FROM REPUBLIC TO EMPIRE: ROME AND THE UNITED STATES
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
The following is a two-chapter excerpt from my upcoming book (pictured).
Looking Backward to Look Forward
We talk about things like they have clear beginnings and ends, don’t we? I’ve given it quite a bit of thought and it seems very odd, and so I try not to do it unless I’m conscious of how I’m really, fundamentally misusing the term when I apply it like we all do shorthand for these places along the road. Because really, it seems to me, you’re always in a process of becoming, but that often it seems this process yields an indistinguishable result. What I mean is, at what point did you become the person you are today? The obvious answer would be, today. But how different are you from the you yesterday? What are “you”? What list of things or attributes qualifies as making “you” who “you” are? The reason I ask is because, depending on your answer, maybe you think knowing an emergency is coming means the emergency is, in fact, now arrived—and that you should act accordingly.
What do you think? Does knowledge of an impending crisis constitute the arrival of the crisis, or a crisis? What if we can’t be entirely certain that what we think is going to happen is really going to happen? Does knowing, for example, that there is a one in a trillion chance of a potentially planet-killing asteroid striking this planet precipitate a crisis? How about a one in ten chance? Impact of the asteroid and the sure, final, eventual destruction of all life on earth would be crises—but what about that moment you learn about the possibility or certainty of the event? Clearly there’s a subjective element to all this, just like there is to practically everything you can think of.
But what I want to talk about initially just involves accepting what I think is pretty reasonable; that, compared to Rome, the social and political order that has developed over the last 275 years of the history of the United States since its founding is all still relatively young stuff historically speaking. In fact, the moment that I’m going to argue we have now reached as a country took the Romans almost twice the length of time it has taken us.
Now before I spell out exactly what this moment is, I want to address what I think is both an obvious question to ask, and at the same time one you could easily miss asking if you went ahead and jumped right into what exactly the circumstances of the moment we’re now in entail—because they’re alarming and at the same time totally fascinating, at least for someone like me who enjoys studying political transitions. Because understanding the answer to this question that we’re going to go ahead and stop to consider is central to understanding the ways in which the present situation we find ourselves in in some ways looks differently than its earlier manifestation in Rome, but that which underneath is propelled by dynamics that are all pretty much the same.
And, again, I don’t want to overemphasize the likeness. Because, particularly with what I’m trying to do with this book, which is to get you to seriously consider the potential threat I think the moment we’re in poses, it’s important to keep things as close to the mark as you can. I don’t think it’s helpful to make unrealistic comparisons if your aim is to helpfully inform people’s thinking about a topic.
Part of the problem is we seem to just naturally like grouping things—humans. We like talking about similarities, finding them, pointing them out to each other. Difference is something that makes people uncomfortable, and I think facing that is a good thing. This reminds me, I almost didn’t include the word “Free Societies” in the subtitle of the book because “Free” in the Rome of 400 BCE wasn’t quite the same as “free” in the Rome of 200 BCE, which wasn’t quite the same as it would be in 100 BCE—and it certainly wouldn’t be the same “free” as the United States circa 1830, and so on and so forth. Sometimes the differences are subtle. Sometimes the transformations are immense. How can someone call the United States of 1799 free while also calling the United States of today free? so much has changed!
Talking about things like “freedom” like they have these fixed identities when they’re actually extremely nuanced and full of difference, that’s certainly a problem that can lead you astray. But I want to suggest to you that so can being blind to the ways difference produce similarity. Sometimes the way things are different causes them to affect the same outcomes given the approximately same circumstances. I hope by arranging the book as I have, by grouping all the similarities according to categories of difference, that I’m able to show you that while the three differences really are concrete—the existence of the welfare state and police, the direct election of Senators, and the fact that the armies are paid by the state rather than the generals—when broken down to their essential elements these all amount largely to differences without a distinction in the final analysis—or they’re differences of very small degree. Because when you look at the underlying forces that manifest themselves in the three differences between our two systems that I mentioned, what you find is that they’re manifestations of the same things. They’re just taking different forms. That’s true of a lot of things. When you strip away the cultural ornamentation of whatever period it is you want to talk about you almost always find the same things at the heart of any revolutionary politics, for example. First there’s material deprivation and second there’s a distinct lack of acknowledgement of a portion of a society by the institutions of that society. This could be slavery or other exploitation. This could be denying certain privileges to certain segments of society. But what it really boils down to is disrespect.
