The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things: bread and circus!
These are the words of the Roman poet Juvenal, a man who nearly two thousand years ago summed up the contingent factors required for subjugating the masses in just three simple words: “bread and circus.” That little phrase was given new life last night, having been televised for millions of people at the 2nd presidential debate. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump demonstrated the subsequent halves of Juvenal’s famous dichotomy and have leveraged the real power of these elements, against all odds, to find themselves in contention for the highest office in the land.
Intrinsic motivation is important for understanding the distinction here. Why do these two people want to be president of the United States? Hillary Clinton has dedicated the bulk of her life toward positioning for the office. She has, very publicly, maneuvered her way from working as an assistant attorney in the government’s Watergate investigation, to marrying rising political star Bill Clinton, to becoming First Lady, to being elected Senator from New York, and then finally being appointed Secretary of State — all for a shot at the world’s highest office. Clinton wants to be powerful; to be respected — and maybe even feared. Her hawkish foreign policy reveals her desire to govern the complexities of the world through the coercion of violence and military force. At her very core, she is a flawed candidate — an unlikable, scandal-ridden, habitual liar. It is truly amazing, considering her immense baggage, that she’s been able to rise to the position she has. How did she do it? What has been her strategy to get what she wants out of her political career?
The answer is, at its core, very simple. She’s aligned herself with the protectionism and redistribution mechanics of a large and powerful government; a corporate welfare state. In layman’s terms she provides “bread” (by taxing and taking from others) to select elite corporations and to the huddled masses yearning to eat free. They, in turn, provide her with logistical support and votes. Clinton, in this metaphorical equation, is the Bread.
Donald Trump is a little bit different than his opponent. He is not a life-long politician. He does not seem to desire power for power’s sake. Trump is a billionaire businessman and entertainer. Admittedly a bit of a narcissist, he thrives on the stage; drawing an unparalleled energy from basking in the limelight and reveling in the deafening roar of the crowd. What better stage is there for being in front of the greatest number of people whenever and however you want than the Presidency? The Donald has all the money he could ever need. What he really wants … is to be famous for posterity’s sake. Trump is the embodiment of the Circus.
Throughout the debate, these two elementary forces were constantly on the move. Clinton reminisced about her “accomplishments” throughout more than 30 years navigating the political sphere — almost all of which had something to do with taking “bread” from a less tactically important group and redistributing it to others who would more optimally benefit her upward political mobility. Trump, on the other hand, focused primarily on the quality of his delivery — entertaining the audience as he zinged Clinton with one-liners and positioning himself strategically around the debate stage to project a more dominant persona.
Ultimately, the great majority of people in America will make a choice between the two. Bread or Circus — and there are certainly downsides to both. Circus is levity over substance. It provides fleeting moments of happiness in a weary, unforgiving world and must constantly be maintained to fully distract people from the suffering of life. Bread is similar in nature, but potentially much more dangerous. It represents survival. Those who wield it as a political weapon know that it also creates dependence. Like an addictive drug, people can be counted on to always return for more because they need it to exist (and will do, say, or believe almost anything to ensure a steady supply).
Which is the more dangerous? It depends on how they are acquired and delivered. Clinton’s strategy for delivering bread is not through her own wealth or through enlisting the voluntary contributions of producers. She intends to use the violent force of the government, through taxation — to take the property of one and give it to another. For that to happen, the immediate power of the government must be greater than that of the people they are taking from (that is how robbery works). Trump, conversely, has largely self-funded his political and business endeavors. He has pledged to take action to decrease the size, scope, and power of the government (both through foreign and domestic policy actions). Trump’s government would ultimately be less powerful, less dangerous than Clinton’s, and that is an important distinction to make.
Addicts are not rational. Anyone who has dealt with addiction, either personally or through experience with a close friend or family member, knows this to be true. Bread addicts are no different. Their addiction catalyzes extreme cases of resentment and anger in their own hearts and in the hearts of those being stolen from to fuel their habit. This is exactly what we are seeing in America today. The growing addiction to Bread has delivered unparalleled polarization, animosity, and disunity to its people. But …what can be done?
Juvenal’s Rome ultimately burned from within because of it’s addiction to both identifiers. Might there be someway to avoid that ancient empire’s fate? Perhaps by turning these powerful forces against each other? Could the existential power of Circus be enough to stem the rising tide of Bread? Should we use the “One Ring” in an attempt to destroy Sauron? Or risk it falling into his hands as we travel to Mount Doom to destroy it? On November 8th, this is the very question the people will decide. Until then, the fate of Middle-earth (and all its inhabitants) hangs anxiously in the balance.