On his first day in office, President Trump’s speech at CIA headquarters went over “bigly.” Applause and friendly laughter rippled through the room as he spoke to the crowd of 400. Many observers were surprised at the warmth of his reception, given that Central Intelligence Agency staff are supposed to be nonpartisan. How did he pull it off? The answer lies in a centuries-old showmanship technique that has been used by entertainers and politicians since the Roman Empire: President Trump brought along a “claque,” that is, a group of hired cheerleaders whose job is to spark enthusiasm and get the applause rolling, a sort of living, breathing laugh track.
Here’s how it works: In the televised version of the CIA speech, the camera remains trained on the President’s head and shoulders. There are no audience reaction shots, so it appears to home viewers as if the entire room is laughing and cheering. But, according to eyewitnesses, throughout the speech the CIA leaders in the front rows sat impassively, applauding politely at the end. Shortly after the speech was broadcast, reports began to circulate that the cheering everyone heard on TV was generated not by CIA staffers, but by 40 carefully planted members of Trump’s own entourage—his claque.
One of the earliest and most striking examples of the use of a claque comes from the Roman emperor Nero, an amateur singer who famously accompanied himself on the lyre, which is where the trope “fiddling while Rome burns” comes from. In her 1962 essay “Nero: Qualis Artifex?” the classicist Mary Francis Gyles describes the emperor’s performance career. An insecure, attention-craving, and possibly not-very-good performer, Nero insisted on entering singing competitions—to the dismay of the other competitors, and to the alarm of the judges. Naturally, Nero always won.
When awarded the victory, as he always was, Nero liked to make the proclamation himself… On his return from Greece, Nero made a triumphal entry into Naples, the scene of his first success, and then into Rome. He was welcomed enthusiastically by the people… the crowds shouted:
Hail, Olympic victor! Hail Pythian Victor! Augustus! Augustus! Hail to Nero our Hercules! Hail to Nero our Apollo! The only winner of all the games! The only one from the beginning of time! Augustus, Augustus! O Divine Voice! Blessed are they that hear you!
Wherever he competed, Nero brought a claque to lead the applause, which took off wildly, creating an impression of a unbridled adulation from the crowd. Interestingly, the proportion of Nero’s claque (five thousand claqueurs for a crowd of fifty-thousand) is the same as President Trump’s entourage of 40 in the audience of 400 at the CIA speech.
However large his ego, Nero was evidently a passionate performer, even if his plaudits outstripped his accomplishments. “Final confirmation lies in the words of the young emperor himself in his last hours,” Gyles writes. “The empire, which he gained through no particular effort of his own, he did not regret. The loss of vast power did not cause his tears…. His tears were those of the artist who believed deeply in the significance and value of beauty and believed himself to be the creator of it.” As Nero is quoted saying just before his suicide, “Qualis artifex pereo!” What an artist dies with me!