Like Rome, America Could be Ripe for Tyranny
Of all the journalistic essays published as Donald Trump emerged last year as a serious presidential contender, perhaps the most haunting was Andrew Sullivan’s New York article, “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny.” It explored the Trump phenomenon through the prism of Plato’s Republic and the Greek philosopher’s observation that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” Sullivan explores Plato’s critique of late-stage democracy, when the rich are attacked, barriers to equality are crushed, deference to authority withers, multiculturalism and sexual freedom create a polity “decorated in all hues,” the foreigner is equal to the citizen, and shame and privilege become anathema. Writes Sullivan: “And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.”
For Sullivan, who read the Republic in graduate school, Plato had planted in his mind “a gnawing worry” about the mortality of democratic regimes caught in this vortex of late-stage civic and personal excess. “It was increasingly hard not to see in Plato’s vision a murky reflection of our own hyperdemocratic times,” writes Sullivan, “and in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of one of the first books about politics ever written.”
Plato’s warning centered on political and societal developments in democratic regimes that inevitably eat away at the structures and mores of those regimes until a demagogue appears out of the mess with promises of a return to stability and predictability. But ultimately Sullivan places his focus, with near hysteria, on the demagogue. He does explore America’s increased democratization through history—the steady demise of institutional barriers designed by the Founders to protect the American republic from “the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob.” And he decries the emergence of “media democracy”—talk radio, the Internet, cable television, and social media, all of which have been “swiftly erasing almost any elite moderation or control of our democratic discourse.”
And thus, in Sullivan’s view, the way was paved for the emergence of the demagogue Trump, who transformed the frustrations of millions of white, working-class Americans into what Eric Hoffer called a “facility for make-believe” and what Sullivan calls “the evocation of hatred.” Sullivan invokes the longshoreman-philosopher to raise the specter of a mass movement like those that swept across Europe in the first half of the 20th century—Italian fascism or German Nazism. Trump is seen as a “tyrant” representing “ugly, thuggish populism,” unchecked by the long-gone anti-democratic structures erected by the Founders to protect the republic from the multitude’s wild and dangerous passions.
And so the elites must “thwart this monster” so those multitudes can’t flock to him. “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order,” writes Sullivan, “Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”
And now that he’s president, that’s precisely how he is being treated—as an extinction-level leader who must be destroyed irrespective of what kind of upheaval that might unleash in a shell-shocked nation.
It’s interesting, though, that Sullivan invokes Plato as an avenue into his fervent warning against a tyrannical Trumpian mass movement, but then he essentially ignores the Republic’s underlying lessons. If late-stage democracy, with all of its manifestations so well described by Sullivan, renders a society ripe for dictatorship, it won’t do much good to destroy the dictator without addressing the spawning ground, particularly if the dictator hasn’t yet even become a dictator. More likely it will simply heighten civic fears that the democracy is on a downward spiral of dysfunction, thus exacerbating the syndrome described by Plato.
This ignores the deterministic question unleashed by Plato’s ponderings about democracy—whether it inevitably breeds tyranny because of inevitable internal decay. The neoconservative thinker Irving Kristol put it well in debunking Francis Fukuyama’s harebrained thesis that, after the Cold War, the world had reached “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Said Kristol: “I don’t believe a word of it.” Citing Aristotle, he argued that “all forms of government—democracy, oligarchy, aristocracy, monarchy, tyranny—are inherently unstable…all political regimes are inherently transitional…the stability of all regimes is corrupted by the corrosive power of time.”
But if we are to explore this troubling reality against the backdrop of America’s current political breakdown and civic disharmony, we might do better to bounce off Plato’s philosophical musings and go to the real world, where the lessons seem starker. We might start with the story of the Roman republic, which was created, according to history, in 509 BCE, after the Romans banished their kings. Mary Beard, in her excellent book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, emphasizes that the Romans likely didn’t sit down and craft their republic within a brief time, in the mold of America’s “miracle at Philadelphia” in the summer of 1787. More likely the Roman republic evolved over a considerable period, but we don’t know precisely how Rome’s delicate and intricate system of government came together.