And so, with all that in mind I want to come back to the question I raised a couple minutes ago. And the question was, “How did we make it so fast?” That’s an obvious question, right? It took the Romans hundreds of additional years to get all these revolutionary, disruptive forces built up. How’d we manage it so fast? Well, the answer is basically that we increasingly live in an accelerator. And the accelerator is self-improving. Every year it’s getting faster and it’s speeding up everything about our lives, transforming everything. I’m talking of course about the digitization of globalization. What New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman calls “your grandfather’s globalization,” ships, shipping containers—that’s old school. That was nothing. And if you think about it, things like modern shipping—really it’s not that much different fundamentally from shipping as it was during the Age of Exploration. We still use ships, right? They’re made of steel and use engines, but they would still be recognizable as ships to the eyes of an 15th century Spaniard brought here now and taken to a shipyard. Nothing about modern day shipping radically departs from the way a 15th century person understands the world. If you found yourself suddenly transported to the 15th century and you were tasked with having to explain sea travel in the 21st century, probably no one is really all that shocked by what you tell them. (They’re shocked you’re there from the future of course. But apart from that what do you say to them?) Ships are metal now. They travel faster. Not all that mind-blowing for the most part. The engine of course is the major exception. You couldn’t explain that to someone from the 1400s I don’t think. Maybe you go forward a couple hundred years, 17th century northern England let’s say. There they’ve got mechanical power, steam power developing. You could probably get them to understand that engines now generate more power using alternate fuels. But the idea that the ships are bigger, stronger, and go faster—these are all readily understood ideas. How, I wonder, would you go about trying to explain the internet to them? How would you explain big data? Computers? Deep learning? Robots? Artificial intelligence? You couldn’t. You couldn’t make it make sense to the smartest, most imaginative person alive.
It reminds me of the historian, whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, but he noted that none of the very rhetorically gifted New Atheists—that’s Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens—no matter how persuasive, they wouldn’t be able to convince the average person from 11th century Europe that there was no God. He went on, the historian, I remember, to speculate they might not even be able to convince the smartest person in the 11th century—the idea in that society just doesn’t compute. God was just too central to how they understood everything about the world and themselves to be removed from the equation like that. This is the time period of the enteral Great Chain of Being. That’s where God is at the top and we’re all connected all the way down. Taking God away in that situation is like kicking away the infinite stack of turtles Bertrand Russell’s precocious, elderly questioner insisted the world rested upon.
I’ve noticed that’s how a lot of people react when the topic of America and its place in the world are mentioned. There’s a kind of timelessness to it. Like it can’t not exist. Maybe that’s normal for people of countries with a history of some specific length. I don’t know what that is. Maybe we could measure it. But this sense that your country and your way of life and who you are as a people has always been just the way it is now. It’s immutable. Like, presumably people from Nigeria don’t view Nigeria as the same permanent entity. It was created within a lot of their lifetimes. Well, maybe not a lot. But there are people alive in the society today who still remember when the Nigeria of today wasn’t. The weird thing about this phenomenon, I think, is that a lot of times it seems the way you become aware of this—whether individually or collectively—that you consciously or unconsciously view your country as quasi-immortal—Is when you feel it being threatened, whether materially or ideologically—you get existential. You start to look around and think maybe this world you’ve been living in isn’t so secure after all—like your civilization is mortal, if you will.
