Biden promises era of light after darkness
Is this a new chapter in our history? Donald Trump has often been likened to the ruthless populist leader Julius Caesar. Now many see Joe Biden as a new Cicero – defender of civic ideals.
“I sought this office to restore the soul of America”. “This is a time to heal in America”.
Promises that Joe Biden made to his people as soon as it became clear this weekend that he would be the next President of the USA. Thousands took to the streets to celebrate the end of an era.
Biden and Kamala Harris have broken dozens of records. They won 74 million votes, more than any other presidential ticket in history. And Biden’s dog, Major, will be the first rescue dog in the White House.
That is, if the previous occupant can be evicted in time for the inauguration on January 20th. Trump has still refused to concede the election. When Biden’s victory was announced, he was playing golf in Virginia.
Now it is up to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, one of the few to have escaped Trump’s wrath for the last four years, to persuade him to accept defeat.
A cynic might suggest that the USA is just exchanging one old white man for another.
But many pundits have pointed out the gulf between the two men. Trump is a property dealer who made his name as a TV star. He was the first president to enter office with neither political nor military experience. He is thin-skinned, angry, and notorious for episodes of bigotry.
Biden was born in working-class Scranton in Pennsylvania. He has spent 47 years in public service. He has suffered personal tragedy and shows a natural empathy for other people’s suffering.
The Trump era has often been compared with another reign cut short: the dictatorship of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome. Caesar made a name for himself outside politics and used it to catapult himself into the highest office in the Roman Republic.
Once there, he dismantled constitutional checks, demeaned his opponents in the Senate and declared himself dictator for life.
That term turned out to be briefer than anticipated. Just one month later, he was assassinated by senators who were trying to restore the Republic.
Trump, likewise, used his celebrity to win the presidency. He showed scant respect for constitutional norms, or for his colleagues. And there is another important parallel. Caesar racked up enormous debts pursuing his political career. As dictator, he had legal immunity: his debtors could not prosecute him. Similarly, Trump could not be indicted for his huge business debts while he remained in office.
If Trump is Caesar, then who is Biden? Scholars have likened him to the statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero: a self-made man from humble origins, a political moderate with respect for the law. After Caesar’s death, he fought to restore the Republic.
Despite Cicero’s best efforts, the Roman Republic fell. Cicero himself was hacked to pieces, his head and hands publicly displayed in Rome. Biden must hope for better fortune.
So, is this a new chapter in history?
Caesar the day
Yes, say some. Many Americans are scarred by the abuses of the Trump presidency. Hearing Biden reciting Seamus Heaney’s poem The Cure at Troy, it is hard not to believe in the coming of a new age of justice and, perhaps, joy. “History says, Don't hope/ On this side of the grave, But then, once in a lifetime/ The longed-for tidal wave/ Of justice can rise up/ And hope and history rhyme”.
No, say others. While it is easy to portray Trump as a would-be dictator and Biden as the saviour of the constitutional republic, in fact Trump’s expansion of executive power is part of a trend begun in the 1980s. In fact, Barack Obama frequently pressed the boundaries of presidential authority, and Biden will likely do the same. Trump is gone, but the era of dictatorial presidencies is not over.
- Do national leaders in the West make a big difference to ordinary life? Or do things normally carry on much the same?
- How much power should a president have? Is government more effective with a single, powerful decision-maker, or should more authority rest with a law-making assembly?
- You are running for president! Write a short speech explaining why you should be elected.
- You are an adviser to Joe Biden. He has asked you to put together an agenda for his first hundred days in office. What are your top ten priorities?
Some People Say...
“There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil.”Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), Roman statesman
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that the polls conducted for this election were wildly inaccurate. Polls put Biden eight points ahead of Trump in Michigan and Wisconsin; instead he won them both by less than one point. Biden was thought to be ahead by 2.5 points in Florida; instead, Trump took the state handily. The polls are often wrong; they understated Trump’s support in 2016 as well. But pollsters insisted that they had fixed those issues. Now they will have to explain how Trump defied them yet again.
- What do we not know?
- There is some debate over the lesson that Republicans will draw from this election. After a bruising election defeat, a party usually tries to change its appeal and its image. But many Republicans will be excited to see that Trump, a man widely thought to be a racist, has won the party its best results among ethnic minorities since 1960. They will be tempted to try “Trumpism without Trump”: the same populist message, articulated by a less erratic candidate, could pay off for them in 2024.
- A state in the eastern USA. Before it became a British colony in 1584, it belonged to the Powhatan confederation. It participated in the War of American Independence.
- Once an important coal-mining town, in the years after World War II it declined as coal became less profitable. The coal in this part of Pennsylvania is supposedly identical to that found in south Wales.
- In ancient Rome, a dictator was a constitutionally-recognised official who would be granted absolute power in a time of crisis, and expected to give it up again when the crisis was over. Today, it refers to a style of government in which absolute power is vested indefinitely in one person, usually without constitutional backing.
- Roman Republic
- The political system of ancient Rome between 509 BC, when the Roman monarchy was overthrown, and 27 BC, when Augustus made himself emperor. The American constitution was modelled on Rome’s.
- The most powerful decision-making body in the Roman Republic. It was not elected; members were appointed for life by the consul, the highest magistrate in the state. Almost all of its members were aristocrats.
- Seamus Heaney
- Considered one of the greatest Irish poets in history, Heaney also had links with the USA, where he lived part-time for much of his life. He died in 2013.
- In political science, power exists in three types: judicial, legislative, and executive. Legislative power creates laws, judicial power interprets them, and executive power enforces them. The executive power also usually controls foreign policy, and might have a veto on new laws.
- The highest office in the Roman Republic. Two consuls would be elected each year. Their powers were quite limited in theory, but in practice they had immense influence in Roman politics.