‘Something More Cheerful’
In HBO’s Rome, one of the iconic scenes is shortly before Julius Caesar is set to cross the Rubicon.
Mark Antony applauds Caesar for looking calm as a cup of water even as he is about to enter Rome as a blood-stained conqueror. Caesar, without a flinch, replies that he is glad that he appears so—before ordering his tribune to play something more “cheerful”, as the legions start a war march on their way to Rome.
In new Rome, meanwhile, a former president was recently indicted on thin-looking charges of misconduct related to campaign money. It is a level of political prosecution similar to what one might often see in Latin America, Egypt, or Pakistan.
It was unthinkable in the United States, until now.
The response from congresspersons to senators to a certain governor who might be a potential presidential candidate was one of uniform outrage. But outrage is one thing, and reaction is another.
What this prosecution implies is that a particular image of the justice system of this country—long suspected to have two tiers, one favoring the regime and one punishing its enemies—is now consolidated and etched in public memory. When every single crime in a city from squatting to serious assaults and car-jacking is practically ignored, but a political rival is prosecuted, the justice system ceases to be neutral. A norm has been broken, and the repercussions will be long-term. Trump might not be going to jail despite the orgastic moans from #Resistance Twitter, but the precedent this set is only going to weaken the Republic as state neutrality is eroded and the delegitimization process is encouraged by one side. That rarely ends well in history.
The simple unsaid truth is this: Americans, due to their political heritage, loathe admitting any social hierarchy. But hierarchy exists, even when the formative framework of a country is equal protection under the law. There is a reason why former presidents, some far worse than Trump, have never been touched. It was a tacit compromise within the ruling elite, and it kept the social peace.
The human instinct is always one of competing ethics between pursuing justice, and maintaining order and equilibrium. Realist compromises stem from that. Fiat justitia, pereat mundus is a great principle in theory, but pursuing it is often utopian, especially when it comes at the cost of disorder, chaos, and a spiral of conflict.
Conflicts historically rarely happen under elite consensus, because while we tend to think revolutions, civil conflicts, and even civil wars are often fomented from grassroots movements, they are almost never.
They are usually rifts between ruling classes and a section of surplus elites that lead to the spiral. Oliver Cromwell wasn’t just a random proletarian. The American founding fathers were erudite WASPs, largely quasi-aristocratic landholders. The Jacobins were mostly lawyers and the urban bourgeoisie. Robert E. Lee was an officer of West Point. M.K. Gandhi, J.L. Nehru, Subhas Bose were either upper-caste Hindu imperial officer class members or upper-caste lawyers. Lenin used to pal around with Russian feudal second sons with radical chic. There is always an elite vanguard.
If one looks at the situation from the vantage-point of detached historical neutrality, one can see that Trump’s biggest problem is being a “class traitor.” He broke the elite consensus and then tried to create a counter-elite. That was heretical and therefore an example was to be made, even at the cost of a rift, social strife, or even breaking up elite consensus.
Even the New York Times seemed a little ruffled:
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No longer. That taboo has been broken. A new precedent has been set. Will it tear the country apart, as some feared about putting a former president on trial after Watergate? Will it be seen by many at home and abroad as victor’s justice akin to developing nations where former leaders are imprisoned by their successors? Or will it become a moment of reckoning, a sign that even someone who was once the most powerful person on the planet is not above the law?
Well, we shall see.
Our republic has just crossed a threshold. Historians are hesitant to predict the future, partly because no human has the capacity to calculate chaos. But it is a disservice to the discipline of history if one fails to notice a pattern. A line was crossed. Time will speak where this leads.