Decline & Fall of the American Republic?

Julius Caesar

Thursday

Paul Krugman of The New York Times wrote a dispiriting column the other day that has me revisiting Shakespeare’s  Julius Caesar. Krugman points out that the conditions that led to Donald Trump’s electoral victory resemble the conditions that led to the fall of the Roman republic and the rise of the emperors:

Here’s what I learned: Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.

On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here’s what Adrian Goldsworthy’s In the Name of Rome says: “However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”

America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.” But now we have a president-elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. (A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though — or, more likely, precisely because — it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election.) Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.

For further proof, Krugman points to the GOP legislature’s shenanigans in North Carolina and the various voter suppression efforts around the country. The suppression efforts don’t even pretend to be about maintaining the integrity of the vote anymore.

Julius Caesar is about the Roman republic on its last legs. Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all,” realizes it is only a matter of time before Caesar declares himself emperor. He sees the general playing the mob, and even though Caesar appears to decline the crown, this is only for the sake of appearance. Casca describes the moment as follows::

BRUTUS: Was the crown offered him thrice?
CASCA: Ay, marry, was’t, and he put it by thrice, every
time gentler than other, and at every putting-by
mine honest neighbours shouted.
CASSIUS: Who offered him the crown?
CASCA: Why, Antony.
BRUTUS: Tell us the manner of it, gentle Casca.
CASCA: I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown;–yet ’twas not a crown neither, ’twas one of these coronets;–and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again: but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by: and still as he refused it, the rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it…

In our current political situation, Trump is playing to the mob as Caesar does, pretending to be a populist even though he is out only for himself. Just as Caesar and then Antony play this game far better than Brutus, so the Republicans appear better able to play the power game than the Democrats. As Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote, the Democrats have brought knives, the Republicans guns.

Ironically, Brutus’s non-metaphorical knife only succeeds in paving the way for emperor rule. After the senators stab Caesar, Antony riles up the mob to put them on the defensive and then Augustus steps in to take advantage of the chaos. The Roman republic continues on in name only.

Trump believes that America wants to be ruled by a Putin-like strong man. To stop him, we need to become Brutuses—which is to say, people who put country over ego.  But no literal stabbing, which only enables the forces of darkness.

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  • myrtrat

    I agree that these are dark days for the republic. But I remember a few years back you posted about “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” which was written in even darker days. I’ve been thinking about that poem a lot recently.

  • Robin

    Ah yes, there’s something about the Civil War that puts all other threats to the American republic in perspective. I was just talking to my brother about how the greatest Christmas stories, and poems, have a lot of darkness within them. He reminded me that Dickens’s Christmas Carol begins, “Marley was dead, to begin with.” If the Christmas miracle really is a miracle, it’s because everything weighs against it happening. So yes, we should keep the faith. We can weather this storm as well.


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