Donald Trump and King Pyrrhus

And, just like that, Rome’s conquest of Greece was nearly complete. 

The strong, sturdy, ageless foundation of Hellas, upon which the rest of the civilized world then firmly stood, suddenly began to quake. Those ancient, mighty pillars by which the early Western man was raised, atop which the hundred famous city-states he inhabited were built, began, in an instant, to show cracks and to crumble. 

Rome, once a poor, insignificant, malarial outpost on the banks of the Tiber River, enclosed by the grassy gathering of seven nameless hills, had matured into something totally different. When viewed against the distant image of its humble origin, it was completely unrecognizable. It had become, over the course of a few brief centuries, one of the most vigorous, powerful, and important centers of law, culture, warfare, and commerce of which the civilized world had, up until that time, any example, and to which, for that reason, it was forced to pay very close attention. 

Established in the middle of the eighth-century BC on the martial principles of its semi-divine, probably legendary founder, Romulus, Rome had grown up under the able administration of a half dozen kings. Numa, Romulus’ immediate successor, gave the infant city a much-needed lesson in religion, while Tullus Hostilius, in keeping with his name, instilled in its breast a renewed fighting spirit. It was not until the tyranny of Tarquin, and the republican response of one of history’s great men, Brutus, that Rome entered into its most prosperous and stable periods. 

It was, at this point, on the verge of becoming the Mediterranean’s uncontested master, of being declared Europe’s undisputed leader, and of claiming, for itself and for all time, sole possession of every remaining Greek city state. 

This is how matters stood at the dawn of the third century before Christ, when, after some four hundred years of prodigious growth and fearless expansion, sound governance and foresightful frugality, occasional rape and incessant bloodshed, the city founded by (and named after) Romulus threatened to overwhelm, subjugate, and, at last, absorb the greatest civilization of which humankind could then boast. 

By that point in time, the golden age of Greece had long since passed. Its luster was dimmed as the country’s immortal spark, by which the world was once enlightened, began to flicker and go out. Its genius was receding; its dominance, waning. It was, at best, a mere shadow of its former self. It was a nation in an obvious and rapid state of decline, for whose accelerated disintegration and impending collapse, it had none to blame but itself. Great nations, it’s said, never die but by their own doing, and Greece had, by this late hour of its life, inflicted on itself a great deal of harm. 

Its former brilliance, darkened by time, shone far less brightly than it once did. Hesiod, earliest of poets, had given an impressive account of creation, earth, life, and the manifold gods with whom, in abundance, the Olympian skies were filled. Homer and his rhapsodes sang of the Trojan War, Achilles’ wrath, and Odysseus’ long journey home. Along with the sacred tales housed in the Hebrew Bible, Homer’s epics provide the basis of Western literature. The Pre-Socratics bequeathed to us their fragmentary, enigmatic doctrines on natural philosophy, while the Socratics spawned a hundred ethical schools. Great commanders, artists, and statesmen abounded, including, to name but a few, Themistocles, Phidias, and Pericles. 

In 295 BC, the Greeks called upon the young king of the Molossians, Pyrrhus, to protect them from the growing threat of Rome. In an age rife with remarkable characters, and strange figures to whom we could devote a lifetime of study, Pyrrhus certainly stood out. He shared his name with the great hero Achilles’ son, to whom, he thought, he was closely related. Maybe it’s the sign of a cocksure youth, but can we really blame Pyrrhus for thinking himself the descendant of a demigod? Proof of the lineage could be found in his valor, his martial spirit, his aristocratic bearing, his fiery temperament, and, most importantly, his unblemished battlefield record, on which, despite his many engagements, very few losses were recorded. A daring, youthful veteran with a good bit of experience behind him, he was Greece’s last, best hope to stave off Rome. 

