media, think tanks, and those with access and influence to public opinion, the Caligula culture promotes the pluralist-identity politics option that ostensibly presents itself as ‘the democratic alternative’; as proof that citizens have a choice of ruling styles and rulers. Meanwhile, public policy remains essentially in the service of the same elites responsible for the rise of the Caligula culture and values. It shocks some people to discover that Caligula culture places greater value in garbage as a marketable commodity more than in people, social justice, the environment and life if it interferes with capital accumulation. Beguiling rationalizations aside, the vacuous rhetoric about moral principles of “equality of opportunity” and meritocracy in theory, the record shows that the Caligula culture is just as hostile toward humanity today as it was during Caligula’s reign.

The success of modern America’s elites rests with the brilliant manipulation of public opinion to the degree that a segment of the population has embraced the Caligula culture as the norm, not just conservatives and religious fundamentalists, but liberals as well who want to preserve the system as long s it is well-concealed behind a nicely-wrapped toga of institutional pluralism that translates into co-optation of diverse elements into the ranks of the elites. The contradictions between the liberal illusion’s promise and what it fails to deliver is precisely why America’s Caligula culture has become sufficiently prominent to elect its rightful Caligula in Trump.

A product of the early Cold War, Daniel Boorstin’s A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961) argued that: “America was living in an ‘age of contrivance,’ in which illusions and fabrications had become a dominant force in society. Public life is filled with ‘pseudo-events’–staged and scripted events that were a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings.” Seven decades later in the age of “FAKE NEWS” and the substitution of news broadcasts with propaganda, the Caligula culture has reduced relativism to the level of confusing people so they are led to believe policies detrimental to their interests are actually ‘good’ for them because they are good for the ‘national interest’ as the elites define it for the rest of society.

As the world’s center of the market economy that has created a Caligula culture, the US created a “hyperreality” (the world of the absolute fake) as Umberto Eco labeled it. As traits of success, hollowness and superficiality over substance are not only confided to the domain of politics whether it is with right-wing Tea Party Republican of Sarah Palin that laid the groundwork for Caligula-Trump, French (Gucci) Socialists embracing neoliberal policies that strengthen Marine Le Pen’s neo-Fascist National Front, or British Labour parading reformers while hardly distinguishable from their Tory counterparts when it comes to public policy. To maintain the Caligula culture, society needs the entire superstructure supporting it and it has it. From educational institutions that have assumed the business management model to government and non-profit organizations, hollowness and superficiality have deep historical roots that reflect societal values and institutional structures that create and replicate such personality archetypes destined to float to the top largely by the incredible lightness of being that make the Caligula culture possible.

Considering the anti-intellectualism of the Caligula culture, the ceaseless attack on the rationalism of the Enlightenment as the intellectual foundation of the Western World, hollowness and superficiality over substance reflects the reality that the mass media inculcate into human beings, a reality that in turn people internalize to cope with life in all its phases from euphoric to tragic as they see no alternative to institutional conformity. Long before Donald Trump, America’s Caligula culture was the outgrowth of a decadent social order finding itself in myriads of contradictions rooted in its goal to amass greater wealth globally while operating within the nation-state confines where the issue of national sovereignty and popular sovereignty become intertwined.

If the media molds the pubic with images so immersed in illusions about a façade of democracy and an alternative to the Caligula culture simply by removing Caligula and not the decadent system that made Caligula possible and brought him to power to serve the elites, what hope is there for systemic change in society intended to benefit all as democracy promises? Until the illusion of choice itself is confronted by the reality that peoples’ lives are not improving and that the system continues to operate in blatant inconsistencies and contradictions between what the corporate world and political elites are promising, on the one hand, and the empirical experiences of peoples’ lives, on the other, societal change rooted in humane values cannot take place.  (Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny, 1992)

Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.


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