Republics Ancient and Postmodern: From Rome to America

Republics are mortal, like all human things. Most have been short-lived. Many nominal republics never really lived at all; their names are but a mockery of the lying words of men. A rare few have lasted hundreds of years: Sparta, Rome, Venice, Florence. Yet all weakened and died. Of Europe’s postmodern republics, perhaps only the Swiss Cantons or Iceland can claim ancient roots.

Two contradictory fantasies grip America. One, the vision of the right, is that the republic teeters on the edge of the abyss and only the re-election of Donald Trump in 2024 can save it. The other, of the left, is that the republic, called a “democracy,” is under constant “attack” by the combined axis of nativist racists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, fascists, neo-fascists, right-wing authoritarians, extremists, Christian nationalists, and domestic terrorists.

At the center of both these visions is a real-estate developer and reality TV star, now running a third time for president, having “lost” the second time (like Grover Cleveland) and having already failed to save it the first time. That is not to say that his election would not be preferable to the re-election of the mentally addled but vindictive Biden, the president, sad to say, of institutional America.

That Trump is a would-be dictator has been a recurring narrative on the left for nearly a decade now—and so has the wish that he would be done away with, by one means or another—even violence, if necessary. This wish is more than the private fantasy of enraged Democrats. They have publicly expressed it. The famous actor Johnny Depp “joked” that maybe it was time for an actor to again murder a president. The not-so-famous comedienne Kathy Griffin posed online glaring into the camera with a simulation of a severed head of the president saturated with dripping blood, as if the deed had just been done. A state senator from St. Louis, Missouri, said on Facebook that she hoped “someone” would do it. A British journalist wrote a political fantasy titled To Kill the President. California’s then-senator and future Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris joked about throwing the president down an elevator shaft—then shook in her trademark paroxysm of humorless laughter.

Most notorious of all, because it was a public ritual re-enacted nightly, was an early summer re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, staged in New York’s Central Park, with—guess who—cast in the lead role. A Trump look-a-like in navy suit, red tie, and blond hair was stabbed to death by a gang of women and minorities to the raucous cheers of an upscale, woke crowd. All of these examples were during 2017, Trump’s first year as president.

Seven years later, we learn again that the wish is father to the thought. The op-ed “Opinion: A Trump Dictatorship Is Increasingly Inevitable. We Should Stop Pretending” was published around the Thanksgiving holiday in the establishment organ The Washington Post,  written by Robert Kagan, the prominent “defense intellectual,” to borrow one of Robert Nisbet’s terms for the defenders of the American military-industrial complex.

Kagan’s op-ed included a visual of a white bust of Caesar. Kagan was just expressing his opinion, yes, but it’s an opinion widely shared on the left and hardly new. Such prominently displayed opinions inform the limits of acceptable journalism
within the establishment media and have for years, despite newspapers continuing to maintain the preposterous fiction that there is some kind of wall of separation between their reporting and their editorializing.

What is unclear about Kagan’s headline is who he thinks is still pretending that a Trump dictatorship is not imminent. Certainly, he is mainly preaching to a choir already convinced the Dictatorship of the Donald is just around the corner. Perhaps it refers to those on the left who believe that Trump will not win re-election and, therefore, need not be stopped by some kind of lawfare—or, in the style of Ancient Rome, by senators carrying knives.

After all, the headline would make more sense if it read, “A Trump Election Is Increasingly Likely. We Should Stop Pretending Biden Will Win.” But to state it that way would destroy the semantic trick the author and editors are playing, which is to equate Trump’s election with the institution of a dictatorship. A plain statement of Kagan’s intention would read, “A Trump election is increasingly likely. We should be prepared, again, to do whatever it takes to keep that from happening.”

Of course, that would expose the lie that it is the election-rigging plotters who are defending democracy instead of subverting to maintain the oligarchical control they have enjoyed and been enriched by for decades. The semantic trick of equating an unfavorable election result with a dictatorship is intended to justify their subversion of the electoral process should the wrong man be chosen. But it also inadvertently reveals the fraud, for Trump is not a dictator, was not a dictator when president, and could not be a dictator even if he wanted to be, given the current left-leaning political predilections of our generals, admirals, judges, and agency spooks.

The false fretting about dictatorship shows that what really matters to those who write for and read the Post is not whether America will have a free, fair, and legal election, but who will win. Or, more precisely, who will not win. Democracy for its controllers has only ever been about that. Let them choose, but do not let them choose the wrong one.

Kagan, a notorious neoconservative writer, is husband to Victoria Nuland, the neoliberal former State Department apparatchik. The same policies—NATO expansion, invasion of Iraq, occupation of Afghanistan, the war on terror, intervention in Syria and Somalia, confrontation with Russia, accommodation of China, regime change everywhere—that he has advocated in print, she has implemented through the bureaucracy. They are the same policies Donald Trump campaigned against and tried to reverse as president.

Trump, who was figuratively emasculated by the false charge of collusion with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was mostly unsuccessful at opposing the neocon/neolib agenda. His failure puts the lie to the preposterous claim that he plans, or would have the power, even if he did plan, on instituting a Trumpian dictatorship should he win the presidency again. He would have no chance of pulling off such a stunt in the face of the entrenched hostility of the Congress, the Senate, the federal judiciary, the administrative apparatus, the intelligence agencies, the FBI, the Justice Department, the Federal Reserve, the high command of the military, and the monolithic, mendacious media.

