A Roman coin struck in the year 44 B.C. reveals that a temple was dedicated to Julius Caesar months before his death, in honor of him and his legendary mercy, or perhaps to him and the goddess Clementia herself, patroness of leniency and forgiveness. Many statesmen have to wait for history to bestow upon them the virtues they will be remembered for, but not Caesar: Even by then, he was known for his laudable mercy. It pleased him to be thought of this way. “You are correct in your opinion of me (for you know me well),” he wrote in a letter to the statesman Cicero in 49 B.C., “nothing is further from my nature than cruelty.”
If mercy is not only meeting but exceeding the requirements of justice — giving others not just their due but more — then cruelty is its opposite, exceeding even the privations of injustice: not only failing to give others their due but taking from them even more.
President Trump’s comparison to Caesar in a brief 2017 run of Shakespeare’s famous play may thus have been too generous — merciful, even. Whatever virtues Trump and his administration are aiming for, mercy isn’t among them. Mercy, after all, is a quality of the strong; in his repeated attacks on those with the very least, Trump is most obviously weak.
While many of us were absorbed in the holidays, the Trump administration relaxed Medicare’s penalty protocols by “scaling back the use of fines against nursing homes that harm residents or place them in grave risk of injury.” In other words, nursing homes that neglect, abuse or even cause the death of residents may be protected from or entitled to lighter fines than they would have been under Obama-era rules.
Then there’s the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health-care coverage for roughly 9 million children. For the first time since the program’s inception in 1997, Congress has failed to reauthorize funding for the program, aside from a short-term cash injection passed in late December. As a result, several states have begun closing enrollment in their programs, or warning families that their children will likely lose their health insurance in the coming months.
And if Trump gets his way, they won’t be the only ones. Congress succeeded in repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate with its tax bill, which could destabilize plan prices in the coming years, and Trump still hasn’t given up on replacing Obama-era health-care reforms altogether — with no viable replacement to protect health coverage for Americans who have come to rely on the ACA. Meanwhile, Trump and his administration also are taking aim at welfare this year.
The elderly, children, the sick, the poor: All of these are biblical categories of people who are deserving not just of justice — as all people are — but of mercy, as they are especially unable to advocate for themselves and press their interests in the public sphere. Trump could read up a little on the Christian God’s mercy toward the weak in all those Bibles he claims to have. God is a great champion of mercy because he is the ultimate source of all goodness; he can infinitely exceed the demands of justice because he is infinitely good and infinitely strong. But instead of making certain that the weakest people in American society are able to not only exist but thrive, Trump is attacking the relatively meager support they have.
Caesar didn’t opt for showy displays of clemency strictly out of personal beneficence. Nor did his leniency make him a benevolent leader. “Merciful he may have been,” Tom Holland wrote in “Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar,” “but mercy was properly the virtue of a master.” Caesar showed mercy because he had it to give, because he was powerful enough to dispense it. He didn’t need to be stingily protective of his own dignity or wealth, and to be so would have made him seem weaker than he knew he was. Trump, for as much as he styles himself a figure of abundance and luxury, with the guts to take on the strongest in society, is derelict where it comes to justice, and the most nakedly fragile where it comes to mercy.