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Trump’s Easter Fantasy: Stay Tuned

"By now we know this man too well: there is simply too much adulation to be generated from a 'Covid Accomplished' spectacle to be left untapped."

President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Bill Barr, speaks at the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 23, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There was an odd moment, several weeks back, when I noted aloud to friends how unusual I thought it was that we Americans were, for the moment—and perhaps this was only a false impression—listening to experts. Not only that, we were making big, difficult changes to our lives on the basis of what those experts had to say. It was impressive. Unprecedented. I knew it wouldn’t last.

By the time I made this observation, and just as state governors were beginning to issue shelter-in-place orders, it had become abundantly clear to all but the most serially self-delusional among us that this was going to be very bad. For his part, president Trump resisted the idea of taking the threat of Covid19 seriously. He pushed back, calling legitimate criticism of his dismissive and half-hearted response yet another hoax cooked up by Democrats—one of his favorite rhetorical dodges. Knowing better than to listen to him, Wall Street responded with an apocalyptic flush.

Then followed a brief few days when the president pretended to sort-of care. But, in the end, letting the experts have their say proved too hard for him. Others, people who knew stuff, people who studied hard in school and didn’t have spouses or daughters that were half as hot as his, were getting lots of attention. Even worse, they were not toadying up to him, and they kept on saying things that he did not want to hear.

And so it was that on March 24, relying on his own gut feeling, and with no Dr. Fauci in sight, President Trump boldly announced that he would like to see America open for business again in a big way in a few short weeks, all thanks to him—on Easter Sunday, no less! He has since had to rescind the absurd promise, though he remains convinced that ‘it’s something we should talk about’.

The president’s failed Easter Surprise is, by now, mostly yesterday’s news. But there are two particularly telling aspects of the President’s grand toxic plan that deserve to be parsed before the whole affair passes into oblivion. They concern: 1) how the planned Easter Surprise sheds light not only on the president’s narcissism, but on the diseased way he thinks about presidential power; and 2) the fact that, in all likelihood, this grand plan has not been scuttled, but merely postponed to a more advantageous time.

Regarding the first point, it is obvious that the date was not randomly chosen. It was calculated to allow Donald Trump to play Jesus on Easter Sunday. Many have pointed this out. But what needs to be said about this, the show that thankfully wasn’t, lest we write the whole thing off as mere idiotic nonsense, is that it comes straight from a fascist playbook. Anyone who has studied the workings of fascism knows that political spectacles, such as the one Trump had dreamed up for Easter Sunday, are less about demonstrating the Great Leader’s power than they are about generating power for him to exploit. Donald Trump clearly understands this. That is why he was so perversely obsessed with exaggerating the size of the crowd at his inauguration. It is why, within mere weeks of his inauguration, he began holding rallies for an election that was four years in the future. Without crowds to whip up into a state of hate-fueled ecstasy, Donald Trump is not only lost, he is nothing.

As a scholar of ancient Rome, I am reminded by Trump’s Easter Surprise of the time in 66 CE when the emperor Nero, with much of Rome still lying in ruins from his fire, staged a massive ‘let’s forget that fire’ rally in Rome to celebrate his victory over the Parthians and Armenians—not that he had actually managed to defeat them; but that’s another story. The ceremony, after having once been postponed because of overcast skies, took place in the forum, where it was arranged for Nero and Tiridates, the Armenian leader who was about to be installed as a puppet king, to enter at dawn, just as the sun was rising.

Wearing elaborate triumphal garb, Nero came in from the east, directly in front of the rising sun. Tiridates followed behind. Nero then mounted the speaker’s dais (the rostra) and sat down on a Roman throne (a sella curulis). Now with his face turned towards the east, Nero was lit up by the sun as it rose in the sky. The Armenian leader then approached the dais and said: ‘I have come before you, who are my god, adoring you as I adore Mithras. And I will accept the lot that you assign to me. You are my fate and my destiny.’ He then mounted the dais, where Nero put a crown on his head and declared him the king of Armenia.

For the Armenians and Parthians in the audience that day, Nero was the sun, the Eye of Mithras, their creator and savior. For his die-hard fans in Rome, he was Apollo, the sun god, bringer of enlightenment and a new dawn. This is what Donald Trump wanted with his Easter Surprise. He wanted to be adored as a god, the bringer of a new economic dawn. Needless to say, the plan was completely absurd, narcissistic and childish. But, as fascist spectacles go, it is the stuff of Leni Riefenstahl’s wildest dreams. Nothing childish about it.

Cooler heads somehow have managed, for the moment, to pull our President back from his grand plan. But, as mentioned above, I suspect that some version of it will be visited upon us in the coming months. By now we know this man too well: there is simply too much adulation to be generated from a ‘Covid Accomplished’ spectacle to be left untapped. My own grim hunch has it playing out roughly as follows. I see Donald Trump riding high above a crowd, with Jerry Falwell Junior seated at his left hand and Sean Hannity (or is it perhaps William Barr?) at his right. This sun-drenched Holy Trinity stands waving from atop a star-spangled tank, one of Raytheon Corporation’s finest weapons, driving at the head of a massive military parade that stretches from the Pentagon to the National Cathedral. The crowds are ecstatic. Weapons manufacturers in the VIP stands are giving each other high fives.

Gone from this picture is any lingering hint of a lamb going meekly forth, to suffer for others. No, what I see us being treated to is an apocalyptic vision of Christus Pantocrator (Christ the All-Powerful), riding down on a cloud to claim his everlasting rule over a newly redeemed USA. Having blasted the Chinese Obama Deep-State Virus to kingdom come, no matter how many tens of thousands may happen to have died, and no matter how many tens of thousands may still be dying, Donald Trump will declare that America has been made great again. Thanks be unto him! And, with a further wave of the hand, he will announce that Iran must be bombed—that is, on the odd chance that he hasn’t already bombed it.

Who needs Easter Sunday when you can speed ahead to the Apocalypse? Welcome, America, to your Fourth of July.

Kirk Freudenburg

Kirk Freudenburg is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Classics at Yale University, and a former fellow of the American Academy in Rome (FAAR 2002). His Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero, co-edited with Shadi Bartsch and Cedric Littlewood, appeared last November.

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