eyes on the U.S.

Trump As Julius Caesar: The Threat To The Republic Lives On

With Joe Biden in the role of Brutus...?

An 'Emperor Trump' float at a carnival in Mainz, Germany
An "Emperor Trump" float at a carnival in Mainz, Germany
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht


Here in California, on the morning after the U.S. presidential election, I sat down and started writing, because even though there was no clear winner at that point, there was already plenty to say.

The results, in terms of both the popular vote and electoral college, turned out closer than predicted but also are not surprising. This is no time for celebration or commiseration, joy or gloating. Instead, the mood is one that has existed for a long time, but has rarely been mentioned, and now deserves our attention and contemplation.

Even The New York Times, which over the past four years has been a must-read for Trump's opponents, proclaimed on its homepage that given the significant number of votes for the incumbent president, Joe Biden's oft-used slogan "Donald Trump is not America" simply doesn't hold water — regardless of the final result.

The pollsters — at least in the United States — got it wrong. Trump has confirmed his reputation as an exceptionally successful campaigner. The fact that nearly half the voting public supports the corona-era president shows that 2016's result was no accident, but a paradigm shift that merits serious long-term analysis. Over the last four years that is exactly what typically left-leaning academics have, in their arrogance, failed to do.

The age-old question of whether changes that are generally viewed as positive can be credited as direct achievements of the leader in office at the time is irrelevant when large swathes of the electorate view them in this way. And this is especially true when it comes to Trump, who has never prioritized delivering on specific policy promises.

It's also a fact that since Trump's bizarre first contact with Kim Jong-un, the West's relations with the nuclear power of North Korea have been relatively tension-free. With American support, Israel recently entered into a new and potentially ground-breaking stage of relations with its neighbors in the region. And moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a recognition of where the seat of power truly lies, rather than a costly and pseudo-moral act of diplomacy.

Anything goes

The American economy was flourishing at the start of the year and — in the experience of most Americans, and regardless of experts' medium-term projections — it has not imploded over the past few months. We must emphasize, furthermore, that contrary to what pro-lockdown politicians in Europe predicted, U.S. voters didn't punish the White House for its lack of a comprehensive strategy to combat the pandemic.

The behavior is Machiavellian in the true sense of the word

The reality, though, is that there's only a superficial relationship between these day-to-day political decisions and the fierce loyalty of core Trump voters (as well as his ability to win support among new social groups, such as Latino men). Even if the president doesn't stay in office, he has managed to establish a new interpretation of the role and an alternative style of politics.

Part of that is an unashamed lack of scruples in holding onto power (by appointing as many judges as possible at various levels, for example) and in gaining advantages for himself (Trump hotels used as stages for political theater, family members appointed to White House positions). This behavior is Machiavellian in the true sense of the word. But it's also tolerated by supporters, thus legitimizing it. Without shying away from confrontation, Trump consistently uses every situation to his advantage.

Contrary to all the doubts of experts and insiders (even from his own party), in its first term the Trump administration has not experienced the unprecedented problems that were predicted. This is despite the president's incoherent tweets, the endless slew of firings, and the fact that Trump — perhaps unwittingly — occupies a political position that swings back and forth between left and right.

"Resonance rhetoric"

The populist Donald Trump, with his strong support among underprivileged citizens, seems left-leaning, and yet his tax cuts for high-income groups lean to the right. His withdrawal from military conflicts could be seen as pacifist and left-wing, but his prioritizing of national interests in economic and foreign policy is undeniably rightist.

This mix-and-match approach has produced a certain typological affinity with historical national socialism, although Trump's constant vacillations are a clear departure from its extreme ideological consistency.

Masked, for once — Photo: Darren Halstead

At the heart of his political approach, which has set itself up in opposition to the traditions of government, is a form of communication with large swathes of the population that I call "resonance rhetoric." I use the word resonance because Trump supporters do not respond to specific, concrete details: He didn't have to deliver on his promise to build the infamous wall; he doesn't need to fact-check.

These groups, which for various reasons consider themselves underprivileged, respond instead to Trump's apparent directness and the sense that he takes them seriously. Even when he admits to lying (downplaying the dangers of the virus because he didn't want to "create panic"), they see Trump as authentic ("at least we know what he's thinking").

Why has Trump met this need for resonance, when a master of classical rhetoric such as Barack Obama failed? Is it a need that only exists in the United States, or is it also gaining ground in Europe? I believe that what lies behind it are two important crises about the principle of representation on which our parliamentary democracies are based.

The first is that in the United States, the 65% of citizens who are not college educated don't feel that they are represented by the intellectual elite who make up most of their government. And I think they rightly sense condescension from left-leaning intellectuals who claim to understand the needs of the financially underprivileged. This could also be said of the Trump regime, but his communication style meant it was not a source of frustration.

The second is the impersonal distance of now omnipresent electronic communications, which it was hoped would lead to growing participation in political processes. Now we know that, instead of enabling better communication between citizens and their representatives, this technology makes daily life more complex and leads to social isolation.

The sociological and technological developments of the last few decades mean that representative government is no longer functioning as a vital form of communication between people and politicians. It is seen as a blockade on immediacy and the exchange of ideas.

These could be symptoms of a growing weariness with the classical institutions of the republic.

Since the Enlightenment, the global dominance of Western cultures allowed them to hold up forms of government based on representation as a norm, free from all claims of cultural relativity. I believe we must hold true to this concept, but we must also ask ourselves whether its status has become precarious.

There is the trend for family dynasties, across the world but especially in the United States (the Bushes, the Clintons and growing pressure on the Obamas); Trump's success and the widespread tolerance for his long-predicted strategies to hold onto power regardless of the election results; but also dwindling interest in political careers among younger generations and perhaps an increasing willingness to take the role of monarchs more seriously than before.

All of these could be symptoms of a growing weariness with the classical institutions of the republic.

Et tu, Brute?

Trump's political career brings to mind two names from classical history that are always mentioned side by side: Marius and Sulla, two generals of the Roman Republic, who as a man of the "people" (Marius) and a descendant of an ancient patrician family (Sulla) led the republic to civil war in the early 1st century B.C.

Surprisingly, both died peacefully after (more or less) voluntarily withdrawing from politics — Sulla during a heavy drinking session, still promising to write his memoirs (something I can't imagine Donald Trump ever doing). But a generation later, Marius's family rose to power again through Julius Caesar, who oversaw the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

Would such a thing be impossible now? Or is there potential for such a seismic change in America? In Western history, it is Julius Caesar who is remembered as one of the great heroes — not Brutus, who killed him to save the Republic.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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