It's impossible to tell the story of the rise of President Donald Trump without also telling the story of the
rise of Steve Bannon. The former executive chairman of the alt-right Breitbart website, Bannon was brought in to advise Trump on his campaign and is now the president's chief strategist — as well as, according to some reports, his closest advisor. After garnering appointments including a seat on the National Security Council (an unprecedented position for a chief strategist, and one that some commentators think stands in violation of the rules that govern the committee) and playing a major role in the administration's policy (Bannon oversaw the writing of the executive order that closed U.S. borders to people from seven majority Muslim countries), some commentators have wondered if "President Bannon" might be a more authentic way of addressing the strategist, since his influence over Trump seems considerable.
But while Trump's relationship with Bannon may be disturbing for many of us to witness, it's not unprecedented for a leader to have such a close relationship with an advisor — particularly in autocratic or monarchic systems. Advisors to the leader can be the real power behind the throne, provided that they maneuver themselves accordingly. As ever, we can learn from history. In fact, Bannon seems to be aware of the historical parallels — in an interview with
the Hollywood Reporter, Bannon described himself as “ Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors," referring to Henry VIII's closest advisor.
I'd urge those following Trump's relationship with Bannon to look very carefully at the histories of these kinds of close advisor-ruler relationships. Sometimes it's not clear who's pulling whose strings, and often, if history dictates, the figurehead is the one who suffers as a result. Here are four relationships in history that echo Trump and Bannon's — whether the parallels will make you feel better informed or just freaked out, I cannot say.
The Emperor Augustus & Maecenas
The current state of American politics has a lot of people looking towards the history of the Roman Empire — and a lot of that has to do with Julius Caesar. But while it's true that Caesar was the instigator of the system that turned the nominally "democratic" state into one ruled by a series of emperors, it was his successor, the Emperor Augustus, who really turned being an emperor into an art and made the office indispensable to the political life of Rome. And it was
his chief advisor, Maecenas, who made a lot of it possible.
Augustus himself was an exceptional politician and leader of troops; he
didn't create the Pax Romana (a state of peace across the entirety of the Roman Empire that lasted long beyond his reign) out of thin air. Maecenas was, in many ways, his right hand. A phenomenally wealthy man who patronized poets and artists who were friendly to Augustus (the term "Maecenas" is still used as a shorthand for a patron of the arts), he was also hugely powerful when Augustus came to power; he'd once stopped a coup from killing him and their bond only grew stronger from there.
Roman historian Suetonius recorded that Maecenas was "empowered not only to open all letters addressed by Caesar to the Senate, but even to alter their contents as the posture of affairs at home might require; and for this purpose he was entrusted with his master's seal, in order that the letters might be delivered as if they had come directly from [Augustus]'s own hand." He himself never got political power, and remained a private citizen his entire life.
Queen Victoria & Lord Melbourne
When Queen Victoria took the throne, she was a young and very impressionable 18. The Prime Minister of England at the time was Lord Melbourne, a Whig, who apparently saw his opportunity and, according to one historian,
set out to "flatter, instruct and influence" her as much as he possibly could. It worked: she referred to him as her "dear Lord M," which went down as well as you might imagine.
Melbourne was, at the time, many decades Victoria's senior, and a lot of ink has been spilled about whether their attachment was romantic, or if Victoria was just in thrall to a very venerable advisor; but either way, his ideas got her into a lot of trouble. His suggestion that she take the wives of leading Whig politicians as her ladies-in-waiting got her into hot water in 1839, when the next Prime Minister (who was in the other political party) asked politely that she have a more partisan set of ladies, and she refused.
The result was the Bedchamber Crisis, which was only really resolved when Victoria married two years later and took on new household staff.
Sultan Mehmed IV & Köprülü Mehmed Pasha
The position of the "grand vizier" might now only be heard in
the Arabian Nights, but the idea of a single powerful advisor to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire really originated with Köprülü Mehmed Pasha in the 17th century. Mehmed Pasha was a politician who gained a reputation for two things: crushing his rivals (both internal and overseas) with huge force, and managing the less-than-engaged Sultan Mehmed IV with aplomb.
While Mehmed Pasha basically ran the country, executing rebel leaders and
winning battles and new territory everywhere from Venice to Transylvania (really), he managed to keep the Sultan well out of things entirely. He encouraged the enthusiastically outdoorsy Mehmed IV to spent his time almost exclusively on hunting trips in the Balkans and to live in a comfortable palace away from the main center of government, so that Mehmed Pasha could get on with the important things, like annoying the Hapsburgs. When he died, he made the Sultan promise to give the grand vizier position to his son, and a dynasty of advisors was born.
Louis XIII & Cardinal Richelieu
The tug-of-war between monarchs, advisors and assorted other hangers-on for power in French politics throughout the centuries can get so complex, it'll make your eyes cross. (It can also get very absurd; Louis XIV
famously imprisoned his superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, for having a nicer house than him.) This context can help you understand that Cardinal Richelieu's long tenure as the advisor to Louis XIII was partially dependent on fate, partially dependent on Richelieu's own scheming, and partially dependent on Louis's mother.
Richelieu made himself the king's principal advisor through the support of
the royal's mother, Marie de Medicis, as well as through his own ability to subvert any person who stood in his way. Louis came to rely on him almost absolutely, and even took his side when Marie decided Richelieu had become too powerful and wanted him out. On the Day Of The Dupes, as it's now called, Marie thought she'd convinced Louis to kick Richelieu out (as did his enemies), but Louis changed his mind and sent his mother into exile instead. Now that's advisory power.