Leaders and their Egos: Structures as Forms of Egotistical Expression

Come last week, us Brits had our eyes and screens graced by the rock-headed magnanimity that is President Trump. His visit, and his later meetings with NATO and Putin, were of course full of shallow brags and diplomatic contradictions. In the morning of his visit he undermined May and pitted Johnson as a future prime minister, only to cosy up to her later that afternoon. In Helsinki, he absolved Putin of his faults and lashed out at his own intelligence services, only to insist he meant the opposite back home. He is truly the epitome of unpredictable, but there is one thing that will always stick true: his ego. At the forefront of this article (and below) you can see the entrance to the man’s gilded, phallic status symbols known as the Trump Towers. They are his flags in the ground, his urine on the floor, his cementation of a capitalist identity. But he isn’t the first to use architecture, and physical structures more generally, to cement his ego. The world is full of narcissists, and in this article we will peruse two of my most favourite historical examples, whose self-adoration reaches further heights.

Inspired by Trump’s recent summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, I became increasingly aware that the two have some worryingly similar attributes. They are both egomaniacs who are obsessed with their own image; they are fickle, and inconsistent; and do a great deal of lying about their respective popularity. This, of course, is something that he shares with the entire Kim Dynasty, whose male figures have put a great deal of effort into constructing a ‘cult of personality’ that elevates them to the realm of gods. The Grand Monument on Mansu Hill, which can be seen below, is one part of a staggering 229 monuments; which, as described on the official North Korea website (yes, there is one):

‘represent in a comprehensive way the immortal history of revolutionary struggle of the Korean people who have recorded only victory and glory under the wise leadership of the great Generalissimos.’

The towering centerpiece has not only come to represent a long gone history; however, but also one that lives through the years and with the people. The statue of Kim Jong-Il, who stands on the right, was famously replaced over time with a model that befitted his new age. This ambitious and expensive act serves as a reminder that the DPRK’s idols are not symbolic, long gone figureheads but are instead living, breathing people with substantial power and influence. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to put Trump, and his late father, in the same picture.

Photo Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Caligula, or Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus if you’re feeling high-brow, was a roman emperor from AD 37-41 who is most known for commanding a vicious, sadistic and grossly perverse four year reign over the Roman Empire, before being assassinated by his own royal guard. The man is no Trump, that’s for sure, but we might suppose that he is what Trump could have possible have become, let’s say, if he was given the reins and allowed to drive the carriage off of a cliff. Despite financial crises, Caligula dedicated himself to a series of lavish construction projects; some for the people, but many for himself, creating villas and erecting monuments in his own name. But that isn’t the worst of it, for according to the Roman historian Suetonius, Caligula covered the distance between two Italian bays (at a distance of about three miles) with a pontoon bridge and rode across it adorned:

‘in a crown of oak leaves, a buckler, a sword, and a cloak of cloth of gold.’

And why would he do such a thing? Was it to show strength to a foreign adversary, or part of a public event? No, for according to the same historian it was because an astrologer working for his grandfather told him that Caligula:

‘had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding about over the gulf of Baiae with horses.’

Is there anything else that can remind us more of Trump, to take such a comment so personally? We can just imagine the tweets: ‘I have a great, great many horses… and boats, so many boats like you couldn’t imagine.’

There are a great deal more people I could relate him to here. I could talk about Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, and his Terracotta Warriors; or perhaps Cecil Rhodes, and his building of a slave state that would eventually be named after himself; or even the pharaohs of Egypt, who considered themselves to be actual gods that deserved to be buried in momentous pyramids. Whoever I choose, the themes remains the same. Those most egotistical of leaders never wish to stop at just an artistic, or literary representation of their powers. No, they wish to stamp their influence into the ground and leave it for all to see.

Think about that next time you hear Trump speak, and see where the voices of those old, self-loving figures come through. Think of what an Emperor Trump, or a Supreme Leader Trump would look like, when his ego and insecurity can be taken to its fullest heights. What building might we have then? Trump Stadium, Trump Senate, Trump Hospital? Who knows.

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