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Change agents – Trump and Alexander the Great

  Jean-Simon Berthélemy’s “Alexander Cuts the Gordion Knot” (1767), oil on canvas. École national supérieure des Beaux-Arts

Jean-Simon Berthélemy’s “Alexander Cuts the Gordion Knot” (1767), oil on canvas. École national supérieure des Beaux-Arts

The Fresno Bee columnist Victor Davis Hanson has written a column comparing President Donald J. Trump’s slash-and-burn style with the Greco-Macedonian conqueror of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great, cutting the Gordion knot impatiently with his sword, thus ensuring the prophecy that whoever did so would become lord of Asia. Hanson’s gotten some bristling responses from history buffs, and my first thought was to lend my voice to the chorus, being rather protective of Alexander myself. More than anything I wanted to say: “I knew Alexander. Alexander was a friend of mine. Trump, you’re no Alexander.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the issue is deeper than Hanson and his critics might’ve realized.

First, history is a scrim before a veil before a curtain. The further you go back in time, the less you know. Much of what we “know” about Alexander is based on legends that are instructive but not necessarily factual. Did he cut the Gordion knot or notice the pin holding it place and release it? Was there even a Gordion knot? We really don’t know. What we do know is that story tells us something about Alexander: He wanted to get things done. And Trumpet fancies himself someone who gets things done. He even named his $10,000 a night suite at the Trump Taj Mahal the Alexander the Great Suite, because, he told me, “he was the best and it’s the best.” (Of course.)

Like Trump, Alexander was brand conscious, allowing only three artists to portray his considerable, striking looks – Apelles the painter, Lysippos the sculptor and Pyrgoteles the gem-carver – and spinning glowing war stories for Greeks and Macedonians back home with his PR guy, Callisthenes, nephew of his former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle.

Also like Trump, Alexander could be cruel, impulsive and hot-tempered. But he was also generous, leading from the front, which means that when it came to others, particularly his soldiers, he put himself last. He was, to an extent, a servant leader. Alexander could also be merciful to his enemies and chivalrous to women, patterning himself after one of his heroes, the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great.

There are, however, other, perhaps more crucial dissimilarities. For one, Alexander had a lot more to work with. Brilliantly educated, he was a patron of artists, scientists and athletes alike. He was also one of the greatest field commanders in military history, never losing a battle.

Even more important for our understanding, he was an autocrat in an age of autocrats, a king descended from many kings. Context is everything in life. Alexander may seem a despot to us, but he was a despot in an age of despots. A male Macedonian royal’s best accessory was said to have been the knife he slept with. Go to Vergina in Greece and see the moving mound tombs of his father and son – Philip II and Alexander IV, his predecessor and successor, both of whom were assassinated – and tell me if you would have acted differently had you been in his place. Whereas Trumpet merely acts like a tyrant in a country that is a democratic republic and has the advantage, so-called, of the Judeo-Christian “Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” not “Stick it to them before they stick it to you.”

We might, of course, never have had Christianity – at least not in the form we do and as widely spread, had we not had Alexander, who ushered in an age of Hellenism (the spread of Greek culture). Greek became the lingua franca of the Roman Empire – Latin was more of a colloquial language – and, as it turns out, the language of the Bible. The “triumph” of Christianity is one of Alexander’s legacies.  

He was, for good or for ill – and, probably, for good and for ill – what is known as a change agent, something I discussed in my previous post about Henry VIII. These people may not even have known why they did what they did. (I think Alexander was a mystery to himself.) But they did what they did, because – terrifyingly, wondrously – that’s the way the universe works. We are all its strands – some brighter and stronger than others – and when we fulfill our threads, well, that’s it.

And what of Trumpet? He, not at all surprisingly, launched air strikes on Syria on the day that former FBI director James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty” was released. So, a people already bombed into oblivion will be bombed some more. I pray something good will come of it. But I know something different will come of it. Trump, too, is a change agent.

The jury’s still out on what exactly he’ll usher in.