Trump & the Great Man Theory of History. It’s true especially if the great man isn’t so great

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 20, 2017

president-trumpWe do not yet know if Donald Trump is a great president, many already suspect he is not a great man and yet, the ‘Great Man Theory of History’ has to be applied to America’s 45th president.

Great Man Theory in the sense of unusual individuals who’s character, inclinations and behaviour affect the course of history.

As historian David Bell recently pointed out both Mr Trump’s supporters and detractors agree that his rise to the presidency “is exceptional in the context of American history”. It also raises the following question, says Mr Bell, a Professor of History at Princeton University: “To what extent does historical change depend on the actions of a handful of unusual individuals — history’s archetypal Great Men and Women — as opposed to large-scale, long-term, impersonal forces?”

It matters a lot, as the late J Rufus Fears, the eminent classicist, continually pointed out. In his reflections on the rise and fall of empires, Fears cited the Greek historian Herodotus, who was arguably the first to try and understand why empires eventually fail. Fears wrote “Herodotus believed that there were invariable laws to the rise and fall of empires.  Empires rose and fell—as they still do today—because of individual decisions made by individual leaders.” In the case of the Persian Empire, the economic superpower of its day and master of a huge swathe of land that stretched from present-day Pakistan to the Danube, the misjudgement of King Darius proved fatal. There was no other reason that this empire – so rich that the annual tax collection yielded 14,600 talents (in Darius’s day, one talent would build a warship) – could fail.

The Persian empire, remember, was incredibly well-run and well provided with infrastructure. As Fears points out, “the speed with which mail was delivered in the empire of Darius gave to our own (US) postal service its motto, ‘Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night shall keep these couriers from their appointed route’.”

That was in the ancient world!

Then came Darius’s misjudgement.

He decided he was too powerful to be defeated even if he undertook a preemptive war against Athens.

The Great Man Theory is true. Particularly when the great man is not so great.