And that’s an experience podcaster Dan Carlin has pointed out is practically as old as humanity. Afterall, 99.9% of all the human cultures and civilizations that have existed in the how many thousands of years of human existence have disappeared without a trace. And I’m sure every great civilization along the way more or less knew this and thought it was the exception. But through the millennia, with only a few exceptions—the Jews are a good example—the various civilizations and tribal cultures have been either killed off by stronger, or more numerous enemy people, starved out by changing environmental factors, or have fallen victim to some other ill fortune—maybe they were assimilated and their distinct culture vanished. And the thought that you might be one of them is certainly unsettling—that thousands of years from now, after maybe some near extinction event that leads to human society on planet earth having to do a total social reboot from hunter gather mode—maybe these hypothetical post-apocalyptic societies recreate basically what we have now and go out exploring looking for clues about the lost past? Archaeologists are going to start uncovering the ruins of cities like New York and other remains from this period. They’re going to try to figure out what religious purpose this or that Major League sports trophy filled. You’ll be able to study the “cult of Lombardi” in college earth circa 2868. It’s funny to think about. I also find it funny to think about how because of how history telescopes when you look back on it, probably the entire Modern period from about 1500-2000 will all be taught as a one or two week block in the history courses taught in the year 2868. You’ll get the highlights from each century and that’ll be all. It’ll be the old world finds the new, maybe the colonies, industrialization, some key innovations perhaps, atomic energy—computers? It’s weird to think about but maybe, this far in the future, maybe the World Wars won’t even merit a mention. That’s a weird thought because they still loom so large. But in a thousand years—who knows? How you view history depends on what values you bring to the table. You can try to account for that. But what if in that distant future war has long since ceased and isn’t understood to be what drives civilization forward? If you view history with those parameters you don’t think to focus on war, do you?
Think about how much has changed about the way human beings perceive the world year 1500 versus the year 2000. It’s wild to consider. Your conceptions of reality don’t overlap on a lot of key, really, basic points. Think about it: The North and South American continents were mysteries. So were Antarctica and Australia. These were people with a geocentric view of the universe. They thought the earth was at the center. And while it isn’t true that explorers like Columbus and Magellan thought they were going to possibly sail off the edge of the earth, among the general public you could still find plenty of people who thought that the earth was flat. Think about how much our perspective has transformed since that time. The average European was likely to be an absolutist, monarchist, fundamentalist, Eurocentric Christian ignorant of virtually all the most basic scientific knowledge a sharp second grader could probably tell you today.
I think about the pace of change today, about how much our view of something like “identity” has changed just in the last thirty years, and I wonder about what our worldview is going to be like in a few centuries. Would I be able to even make sense of it?
Things are already changing at an incredible rate, and as I started mentioning already that pace is accelerating—or at least its progress is progressing. It’s hard to measure precisely. But I think the only ones complaining that the pace of technological change, innovation, and development is too slow are people like Peter Thiel. Maybe he’s right.
But this acceleration, and we’ll come back to it repeatedly over the course of the book, I’ve heard all kinds of names used to describe what it’s ushered in—the “permanent present” and the “space time compression” are two of my favorites, and I think together they capture the essence of what the digitization of globalization is. Essentially, we live in an era now where information, people, products, and financial capital travel at near light speed for practically nothing. Ditto with storing information. I can fit on a single storage unit the size of a book several fine libraries worth. The way we understand and relate to time and space are being reimagined. You can be sitting on your couch in Kalamazoo, Michigan, here in the United States, and connect via skype to someone in New Delhi. Email, file sharing, block chain, holographic conferences—and just the sheer amount of news you get! Think about all the videos people post on social media. One minute you’re live in Tahrir Square, the next in east Ukraine two months ago—all while you’re talking with your brother in Boston while on a bus in Chicago.
This constant wave of information that inundates us day and night coming from our phones makes us realize just how big the world is, just how complex and how the small and powerless we are as individuals.
The World System has grown so complex, like I said earlier, it alarms us to think of one person drastically altering the present circumstances. But, in fact, that’s what our world leaders are, aren’t they? They’re a product of the social and material forces and yada, yada, yada—but they’re still just ordinary, you and me, flesh and blood people. And the decisions of some of them determine whether we all live or die.
Those are the stakes. And frankly, that’s scary.
Why Rome? Why 2020?
