As an unorthodox politician, Donald Trump has no peer. Feeding his hungry acolytes his original stew of invective, self-glorification and glitter, he redefined the business of campaigning in 2016. Much of what Trump served from his menu drew on the moldy leftovers—demagoguery, fear-mongering and character assassination—hoarded by his mentor, Roy Cohn, as my colleague Michael Kruse noted in an April 2016 feature.
But Trump never limited himself to singing selections from the Cohn hymnal. As if tuned to some secret political frequency, he communicated on a higher level with his supporters than his competitors. How did he do it? Recently, while slumming the classics shelf in my local library, I discovered the Roman pamphlet Commentariolum Petitionis, which brings us closer to solving the mystery of how Trump performed his 2016 magic.
I’m not suggesting that Trump stumbled onto Commentariolum Petitionis one day while loitering in the Palm Beach County Library and then followed its Xs and Os to victory. There’s so much advice in its pages that Trump doesn’t heed, such as: “Surround yourself with the right people and Generosity is a requirement for a candidate and You must conduct a flawless campaign the greatest thoughtfulness, industry, and care.” More likely, Trump instinctively rediscovered the most eternal of its teachings and applied them to his needs. Also, Commentariolum Petitionis isn’t exactly a political secret. Republican strategist Karl Rove blurbed the Freeman translation when it was published in 2012 by Princeton University Press, calling it “timeless counsel.”
Whether Trump read the pamphlet or merely absorbed it by osmosis, his 2016 campaign traced its wisdom and his 2020 campaign will likely reheat it.
Translated as Handbook of Electioneering and more recently as How to Win an Election (by Philip Freeman), the pamphlet is believed to have been written around 64 B.C. by the great orator Marcus Cicero’s younger brother Quintus Tullius Cicero. Marcus was running for consul, the highest office in the land, but was considered a political outsider because he had been raised by a businessman father in a town that wasn’t Rome—sort of like Trump! Set down in letter form, Commentariolum Petitionis is little brother’s lecture to big brother on how to go as low as he needed to go in order to win his campaign. For the Cicero brothers, like Trump and his offspring, politics was a family affair in which nobody could expect to go far unless they gained the support of their kin. “Almost every destructive rumor that makes its way to the public begins among family and friends,” Quintus writes.
Presaging Trump’s endless Hillary-bashing, Quintus instructs his brother to remind the public “of what scoundrels your opponents are to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.” Actually filing corruption charges wasn’t necessary. “Just let them know you are willing to do so,” he writes, and let fear do its mischief.
“Be sure to put on a good show,” Quintus writes, one filled with color and spectacle. “You must always think about publicity,” he continues, “it is vital that you use all of your assets to spread the word about your campaign to the widest possible audience” using your skills as a public speaker.
Like a bell chiming at noon, Quintus repeatedly tells Marcus to preach a gospel of hope to the voters—all but instructing him to manufacture and distribute red baseball caps bearing the “Make Rome Great Again” motto. Make your zealous supporters “believe that you will always be there to help them” and smother them in flattery. But “stick to vague generalities” that will assure “the common people that you have always been on their side,” he writes. “If you break a promise, the outcome is uncertain and the number of people affected is small. But if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a larger number of voters.” Fill the house with supporters and pour promises into their heads so they’ll be enthusiastic enough about your message to proselytize on your behalf.
“People are moved more by appearances than reality,” Quintus writes. “People would prefer you give them a gracious lie than an outright refusal.”
How did the advice work out for Marcus Cicero? He won, just like Trump! But a couple of years later it all went to hell, so Trump might not want to follow Quintus’ script all the way to the end. As Freeman writes, “In 43 BC, Quintus and his brother Marcus were murdered as the republic itself died and the Roman Empire rose in its place.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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