The End of the American Republic
Last week, after much back-and-forth about a second government shutdown, America’s mostly useless Congress managed to pass a funding bill, which the president reluctantly signed. Still at issue was the question of funds for his long-promised (and largely imaginary) wall along the Mexican border. The bill included some face-saving funds for border barriers, and you can easily intuit congressional negotiators’ futile hope: Democrats could go home and claim the money would buy nothing more than a bit of insubstantial fencing, and Republicans could claim the president got what he wanted. Trump himself could have claimed as much, but he is a man constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone.
Instead, he did what he’d been threatening to do during the kayfabe of budget negotiations: He declared a state of national emergency and said he was going to take a few billion out of the bottomless billions already allocated to the American military to build at least a few miles of defensive fortifications against the barbarian invasions he and his party conjure up when they talk about the Southern border. He then gave a rambling press conference during which he casually but explicitly stated that his emergency was not an emergency.
In part because our Romanophile founders deliberately copied the institutional architecture of the Roman Republic, and in part because the United States is the preeminent global power of its day, ruling not just a continental empire, but a global archipelago of military outposts and client states, we often imagine our history in explicitly Roman terms—our social and economic crises as analogs for the fall of Rome. Donald Trump himself conjures the comparison when he prattles on about immigration, inevitably raising the specter of great tides of warlike foreign tribes raping and pillaging their way to the besieged but still-gleaming capital.
The actual fall of Rome was not, of course, a singular moment of catastrophe, but a series of retreats and retrenchments; of both border wars and peaceful migrations; of centrifugal forces slowly pulling away from the periphery over decades and generations, often imperceptibly to much of the population. And the allure of the analogy is also a product, at least in part, of our narcissism: There are few fantasies as self-centered as imagining oneself to be part of the last enlightened generation before a dark age.
A better and more accurate metaphor for our current moment of unrest may be the more decisive transition of Rome from republic to empire—the anarchic period between the final defeat of Carthage and the Augustan settlements that would transform Rome into an autocratic imperium that stretched from the Scottish border to the Persian Gulf.
Like our own absurd present, this period in Roman history was grotty, unheroic, and very, very dumb. The republic’s ancient institutions and its eternally unbalanced social order were utterly inadequate for the almost accidental acquisition of the whole of Italy, much of Spain and a burgeoning overseas empire. The state had nothing remotely resembling a competent bureaucracy, and the government proved over and over that it could not arrive at a rational answer to the question of Roman citizenship. Absurd election rules and vote-weighting combined with senatorial incompetence and inconsistency led to a series of strongmen rulers and civil conflict that presaged the even more brutal and all-encompassing civil wars of Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Augustus.
Like so much of the history of antiquity, this period of conflict gets an almost heroic sheen, with would-be tyrants and generals locked in epic conflict throughout Italy and across the Mediterranean. But upon closer examination, the opposite is likely true—that Rome’s history is one of outsize egos and insufficient intellects, of governing institutions almost entirely compromised by personal avarice, and of a social and economic elite that oversaw the destruction of its sacred offices in no small part because it continually refused to make even superficial concessions to the lower orders. Men like Julius Caesar inspired personal cults not because of their populist governance, but because the state to which Roman citizens had given their devotion had by then become a hollow shell, the best bits long ago auctioned off to the highest bidder.
For a leftist, it’s a more despairing vision than the idea of a gradual disintegration of the American empire, of the imperial hinterlands slowly pulling away, a steady influx of new peoples, and a whimpering end as a gaggle of city-states. It implies a relatively abrupt transition from dysfunctional oligarchy to autocratic dictatorship, and it suggests that the next phase could continue for many bloody years to come. And yet, it seems to me a compelling analogy for our present fix. The authoritarian tendencies we see in Trump, after all, are not just a matter of personal temperament: They are the natural outgrowth of a feckless, callow legislature that has ceded more and more authority to executive offices over the last half century. Trump’s interlocutors aren’t incorrect when they point out, in defending his resort to emergency decree, that the law conferring such boundless authority on the president was passed by Congress in the first place!
None of it bodes especially well for the next hundred years, and I worry that a revivified, if still inchoate, socialism that does not forcefully confront empire may secure the dole—Medicare-for-all, perhaps, instead of Roman grain—without slowing the rapid slide into tyranny.