What we do know is that it was a remarkable achievement. The republic lasted for 465 years, and for some 376 of those years the system bestowed upon Roman citizens relative internal peace and stability (within the context, of course, of human nature). Then it entered into a crisis of the regime—“a long, drawn-out, protracted spiral of disorder,” according to historian Garrett G. Fagan—that lasted nearly a century before Julius Caesar finally killed the republic and re-instituted the kings of old in the form of emperors whose title bore his name. Plato had essentially predicted it.
It may be instructive, even a bit stunning, to ponder the parallels between Rome’s early history and America’s. Both began as outposts of their respective core civilizations. Each, as noted, was led initially by kings, but each threw over its kings out of fear and disgust at what it considered tyranny. Each then crafted a delicately balanced governmental system designed to protect citizens from arbitrary governmental actions. In each instance this included divided powers, temporary and checked executive prerogative, legislative authority, and a voting franchise making government at least somewhat answerable to citizens.
Each began its democratic phase with serious limitations but opened up the system to greater democratic access over time. Each set out—brutally, when necessary—to dominate its immediate geopolitical environment. For Rome it was the Italian boot; for America, the North American midsection. In mastering its environment, each generated great wealth that soon translated into military power, enhanced by its mastery also of new technologies applied to new devices of warfare.
Both Rome and the United States set out into the world as major powers capable of dominating other nations, and both expanded their dominance over time. Each thrust itself into the world ostensibly to help other beleaguered peoples tied to their civilizational heritage. In the case of Rome, it was Greek city-states in Sicily, beset by Carthage after that maritime power had entered the region to help settle internecine struggles among various Sicilian cities. In the case of America, it was to prevent a rising Germany from destroying Britain’s centuries-long policy of thwarting any consolidation of power on the European continent; then to save the West from the threat of Russian Bolshevism, poised on Western Europe’s doorstep with some 1.3 million Soviet and client-state troops.
Thus can Rome’s hundred-year Punic Wars against Carthage be seen as corresponding to America’s seventy-year struggles in Europe, from 1918 to 1989. Both republics emerged victorious and exploited their victories to dominate a unipolar world. As Gene Callahan, economics professor at SUNY Purchase (and occasional American Conservative contributor), has written, Rome and America are “arguably the two most influential republics in world history.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this is that the American republic was born in the cradle of the Roman example. The U.S. Founders were steeped in the Roman story, particularly the hundred year “revolution” that led to the republic’s demise. “The founders’ intense scrutiny of the late Roman republic resembled an autopsy,” writes Professor Carl J. Richard of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “The purpose of this autopsy was to save the life of the American body politic by uncovering the cancerous growths that had caused the demise of its greatest ideological ancestor.” Having read Plutarch, Sallust, and Cicero, adds Richard, the Founders harbored deep fears about the rise of “cunning, ambitious individuals who would seek to advance their own power at the expense of the republic.” In other words, precisely the kind of leader foreseen by Plato—and whom Andrew Sullivan sees in Donald Trump.
Indeed, the Founders despised Caesar and wished to prevent forever any such usurper from emerging in America. To be called a Caesar was a calumny in those times, whereas to be compared to his opponents, even his assassins Brutus and Cassius, was a mark of approbation. As Callahan points out, both ends of the political spectrum likened their opponents to Caesar, with Hamilton fearing that Jefferson’s populist appeal to the masses rendered him a potential autocrat, while Jefferson saw hints of a coming dictatorship in Hamilton’s advocacy of a strong central government.
Ultimately, the Founders sought to protect their fledgling polity from what they saw as its greatest threat—the rise of a demagogic dictator—by placing limits on pure democratic expression and rendering a system that incorporated elements of indirect democracy, with “hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power,” as Sullivan puts it. These included limitations on the exercise of the franchise, the indirect voting mechanism of the Electoral College, the Senate as a check on popular passions of the moment, and the independent Supreme Court. And of course the Constitution itself, with its carefully prescribed and proscribed powers, was seen as the ultimate bulwark against the Roman fate.