It’s important to recognize that any two similar social organizations, kinds of economic relations, or government structures, et cetera, are going to produce similar tropes, similar situations, themes, and relationships of their own accord. The dynamics of a specific type of interpersonal or institutional conflict (say between conservatives and liberals in a democratic system, or between the presidency and congress) are bound to repeat (think court intriguing by a scheming minister in the case of monarchy, just to take another example). It just seems like if you set up a game the same way and play it a bunch of times over and over again similar sets of situations are going to recur. if you put two people in a room together enough times eventually one of them is going to bring up the weather—and then again and again and again. But as I’ve already mentioned, and I’m sorry but I’ll probably mention it again several more times before I’m done—you always have to remind yourself that even if the conditions do appear identical what we observe and act on are really best described as laws of tendency. That’s the big misunderstanding that underlies a lot of discussions about the failure of this or that social scientific theory to predict an event that in retrospect it looks like it should have been able to predict—or what wound up happening wasn’t what the theory predicted was going to happen. What theories like, for example, classical Marxism reveal, is that if certain conditions prevail there will be a tendency toward a particular outcome. But the thing is, knowing that there is that tendency is going to influence the behavior of those who are aware of the likelihood of that outcome, which changes the equation. This is where the field of Game Theory comes in. But ultimately, somebody makes a choice—that’s the real proximate cause, whatever else underlies it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, on the one hand, this stuff doesn’t unfold according to a mechanistic, unalterable social, or economic, or material force, propelling us toward Marx’s “end of history.” But on the other hand, it also isn’t the case that we aren’t, to an uncertain but certainly considerable extent, the product of those very forces—inextricably bound by them. You can’t uninvent nuclear power, for example. You have to find a way to live with having invented nuclear power. It constrains your options. It’s recognition of things like that that show us that in a very profound sense we can never be truly free, whatever else may be going on neurobiologically. The social and economic and familial institutions and norms that shape our thinking about things—how free are you really, in how you grow up to view the world?
All our thought is anthropomorphic. I remember reading that for the first time, and then understanding it, and being really disheartened. There are all sorts of ways we are fundamentally, inescapably limited. And the thing is we often fail even to properly pay notice to this. David Foster Wallace, the great American author, I think illustrates this whole idea nicely. In the only commencement address he ever gave he started by telling this little anecdote: he says a pair of young fish are going about their day just swimming along when they pass another, older fish; and as the younger fish pass the older fish he nods to them and says “Morning boys! How’s the water? “The young fish swim on for a few seconds before one of them turns to the other one and asks, “What the hell is water?” I think he puts it profoundly well. We very often take no note of our water. And even when we do take notice of it, there’s the trouble of trying to account for it. How clearly am I really seeing this? I am, after all, seeing my water through my own water, so to speak.
So much to say that what we’re talking about here isn’t an exact science, and even if it were we can’t escape the human element, which is that there are limitations to what we can know at present—and maybe even period. Maybe there are things we just can’t know—our weak, three-pound hunk of gray matter in bone helmets just can’t handle it, but some other, more powerful intelligence could. That’s a tempting side-track. Maybe some other time.
But looking back at the surviving texts that have come down to us, and we have been blessed with a lot of them as I said—as well as the centuries of amazing scholarship and analysis of the Roman case I also mentioned—we can say some things with a high degree of confidence about what led to the decline and gradual end of the Roman Republic.
I already mentioned the problems that were plaguing Rome during the period that has come to be known by historians as the “Late Republic,” and I also told you they’re present here today in the United States. Again, those were, in no particular order: wealth inequality, dislocation of labor, elite entrenchment, normalized corruption, structural incentive misalignments, maladapted government institutions, undermining the popular will, the erosion of civic virtue, the breaking of cultural norms, aggressive foreign policy, and slavery.
I already mentioned this as well, but I’m not the first person to take note of these things, to try and bring them to your attention. I said this has been a subject of interest pretty much since the Founding. But it’s continued to be a topic of interest. And, in fact, a couple of years ago a book came out on the topic of the end of the Roman Republic. I read it of course. Ancient Rome is one of my absolute favorite topics to read about. My first contact was picking up a Penguin copy of Plutarch’s Lives at a little bookshop in Mackinaw City, Michigan when I was twelve. It was the best possible selection—Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Marius, Sulla, and Cicero, those were the lives in the copy of the book I picked up—but anyway I read the book, the one that came out talking about the fall of the Roman Republic just a few years ago; it was called Slipping Into Tyranny if you want to look that up, by Edward J. Watts. It was a good book. But when I finished it, it was weird; I had two very powerful but contradictory impressions. The first was that I was sure that he didn’t go far enough in his final analysis; and the second was that it was really too early to know that for sure.