Caesar succeeded because he had loyal legions at his command, already proven in battle. Trump has very few loyal retainers around him, and his top aides often blocked his exercise of his full constitutional powers as president. Of course, Kagan’s intent is not to illuminate the present with wisdom gleaned from the study of the past, but to justify an escalation in the kind of skullduggery, judicial warfare, and institutional subversion practiced on Trump during his first term.

But if Trump really can’t become a dictator then why are they still threatened by him? He ridiculed them, yes. But more than that, he outed them. He showed them that their policies are deeply unpopular, as they are themselves. They should have known that but apparently did not. He showed them that they constitute a corrupt and failing ruling class, with a distinct class consciousness and very real common class interests; that their promise of utopia deferred was no longer believed; and that they will violate every liberal principle they once held sacred in order to hold on to power.

Trump exposed Kagan and his ilk by offering people a real political choice for the first time in the lives of many of them (the election of 1980 may have been the last election prior to Trump that offered a real choice). And the majority eagerly chose America First policies that were the opposite of the neocon/neolib agenda: a focus on a domestic manufacturing revival rather than global trade, less immigration, and no more foreign wars.

The America First platform embodies the real meaning of dictatorship in the minds of the globalist elites. It means that the common people get to dictate to them rather than them getting to do whatever they deem necessary, the people be damned. The anti-Trump side regards any opposition to itself as illegitimate and essentially illegal. These are people who reject the republican maxim that every citizen must be willing both to command and obey. What they want is an Orwellian simulacra of a republic in which liberals (Republicans) will not command, and leftists (Democrats) will not obey.

What they want is an Orwellian simulacra of a republic in which liberals (Republicans) will not command, and leftists (Democrats) will not obey.

Many assume that it was Julius Caesar who overthrew the republic. But history is not as simple as the great man theory posits. Eighty-nine years before the senatorial party assassinated Caeser, their predecessors had assassinated the populist tribune Tiberius Gracchus. Roman civil strife never really ceased after that. There were more assassinations, continuing civil unrest, and a social war. What could another assassination do? Perhaps Brutus and his co-conspirators thought that by killing Caesar they could restore the ancient concord of the orders. We know they did not, and could not because that concord no longer existed.

The Roman republic was already dead, at least in spirit, when Caesar supposedly slew it by marching on Rome with his legions. Cicero, no friend of Caesar, wrote that the constitution of Ancient Rome was like a magnificent painting so faded with age and neglect it was no longer recognizable. The Roman historian Sallust, who, like Cicero, was of the equestrian order, observed that the Roman rich controlled everything, while the common citizens were burdened with military service and possessed neither land nor wealth. The Roman poet Lucan, also an equestrian, deplored the civil wars, but nevertheless admitted that Caesar’s was the better cause.  

Given the situation, all the senatorial oligarchs could hope to do was to restore the status quo, the corrupt state of things before Caesar assumed dictatorial powers. Yet, in 44 B.C. even that was too much to hope for. The Roman people could clearly see that the republic was ruled by an oligarchy of rich families and for the benefit of the oligarchs alone. Rhetoric and senatorial decrees had lost their moral authority, so the Roman nation—or what was left of it, apart from some of the sons of the privileged orders—fought under Caesar’s standards. As Sallust recounted, the ruling group (patricians allied to wealthy plebeians) pushed things to such an extreme that they finally brought about their own downfall.

So what was it that finally ruined Rome?  According to Montesquieu’s historical study Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, a book that was read in the American colonies, the chief cause was the sea-spanning empire that the republic built up through its valor and lust for dominion. Gold, artistic treasures, artisans, merchants, and slaves poured into Rome; the opportunities in the empire were many: military command, governorships, merchandising, tax-collecting, slave-trading. Fortunes were made, glory achieved, and luxury abounded. But the Romans were morally corrupted. Sallust agreed with this diagnosis, as did Cicero.

Here is how it happened. The succession of wars, fought all across the Mediterranean, gradually transformed Rome’s farmer-citizen-soldiers into professional legionnaires. Their primary loyalty became their generals, from whom they could expect a share of the spoils and land in the provinces once they retired. The influx of slaves won by war displaced the Roman farmers, whose land was bought up by the patricians and equestrians. These elites turned farmland into vast estates worked by the Roman equivalent of America’s immigrant labor. To ensure peace at home and across the Italian peninsula, the Romans extended citizenship to foreign peoples, so unity was lost. 

The Romans were scattered abroad, and inundated at home. They were no longer a single people with a single spirit. The assembly could now be managed by the wealthier classes, and the tribunes could be used against each other. The Senate became all-powerful, and the balance of power between the two orders was lost forever. And it was that balance—signified by the sacred emblem SPQR, inscribed on the battle standards, standing for the Senate and People of Rome—that was the republic. And it was no more.

The left loves its historical analogies and endlessly invokes them, but late republican Rome is not one of them. Our barely literate public knows nothing about the subject, and it carries no emotional weight. Kagan’s op-ed was meant only for the pseudo-educated elite. It is a warning that they are in real trouble, and further desperate measures are called for.

But the analogous history of Ancient Rome suggests that such measures will fail, and redound to the doom of the plotters. A fresh round of internecine war followed Caesar’s slaying, Brutus and Cassius died, the status quo was not restored. Nor can ours be. Kagan and our American Brutuses have already been taken radical measures: opening the border to allow in about 10 million illegal immigrants over the course of four years; weaponizing the FBI and Justice Department to persecute and imprison the left’s political enemies; instituting a secret censorship regime; stealing elections.

It hasn’t worked, and the ploys are becoming increasingly obvious. To quote Eliot, our great modernist poet: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  Should we not add, in the American context, what innocence?

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