But, as Sullivan correctly notes, many of these “firewalls against democratic wildfires” have eroded. The franchise is nearly universal; U.S. senators are chosen by popular vote and not by state legislatures; the political process, even involving the political parties’ selection of presidential nominees, has been opened up to more and more direct democracy; the Electoral College is under assault; and many of the constitutional checks on governmental action have withered through the decades. Sullivan is right to be concerned about this; no doubt the Founding Fathers would be aghast.
But the Founders, like Sullivan, perhaps placed too much emphasis on the threat of a Caesar and not enough on the underlying conditions that could generate such a threat. Callahan writes that the American Framers manifested a “one-sided understanding” of the causes of Rome’s republican demise. He quotes Carl Richard: “Most of the founders attributed the downfall of the Roman republic to ambitious individuals like Caesar. Only rarely did anyone attribute it to social institutions.”
In other words, the health of any democratic polity may require not just a matrix of complex and finely balanced governmental structures—conferring “freedom,” as it is habitually expressed in today’s America—but also a general consensus on what the society stands for, whence it came, its underlying cultural essence, its heritage. Those sensibilities, once a powerful foundation of the American identity, also have eroded significantly in recent decades. These intertwined developments—the push toward direct democracy and the decline of a unified cultural sensibility—deserve serious attention in any analysis of perceived looming threats to the American republic. After all, human nature being what it is, the demagogic temperament is everywhere, lurking in the shadows of any democratic polity at all times. But the demagogue can seize power only when the health of the polity wanes to such an extent that the people allow it, even sometimes welcome it. That’s what happened in Rome.
The problem with Sullivan’s essay is that he largely ignores this aspect of the question. That’s why he goes astray in foreseeing the threat of a Hoffer-type mass movement in America à la European fascism or Nazism. There’s nothing in American history—or Roman history, for that matter—to suggest such a turn of events. Sullivan predictably trots out Sinclair Lewis’s hoary third-rate novel, It Can’t Happen Here, about fascism spreading across America—“not a good novel, but it remains a resonant one,” he writes. But any demise of the American republic won’t come about that way. It will happen, if it happens, as it happened in Rome, through slow degrees of erosion, imperceptible to nearly everyone as it unfolds, until the crisis becomes so acute that it can’t be ignored. But, even then, it won’t be fully understood because ideology, preoccupations of the moment, and general civic confusion will obscure its true dimension. People will struggle to see themselves in the old way even after the old ways are long gone. That’s also what happened in Rome—until it was finally perceived by most Romans that their hallowed republic no longer worked. Then it died.
Thus if the American republic faces grave civic dangers, as Sullivan seems to think, the fundamentals of those dangers won’t be gleaned through Sinclair Lewis or even Plato. But they might be gleaned through an understanding of the history of the Roman republic and its hundred-year demise.
The Romans had no formal, written constitution of the kind we think of when we hear that word. It wasn’t crafted through any rationalist concept of good government or civic rectitude. Rather the Romans relied on what they called mos maiorum—“the way of the ancestors.” Some historians have suggested that the Romans didn’t hold much truck with abstract political theorizing because they viewed that kind of thinking, characteristic of the Greeks, as a potential threat to their hallowed mos maiorum. Oxford University’s Andrew Lintott describes the Roman constitution as “based on traditional institutions defined by precedent and examples. These were above all embodied in stories….Thus the constitution did not stand above politics like a law code: it was what the Romans thought to be right and did.’’ H.H. Scullard sees it as the product of “a long period of trial and error on the part of a practical and conservative people.”