The year the book was published was 2018, which meant he was writing his book probably mostly in 2017, and then we still didn’t know much about what to expect from Trump. The Mueller probe was going on, and there was Kavanaugh’s hearing. Those occupied headlines. The economy was doing well. Internationally things were relatively quiet. After the apocalyptic predictions of such esteemed public voices as Paul Krugman, the Trump years were so far mild compared to what had been forecast. To be sure he was terrible on the environment, among other things. Not saying there weren’t things he wasn’t being criticized for. There certainly, rightly were. But my point is things weren’t going too terribly overall, and something you started hearing around this time—at least I started hearing it around this time—and so if you watch or read the news I’m sure you did hear it. And it went something like this: “In a test of our institutions, they [our institutions] were holding.” Going into things analysts had predicted Trump would pose a test for the norms, traditions, and institutions of the office of the President, Congress, the Courts, and the entire Federal Government. He would want to be his domineering, do whatever I feel like doing, however I feel like doing it-private sector-tv personality-self and these stood in his way.
My feeling at the time was that Trump had yet to significantly test any of the so-touted institutions. Some minor corruption maybe. Nothing that was able to be clearly tied to him that was criminal though. He isn’t the first politician with a checkered past, not by a long shot. I’m not looking to cast any aspersions here. There are plenty. Insert your favorite example here. He had broken some norms on the campaign trail to be sure. He had repeatedly violated the norms of civil discourse. And, of course, all this continued when he took office, and certainly he seemed both capable and inclined to butt heads institutionally. He had claimed emergency powers multiple times and got them under the Stafford Act briefly on a few occasions, but failed to get them for the money to build his wall that hey wait a minute I thought Mexico was paying for that…but I digress. My point is I considered these to be, in the grand scheme of things, minor league. It isn’t minor league to the people affected by them of course. And I’m not trying to trivialize the experience of those who have been negatively affected by a policy carried out by the Trump administration. But the kind of collisions I’m focused on talking about here are the kind that shake the foundations of the system, or at the very least significantly change the contemporary power dynamics. And I thought, looking at it in 2018, that so far the first years of both the younger Bush and Obama presidencies had provided more powerful examples of changes in the conversation surrounding both the relationship between the branches of government and between the government and the people. The Patriot Act and Affordable Care Act both stretched the bounds of what it was constitutionally allowable for the government to do to citizens or compel citizens to do.
But having watched what has happened in the two years since I read Edward’s book, having had the benefit of seeing that great collision, that great test of our institutions that was the impeachment fail, I’m ready to assert that I believe the situation is far worse than what Edward could have imagined at the time, and that furthermore real questions have to be asked about our system of government and whether or not changing it now might likely prevent it’s eventual, perhaps violent and unpredictable, likely chaotic, overthrow—due, in part, to forces of its own making.
To be clear, Edward’s book is great, his presentation of the history, his summation of the causes—I agree with almost all of it. But, apart from the lessons we draw from it, which I suspect might be the same in light of the utter failure of the impeachment process to proceed as the spirit of the constitution should have dictated, with the goal of discovering the truth and acting as an impartial arbiter of justice—but apart from that there is one area of disagreement between myself and Edward; and it’s on the point about the institutions of the Roman and American Republics themselves. You see, where Edward sees malfunctioning institutions—that if only they were working the way they were supposed to work everything would be going just fine—where Edward seems to see that I see institutions working precisely as they should given the changed circumstances they find themselves in, given the preexisting, unaltered incentive structure they have built in.
We’ll come back to this, this idea of institutions that operated just great when they were invented, for the time and place in which they were invented, but that when the circumstances change all of these same unaltered systems suddenly start producing bad results. That’s what the Roman system eventually started doing and it’s what the American system eventually started doing. With Rome it started around 150 BCE and lasted until about 27 BCE—that’s when Augustus is firmly in control, not officially as “Emperor” but as basically an even more august version of the old roman idea of “first among equals.” He was basically the super-first-among-equals, if you will. With the United States the system began producing bad results—broadly bad results that is—obviously black people in this country, just to take on example, would consider the United States system as having produced overwhelmingly bad results from the very beginning. But I would offer that the first visible signs of broad, institutional and situational decay emerge right around the 1930s and are coming to a head here in the present day.