He decided, in 281 BC, to cross the Adriatic Sea and bring the battle directly to Rome. He did so with a sizable force: 25,000 infantry, 3,000 horses, and a whopping 20 elephants—the massive beasts to which India had introduced him (and of which, a little over twenty years later, Carthage’s Hannibal would make devastatingly good use). He met the Romans at the city of Heracleia, which was then part of Magna Graecia, or “Greater Greece”. After many ups and downs, Pyrrhus finally defeated the Romans in a grueling and costly battle. 

That he was victorious is not in question; he could, after the Battle of Heracleia, add another “W” to his impressive scorecard (a scorecard upon which, at this point, Alexander the Great might’ve look approvingly). And, yet, the victory wasn’t a total success. It was, rather, a Pyrrhic victory, the type of victory from which the winning side, despite or because of its victory, finds it difficult to recover. A Pyrrhic victory is one whose success comes at too high a cost. It’s a victory that inflicts such a heavy toll on the victor (measured either in men or material), that it’s almost indistinguishable from a defeat. 

Thus, when an aide approached Pyrrhus to congratulate him on his latest battlefield success, the king, face careworn and anxieties buzzing, responded by saying that “if we are victorious in one more battle against the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”. 

Perhaps, prior to your reading this, you never knew whom the term Pyrrhic victory was named after. Having gained that important piece of etymological knowledge, you might ask yourself another question: why, exactly, am I writing about this? 

I’m convinced, at this inauspicious hour, that Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election of 2016 was a Pyrrhic one. That he won a great victory, of which very few had any serious expectation, is not to be disputed. His tenure was, despite the immediate headwinds into which he sailed, and the many hostile currents against which he then swam, unmatched in its attainment of prosperity and peace. None can deny this. The rate of unemployment was historically low; investments and their returns incredibly high. Domestic energy production was warmly encouraged, and the costs of travel, food, and lodging were low. The courts were reacquainted with judges of a Constitutional bent, and peace, in a most novel way, was introduced to the Middle East. China was put on notice, Iran was again ostracized, and Russia was, for the first time in two decades, quiescent. 

These were, on the whole, victories of good policy. We now suffer a string of defeats (defeats from which, I fear, we’ll not soon recover) because of a singularly bad, petulant, and incorrigible personality. 

In the month following his electoral defeat in November 2020, President Trump suppressed enthusiasm for the Senate run-off elections in the tightly-contested state of Georgia, upon whose ability to organize a legitimate election, he cast a thousand doubts. Thanks to him, and to a pair of somewhat bland and uninspiring candidates, Georgians sent two Democrats to the Senate. Availed of Vice President Harris’ “tie-breaking” vote, this gave the Democrats a slim, but functional majority with which to govern. With this slight majority, the worst excess of our legislative branch have gone completely unchecked. Multiplying crises at home and abroad are the consequences of this failure.  

Now, in 2022, Trump again played a role in leading the Republican Party to an embarrassing defeat. Many of the candidates whom he endorsed in the midterm elections failed to secure seats that were absolutely ripe for the plucking. Masters, Mastriano, Oz, Bolduc, Walker, and Lake—all candidates cut from the Trumpian cloth—lost by significant margins. The Republicans who fared best include everyone who’s thought to be unbeholden to, and occasionally positioned against, Donald Trump: Kemp, DeSantis, Dewine, Abbott, and Rubio. These men, to whom Trump has been openly unkind, won their races walking away.

The upshot is clear: the more a candidate can dissociate himself from Trump, the better his electoral prospects will be. 

Donald Trump, I’ve concluded, is our King Pyrrhus, whose 2016 victory was a Pyrrhic one. How so? His victory has inflicted an enduring and burdensome toll on the victor—the Republican Party, the conservative movement—for which we continue to pay an inexhaustible price. I don’t want to be misunderstood: the victory Trump achieved in 2016 isn’t worthless, and many of his administration’s successes won’t soon be eclipsed, but the damage he’s done to the Party is bringing us ever closer to that point. And what is that point? As it was for Greece, so shall it be for us: submission to a ruthless, hungry, and conquering power. A final trouncing not by imperial Rome, but by the authoritarian Left. 

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