But it was effective for centuries in preventing dangerous or destabilizing political activity, in preserving institutional safeguards against tyranny, and in maintaining governmental principles such as limited tenure in office, collegiality in political discourse, counterweights of power to prevent abuses of power, and deference to the Roman Senate as the polity’s fount of knowledge on the ancient ways of mos maiorum.
The Senate, indeed, was the key. It derived its supreme influence not from any formal grant of legislative authority but rather from a broad consensus throughout the polity that its judgments—though formally no more than policy advice—must be heeded as representing the ancient wisdom of the heritage. As Scullard puts it, “Custom, not law, enabled [the Senate] to govern.” But in Rome custom had the power of law.
The Senate, though, was the domain of the patrician nobility, which had a nearly monopolistic hold on government. This soon stirred concerns among other Romans, notably the plebeian majority, largely small landowners and farmers, who felt themselves increasingly vulnerable to arbitrary rule by the patrician oligarchy. After considerable agitation, the Senate accepted a new agency of government, a collection of “tribunes,” selected by an assembly of plebeians and charged with protecting the plebeian class against injustice or harshness from patrician magistrates. To ensure these new officials could act effectively in behalf of their class, they were given remarkable powers—first, a veto over the actions of senators; and second, the status of being “inviolable,” meaning anyone interfering with a tribune’s official actions or harming him in any way could be declared an outlaw and killed.
“We cannot overestimate the importance of the change effected in the Roman constitution by the creation of the plebeian tribunate,” writes historian Philip Van Ness Myers. The tribunes, he adds, agitated constantly for equality of plebeians before the law “until the Roman government…became in fact a real democracy, in which patrician and plebeian shared equally in all emoluments and privileges.” Under the new system, further safeguards were instituted, including the milestone decision, under plebeian pressure, to codify all Roman laws into written form, called the “Laws of the Twelve Tables,” to be posted publicly for all to see. The rights and privileges of ordinary citizens were affirmed unequivocally by law in 449 BCE. In 367, with passage of the so-called Licinian Laws, Rome reached what Myers calls “a long advance towards [the plebeians’] political equality with the patricians.”
What’s remarkable about this inexorable push toward greater political equality, and the concurrent decline in the power of the hereditary aristocracy, was that the patrician class resisted it at every point along the way and yet never resorted to violence to protect its favored position. Writes Myers, “The spirit of concession, of moderation, of reasonableness, on the part of both of the orders, had marked in a most conspicuous manner the whole of the long contention.” This reflects the strength and solidity of the Roman system, based on mos maiorum and held together by a common reverence for the Roman heritage and the hallowed civic experiment that all Romans were engaged in.
It serves as testament also to the innovative acuity of Roman leaders as they confronted new challenges, both external and internal, even as they maintained fealty to the ways of the ancestors. Princeton’s Harriet Flower notes Rome’s “willingness to consider patterns of peaceful political reform and successful initiatives that departed in radical ways from inherited political practices.” Flower enumerates the many major actions and reforms embraced by Rome in the second century BCE, including changes in colonization policies, moving the start of the political year to January 1 from March 1, establishment of trial by jury, new foreign policy directions, agrarian reforms, and creation of new army recruitment policies. Rome was led by conservatives but not reactionaries.
But then new developments began to disturb Rome’s governmental equilibrium and internal harmony. As the city-state expanded its military muscle throughout Italy and surged through the Mediterranean region to satisfy its expansionist zeal, it needed ever larger armies, which meant masses of soldiers serving for long periods of time. Only patrician and plebeian landowners could serve because Rome didn’t want an army of have-nots congealing into a rebellious threat. But this imposed a destructive hardship upon small-farm plebeians—considered the bedrock of Roman society—whose farms now went to seed in their absence. The patrician class may have been generous enough to cede power to the rising plebeians during preceding generations, but they weren’t above exploiting this situation by gobbling up wasting farmlands and leaving their former owners, the returning legionnaires, without a livelihood.