Over these respective periods both nations lost key, longstanding existential threats—those lingering, foreign bogeymen that had helped keep the country’s political elite basically united. In the case of Rome that was Carthage, and in the case of the United States that was the Soviet Union. Once these rivals had been defeated, in both cases we see an increasing turn in the domestic politics, by all parties, away from the trademark pragmatism and compromise that defined the politics of the directly preceding period. The period where people asked “not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country”—that would have fit right in in the good old Roman Republic. The period that preceded the one we’re going to be focused on. In the period we’re focused on, in both cases, as we said, the parties start fighting over who gets to control and enjoy the spoils of the state. Factionalism, always there but suppressed by the need to remain united to defeat a foreign enemy, well now it takes hold among the leadership as they start clashing more and more directly trying to get power. In the Roman case this started taking the form of individuals from the elite class taking up commoner causes. And the reason they did this, turned traitor to their class, was because they saw doing so as an easy path to political power—which it turned out it very easily could be.
And that was the incentive driving the Roman system. Recognition as greatest of your peers, most prominent man in Rome—that was the goal. That was how the whole governing structure was set up. The elites pursued ever greater honor and recognition by performing some feat or fixing some problem for the State, to enhance the prestige and power of Rome, the glory of which reflected on themselves. Just to highlight the difference here, how this incentive started producing bad results in the period we’re going to talk about—prior to this period the focus would have, according to the sources of the period that have come down to us, among the old school Romans, been focused on what was best for the country. Who was the best man for the job? Ok, that guy does it then. And he does it as honest service to the State before stepping back down and resuming his regular role in society. During the period we’re talking about the thinking started to seriously change. Once they were no longer afraid of being taken over or seriously undermined by a foreign enemy, Carthage, the thinking started to turn towards the self. Instead of thinking first and always about the security and integrity of Rome the thinking started to run something like, if I can make a grab for that position I’m going to make it whether I think I’d be best at it or not and I’m going to fight like hell to get it even if it means stepping on a few customary no-no’s in the process. Politics became zero sum because the incentive to compromise no longer existed due to the change in external circumstances the institutions were situated in. Rome itself was no longer at stake in these conflicts. Now it was just about making Rome greater, expanding at the periphery. It was like extra credit. But among the elite there developed an increasing unwillingness to simply play your part in sharing it among the group, as had been customary. After all, if you get credit for fixing some problem or doing some great thing for the State then that’s all glory and praise that I can’t also get. Under circumstances like these it’s not hard to foresee that individuals and factions will become increasingly concerned with denying political opponents a legislative or foreign policy victory rather than with whether the proposed legislation or policies are good and necessary.
And this was where the elites who turned on their class came in. They saw the poor, frustrated and displaced masses as a source of untapped political power. Not to be too ungenerous to guys like Caesar or Gaius Gracchus. They did seem to actually care about the poor, wanted to help them…on their way to helping themselves—and the state; Caesar is always quick to point out how everything he’s doing is actually making Rome greater and how he’s the real defender of the Republic. But in activating them, in taking up some of their causes, these elites—because that’s what guys like Caesar and the Gracchi brothers were. They were from the Senatorial class. By turning on their class they fractured the ruling class, who were then unable to get the situation back under control because the combination of forces that had produced guys like Caesar just kept throwing more and more weight on that side of the scale.
It may sound here like I’m contradicting myself from earlier, when I said there wasn’t some unstoppable material force totally controlling history, making what ultimately happens inevitable. It’s a law of tendency, I said, if you remember. In the case of Rome, what I mean here is that even if Caesar and the Senate had been able to cut a deal that allowed Caesar back into the fold without disturbing the political institutions of the State otherwise—their choice not to blow up the system by not facing off with Caesar in and around the year 50 BCE wouldn’t matter because the forces were still in place that created the conflict in the first place. If the Senate and Caesar had made peace, the peace wouldn’t have lasted because the system was still the same and so it would eventually produce another Caesar-like guy. That’s just what the system was producing under the circumstances. Just playing the odds, how many times are you going to be able to swerve the iceberg at the last second before you don’t swerve in time? The obvious answer is to stop sailing into iceberg filled waters. There’s always going to be uncertainty when you chart a course of social or political action, but you can steer clear of areas you know tend to wind up sinking ships.
