Trump: Making America (Alexander the) Great again?

“Timoclea Before Alexander the Great” by Domenichino (1615), Musée du Louvre.

“Timoclea Before Alexander the Great” by Domenichino (1615), Musée du Louvre.

Some years ago when I was senior cultural writer for Gannett Inc., I interviewed Donald Trump via email for a story on – wait for it – leadership. Among the questions I asked was why he named the most expensive suite in the Trump Taj Mahal Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, N.J. after Alexander the Great – a passion and study of mine since childhood. His answer was typically Trumpian: “Because he’s the best, and it’s the best.”

I thought of that as I read Richard Conniff’s piece, “Donald Trump and Other Animals,” in the Week in Review section of the Sunday New York Times. In it, Conniff quotes a passage from his “The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide” that Trump used in the introduction to his book “Trump: Think Like A Billionaire:

“Almost all successful alpha personalities display a single-minded determination to impose their vision on the world, an irrational belief in unreasonable goals, bordering at times on lunacy.”

On the surface at least, there are some similarities between Trump and Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) – the Greco-Macedonian king whose conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. fueled the dissemination of Greek culture and a tension between East and West that resonates today. They were both fair-haired boys, the sons of powerful fathers from whom they inherited a great deal, in Alexander’s case, the misty, highland kingdom of Macedon north of the Greek city-states (today the Macedonian region of Greece); hegemony over those city-states; a superbly trained army; and, most important, a dream of conquering the Persian Empire in part to avenge the destruction of the Athenian Acropolis by Persia’s Xerxes the Great in 480 B.C.

But any further comparison becomes tricky. On the recent Times Journeys’ “The Legacy of Alexander the Great” tour, David Ratzan – head librarian at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University – demonstrated the limitations of the ancient sources on Alexander. As with the Gospels on Jesus, many of the Alexandrian texts were lost, fragmented and written years after his death, often with a particular agenda. He was not the handsome, romantic world unifier of Victorian history and the Archaeological Museum at Pella, his birthplace, which contains two stunning Alexander sculptures as well as a fascinating timeline of photographic reproductions of works in various media that show his influence on art history. (More on this in the next post in “My Big Fat Greek Odyssey” series.)

Of course, if the ancient sources romanticizing Alexander can’t be trusted, who’s to say those demonizing him are any more reliable? The truth is, we don’t know a lot about Alexander and for our purposes here – it doesn’t really matter. As I said to David – quoting the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” about a senator whose political rise begins with an action falsely attributed to him – “When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend.” 

What matters is that the legendary Alexander is a metaphor for the way a leader should behave, one that has inspired countless works of art in every medium.

A leader is intellectually curious. Alexander sent flora and fauna from his conquests back to his teacher, the philosopher Aristotle, who trained him in the enchanting, woodsy Garden of Mieza, which our Times Journeys’ group was fortunate enough to visit.

A leader protects the innocent. Alexander once refused the offer of a pair of child sex slaves, denouncing the practice as evil.

A leader is just. When the Theban noblewoman Timocleia killed the soldier who had raped and tried to rob her, Alexander didn’t punish her. He didn’t call her a liar too ugly to be raped. Rather he released her and restored her property.

A leader champions women. Alexander enjoyed the company of sophisticated older women like Queen Ada, whose cause he advanced. He showed compassion and restraint in dealing with the captive family of his vanquished rival, the Persian Emperor Darius III, treating Darius’ mother Sisygambis as if she were his own mother.

A leader shows mercy to his enemies. After defeating the Indian King Porus, Alexander asked him how he wanted to be treated. “Like the king that I am,” Porus said. Such dignity and courage so impressed Alexander that he extended Porus’ holdings.

A leader doesn’t demonize the Other. This much is true: Alexander sought to integrate the Greek and Persian cultures if for no other reason than it was politically expedient.

A leader leads from the front. On the grueling march through the Gedrosian Desert, some of Alexander’s men brought him a helmet of water – all the water that was to be found. He held it up and poured it into the ground. If his men couldn’t drink, neither would he.

A leader is of his time. Alexander was an autocrat in an age of autocracy, a king descended from many kings whose best accessories were said to be the daggers they slept with under their pillows and who did not survive long into adulthood before they – like Alexander’s own father, Philip II, and son, Alexander IV – were assassinated. (Our group also visited their Royal Tombs at Vergina – a bucket-list place and an “Ozymandias” moment if there ever was one. So much power. And so much death.)

We, on the other hand, live in a representative democracy in a Judeo-Christian age in which the Golden Rule still applies.

Is it Lloyd Bentsen time? Shall I paraphrase what he said to the woefully lightweight Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice Presidential Debate? ("Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.")

Donald Trump, I have studied Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great is a hero of mine.

Mr. Trump, you are no Alexander the Great.