Further, while Rome generated great wealth through the plunder that came with its conquests, this wealth wasn’t shared equally within the polity. Only the rich could afford to buy the public lands acquired through military victory or to support the multitude of slaves brought into Rome from conquered territories. The result was a growing gap between society’s chosen and its dispossessed. “Thus,” writes Myers, “largely through the workings of the public land system, the Roman people had become divided into two great classes, which are variously designated as the Rich and the Poor, the Possessors and the Non-Possessors, the Optimates, the ‘Best,’ and the Populares, the ‘People.’ We hear nothing more of the patricians and plebeians.”
The lingering aristocracy of birth, the heirs of the ancient families with their reverence for the meaning and heritage and inner workings of Rome, now gave way to, and were absorbed into, a new and larger aristocracy of wealth, of what became known as New Men—cunning, opportunistic, with little fealty to Rome’s once-hallowed rituals of democracy and civic compassion. They gobbled up all they could of the largess flowing into Rome from the far-flung lands of conquest, including expanses of public lands beyond what they were entitled to by law.
This was too much for two relentless reformers, the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, bent on restoring Rome to its previous societal equilibrium. When Tiberius was elected tribune for the year 133 BCE, he promptly brought forth legislation to pull back from these land barons all acreage beyond their proper entitlement. Those lands were to be allotted in small proportions to poor farmers. As Myers explains, “As the barbarian slaves [owned by the new rich landholders] had displaced the free cultivators of the soil, so now [Tiberius] would displace these slaves by free peasant proprietors, and thus restore the earlier order of things.”
Naturally the senatorial party opposed these radical proposals and got one of Tiberius’s colleagues in the Tribunate, Octavius, to interpose his veto, under the famous veto power granted to tribunes long before to check errant officials. Tiberius responded by exercising his own veto to bring all government to a standstill. “He forbade the magistrates to exercise any of the functions of their several offices,” writes Myers, “and even sealed up the doors of the treasury.” Following this unprecedented action, he broke the logjam by engineering a majority vote in the Plebeian Assembly to remove Octavius from the body, thus assaulting the inviolability of the tribunes. Then he got his law enacted. In the process, he sought to seize from the Senate its traditional jurisdiction over civic finances and foreign affairs.
Myers minces no words in declaring the significance of this: “The sanctity of the constitution, the inviolability of which had been the safeguard of the state for a period of almost four centuries, was destroyed. It was the beginning of the end.” When Tiberius sought a second term as tribune, another unconstitutional action, civic emotions erupted into rioting, during which Tiberius was beaten to death. For good measure, anti-Gracchi forces killed some 300 of his followers.
With Tiberius gone, the New Man aristocracy thought it had restored the constitution of old and protected its position in the new scheme of things, but a decade later Gaius Gracchus emerged as tribune with a resolve to avenge his brother’s death and restore his reforms, which had been gutted in the meantime by the senatorial class. By appealing to the agitated masses, he got himself elected twice, but his popularity with ordinary Romans stirred the senatorial class to unleash a bidding war for popular support. If the plebeian Gaius could rise to the political heights by promising largess to the masses, the patrician Senate would simply outbid him. Gaius was defeated in his third race for tribune and, shorn of his office, now stood vulnerable to the increasingly vicious aristocracy. Like his brother, he was killed.
The republic survived for another 89 years, but it wasn’t the same republic. The bonds of civility had been broken, and a civic stridency set in. People still talked glowingly about mos maiorum. They still considered their governmental system the greatest in a world dominated by kings and dictators. They still clung to the notion that nothing had really changed.
But everything had changed. The constitution had been breached, and it no longer could hold the polity together as in the glory days of old. Outcomes became more important than constitutional processes. “Again and again,” writes Callahan, “following the precedent of the Gracchi, some ambitious politician, finding his agenda blocked along all constitutional routes, flouted tradition and used popular sentiment along with the threat or actual employment of mob violence to achieve his ends.”