I’ll just leave that here for now. We’ll get back to that when we talk later about maladapted institutions—or what I’ll argue are maladapted institutions in both the Roman and present-day American case.
But first, whatever happens in 2020, whether Trump is reelected or not, it’s important to understand that it’s no longer just a matter of Trump. Another thing you heard a lot after the election—or, again, at least I heard, but I suspect you heard it too—mainstream liberal commentators saying things that essentially boiled down to: “the American people have made a terrible mistake. They’ll see that and in four years they’ll just vote him out.”
Well, here we are four years later and I’m telling you the worst mistake we could make in evaluating the Trump presidency after four years is to imagine this stops with Trump. Make no mistake, Trump is a symptom. The same things that set in and eventually killed the Roman Republic are in the critical stages in our own country and produced him.
As we’ll talk about this was a threat that evolved over time. In a series of disjointed but interconnected and reinforcing transformations the necessary conditions were gradually brought into being. The thing to keep in mind is that you generally need a certain number of them to see any effects start to manifest politically. Wealth inequality has caught on and gained a voice politically here just in the last ten years or so. But there’s one of these things, one of these problems that Rome had and that we have, that if you have it it causes problems right away all by itself. It’s kind of like the Ring of Power from Tolkien. And this is the quality that Trump brought. That’s the cult of personality. The leader does no wrong mentality. Among such adherents, if the leader is breaking a norm, no matter how sacrosanct, it’s the norm that needs to give way—that type of thinking.
It’s about more than just Trump. Believe it. Because the fact that he hasn’t surmounted more obstacles to increasing his power is because, for all the things he’s good at, being a politician isn’t one of them. He lacks the magnetism and persuasive power to win people who don’t really like him over to his side, and then to politically outmaneuver any he can’t. That’s not Trump. Trump is loud and bossy and is the head of the most powerful nation in the history of the planet. He gets his way a lot just by brute force internationally, and domestically he has the almost totally unquestioned backing of one of the only two viable political parties in the United States, along with the equal devotion of a large populist following. He pushes misinformation as do his supporters, and they kick up enough of a storm to keep people guessing while Trump throws his weight around.
It’s not subtle, and in a way it’s lucky he was the one that tested the system and not someone like Vladimir Putin—someone who played politics with life literally on the line, a former Soviet Intelligence officer who played politics in the Soviet Union, and in the Mad Max, Thunderdome Russia of the 1990s after the Berlin Wall came down.
So yeah. Viewed like that, I think we were lucky with Trump, because he showed us that when you push on it in certain ways the system isn’t so strong. But now that he’s showed us, what’s to stop someone else from coming up and trying the same thing but much more skillfully and surreptitiously?
Purges, conservative reactions, assassinations, foreign distractions, government food subsidies—nothing could prevent it. The Roman system just kept churning up guys who were going to destroy the system. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Catiline, Cinna, Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Crassus, Pompei—and you can bet there were hundreds of others who would’ve liked to but just were overshadowed by these great ones who dominated the era. Edward also makes the point in his book, and I really like this, that anyone who supported one of these norm breakers like Caesar or Sulla, or who took a bribe to vote—that all those hundreds of thousands of ordinary Roman citizens who engaged in those behaviors—bear a significant amount of the blame for the end of the Roman Republic themselves. Your vote is your consent.
Even if Trump is voted out of office in 2020 and he leaves without incident, he just showed anyone interested in becoming president as a very particular type of populist how to do it.
In order to avert this, I think we need to make changes. And in order to understand the changes that need to be made we need to understand what it is that is causing the problem, and not just addressing a symptom like voting Trump out office. Although, I’m going to argue, that might be good, too. But it depends on what the alternative might turn out to be.
Thank you for reading, the book is now available at Barnes & Noble https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books/1136758869?ean=2940162775287
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