Very few people, if they’re being honest, would want their kids to grow up to be like Donald Trump. And that includes the folks who had perfectly good reasons for voting for him and hope he will be a successful Republican president. Donald Trump is rich, sure, but he’s also vain. He’s mean. He’s paranoid and says cruel things for the fun of it. He wears being uninformed like a badge of honor (I brief myself, he once said), and he cheats on his wi(ves) and lies. A lot. And if the reports on his taxes are even half true, he’s actually not a particularly great businessman, having lost so much money year after year that were it not for the largesse of his father and the extreme negligence of the IRS and the media, he would probably be living under a bridge or in a jail cell.
That he is president--a job that looms large in so many people’s daily lives--concerns many parents. What should I tell my kid about this? What do I teach them about what they’re seeing on the news? (Again, let’s focus on the fact that this is a problem shared by all parents, even the ones who have decided his personal vices are worth trading for important policy gains).
The Stoics have a lot to say about this, because they too lived under imperfect politicians as well as amidst corruption and excess. Seneca saw his share of Donald Trumps (and worked as best he could with them.) Epictetus was exiled from Rome by a paranoid and petty emperor. Marcus Aurelius himself battled with the corrosive effects of power on his own person. The Stoics also looked regularly at history to study these types. They didn’t simply bury their head in the sand, they weren’t naive. They knew that aggression and ego and insatiableness was a combination often found in kings.
Their writings reflect all of this—warnings against avarice, instruction to avoid capriciousness and greed, reminders of how easily we can fall into the same patterns ourselves.
“Robbers, perverts, killers and tyrants,” Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself, “gather for your inspection their so-called pleasures!” He wanted to learn from Nero, and even from Hadrian whom he had both admiration and disgust for, and to never follow in their footsteps. One suspects he spent a lot of time instructing his children about this as well. He wanted them to know that being a Donald Trump is no fun, even if it does make you rich or famous or feared. That as a story, it might seem impressive for a while, but inevitably the end is never pretty.
Marcus’s own son Commodus didn’t heed this lesson and became proof of its universal truth. But at least he was warned. And so too should every young person thinking about what kind of person they want to end up being.