It wasn’t long before the rivalry of two great generals would rend the republic further. They were Gaius Marius, a brilliant and resourceful New Man politician who had nothing but contempt for what he considered the incompetent, grasping, hidebound aristocracy; and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a dissolute but clever military genius with large appetites and a powerful fealty to the old days of senatorial dominance, though his own highborn family had been in reduced circumstances for generations. Both men gained immense wealth and civic stature through dashing military exploits. Both demonstrated a blasé attitude toward the civic structures of old, though Sulla aligned himself with the senatorial elite. Both rose upon the tide of the new politics, based on the opportunity of great generals to maintain power by bestowing favors upon legions of followers who had few options in life beyond military service and who expected to be taken care of by their leaders once their service was over.
Thus did Rome enter a new era. Marius, as consul, instituted a dangerous new practice in forming an army of men who weren’t property owners—the so-called “head count.” Historians Mary Beard and Michael Crawford, writing in Rome in the Late Republic, explained:
Soldiers who lacked wealth and property in Italy necessarily rested all their hopes on military service and, in particular, relied on their general to secure them land on retirement. The general, in turn, was encouraged to enter the political arena to provide for his men; and found himself in that arena with an armed force owing him personal loyalty. This was a dangerous interdependence, which quickly proved explosive.
Exploiting this new leverage of politics, Marius got himself elected to the position of consul six times between 107 and 100 BCE, utterly unprecedented in the annals of the republic and a violation of specific, longstanding legislation requiring 10 years to pass between consulships for any individual. Marius and Sulla, once allies, entered into a tempestuous feud over who was to command the Roman army sent east to suppress the anti-Roman dictator Mithridates. When the command was awarded to Marius, followers of the two generals clashed in the streets, and Sulla, feeling vulnerable, organized an army of his own and marched on Rome. Wresting the command through the threat of force, Sulla moved east with his army, leaving Rome under the influence of Marius, who promptly captured a seventh consulship. He died in office.
Sulla, after defeating Mithridates, returned to Italy and savaged the opposition army sent to intercept him. Then he marched on Rome once again and had himself declared dictator. He unleashed a reign of terror designed to rid the city of all his enemies—who were also, he declared, enemies of the state. Sulla proclaimed his intent to reestablish the old equilibrium of governance and restore Rome to its former condition of stability and calm. His central aim was to reestablish the Senate as the polity’s central authority on matters of state. He also instituted legislation designed to protect the Senate, and Rome, from any generals in the provinces who might be tempted to turn their legions against the homeland city, as Sulla himself had done.
And then, in a remarkable action for a society fixated on ambition and status, the dictator abruptly resigned his position and retreated to his country estate for a life of bacchanalian excess. He left behind the structures he had established to reconstruct the government and society of old.
They soon crumbled. His measures, writes Callahan, “proved to be not lasting bulwarks protecting the republic, but only temporary hindrances to the populist revolution he sought to thwart.” The problem, he adds, was that Sulla sought to “halt the progression of an untreatable disorder….[W]ith the social conditions that for centuries had sustained the vitality of the public vanishing, no attempt to revive the patient by legislating that it be healthy was likely to work.”
Then came the rise of ideological politics, something never seen in the days of comity and mutual respect when mos maiorum reigned supreme. Now political restraint disappeared, as if washed away by the Tiber River. On one side were the Optimates, vestiges of the old patrician class, indignant at the corruption around them and unremitting in their resolve to recapture the Rome of old. Their leader was Cato the Younger, whose harsh rhetoric and pugilistic temperament took on added intensity with his tendency toward an overindulgence with wine. Blinded by his civic passions and obsessed with his goal of effecting Rome’s purification, he couldn’t see that events were sweeping his cherished republic toward oblivion. The closer he came to sensing it, the more agitated and outrageous he became. Callahan chides Cato and his allies for clinging to their fanciful wishes with such persistence that they lost all effectiveness as political players.
Their implacable foes were the Populares, including the great Caesar, who entered into a “triumvirate” with two others, Pompey and Crassus, to fortify his faction’s opposition to the Cato traditionalists. This too was unprecedented, but precedence no longer exerted much of a tug on political behavior. Indeed, these leaders, particularly Caesar, viewed the aging, late-stage republic as a thing of the past. Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher, admired Caesar’s ability to see clearly that the old structures were gone now, however lamentably. “Caesar,’’ he writes, “saw things as they were and was guided in the exercise of his rulership by definite and unsentimental practical considerations.’’
When the triumvirate broke down and Caesar and Pompey became bitter enemies, Caesar returned to Italy from Gaul with his army, another constitutional violation, and entered into a civil war with his rival. With victory, he became Rome’s premier figure and soon had himself declared dictator. The Optimates fought back, killing Caesar in a desperate attempt to save Rome from tyranny and restore the republic. But all they did was unleash another civil war. The republic was gone, never to return. “At length,” writes Callahan, “the Roman people were willing to embrace almost any political arrangement that promised to bring an end to the decades of chaos and violence, and so they placidly accepted the one-man rule” of Caesar’s nephew, Augustus. Rome survived for another three and a half centuries, but it was a monarchy now, with all the intermittent bouts of tyranny that inevitably rise up when the people no longer control the succession of their leaders or determine their legitimacy.
We should note here that historical analogies have their limitations as analytical tools in assessing the past and particularly in predicting the future. They may be highly misleading if applied too literally or with excessive rigidity. There is a certain messiness in the human story that often isn’t fully captured in efforts to view events through devised patterns of determinism. But we shall proceed in the spirit of Andrew Sullivan’s compelling campaign-year essay and the question he raised of whether the “late-stage” American republic is vulnerable to potentially fatal internal forces and whether Donald Trump, as an “extinction-level” politician, represents such a dangerous force.
If it is, and if he does, it isn’t because Trump is some kind of Hitler in waiting, poised to summon from the woods of Idaho a contingent of neo-Nazis ready for an assault on Washington. The question facing America, in the wake of the Trump election and so much else of disrupting and disturbing impact, is whether the country has entered a crisis of the regime—not just a horrendous scandal such as Watergate, which the country can weather and survive; or a debilitating economic dislocation such as the Great Depression, which ultimately will end; or even a profound and bloody fissure such as the Civil War, which ultimately couldn’t destroy the mystic chords of memory that formed the foundation of national identity and hence national unity.
We’re talking about an acidic kind of crisis that eats away slowly at that foundation and leaves citizens wondering if their fellow citizens share the same values, see the world the same way, desire anything resembling the same national future. In this sense, Donald Trump’s elevation to the White House could in fact be significant to any analysis of the American republic’s vulnerability in these times of civic unrest and rancor. But he is a reflection of the crisis more than its progenitor—though he seems destined to become its accelerator and exacerbator at a time when America’s crisis of mood stems in part from a sense that the gears of government have seized up.
And it can’t be denied that there are unsettling parallels between Rome’s regime crisis and some elements of the current American troubles—the erosion in ancient safeguards designed to protect the polity from the passions of the majority; the specter of growing inequality; the increasingly grasping temperament of the elites; expanding political polarization and a decline in the commonality of outlook among citizens; the rise of rancorous ideological politics; an expansionist foreign policy generating domestic tensions; the aggrandizement of executive power; even the willingness to shut down the government in the pursuit of political advantage.
But all is not lost. Perhaps the American republic will summon from within its essence the famous civic resilience, flexibility, and creativity that have guided us through all past crises with soaring success. Perhaps we will shake off the current crisis, get through the Trump years, and wend our way to a restoration of the relative unity and tranquility of yore, with a new direction set by a new consensus leader and embraced by the populace. Then perhaps Andrew Sullivan’s “gnawing worry” about our republic’s fate will prove to have been unfounded or at least premature, and the American republic will continue on in renewed stability and health for centuries to come.
But that can’t happen unless the country manages to get through its current crisis. And, at the least, the story of Rome’s republic tells us how crucial, and how difficult, that may be.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.