The Romans of the late second century, as they mourned for Marcus Aurelius and beheld the new era of Commodus, probably felt something like what many of us feel now. This wasn’t supposed to happen. How could a period of seventy years which, in spite of its flaws, has been for most Americans one of unexampled prosperity, be suddenly threatened by a sociopathic billionaire riding a wave of anti-establishment feeling? What went so wrong that half the country felt it had to elect an unpalatable bigot and misogynist for its leader? And what are the dangers of having such a man in control of the highest office of the state — an office perhaps more powerful than it has ever been before?
The accession of Commodus spelled the end of the Roman Empire’s high noon, and the beginning of its long decline under a series of tyrannical or ineffectual rulers. Fortunately, Donald Trump will not be free to follow his hateful whims in quite the same manner as Commodus. Notwithstanding the Chinese media’s gleeful mockery of democracy following Trump’s election, it is the best system in existence to protect the world from such a man. Democracy, as Karl Popper wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies, is designed not to prevent the rise of an evil populist, but rather to arrange political institutions in such a way that a malevolent ruler can be “prevented from doing too much damage.”
Because Americans are fortunate enough to live in such a democracy, they are free to oppose Trump — and oppose him they must. He poses two kinds of threat, one far more dangerous than the other. First, he will do his best to fulfil his election promises, which would be devastating to anyone concerned with the welfare of his many targets. The list of people at risk has been spelled out many times already, but bears repeating for its flagrant antipathy to the spirit of the Constitution. Muslims will be treated as second-class immigrants and second-class citizens, purely because of the way they exercise their freedom of religion. Millions of others who, out of desperation or hope, fled to America for a better life, will be rounded up and deported. Women who seek abortions will be ‘punished’. The sick and the suffering will lose their access to affordable treatment. Those in the dawn of life, the twilight of life, and the shadows of life, will be ignored and trodden on like never before. Even the most outrageous rhetorical flourish of Trump’s campaign — that the US should kill not only terrorists but their families — will no doubt find its way into real policy. If the commander-in-chief thinks of developing-world women and children as cattle, it will not be long before drone strikes and military interventions begin to result in something worse than collateral damage.
All this must be resisted. There is no room, now, for indifference or feeble complaint. We return to an era of marches, protests, and grassroots opposition on a scale not seen since Nixon. And yet, this kind of threat — which sees Trump make the most of a Republican House and Senate and a divided Supreme Court as he reshapes the country — is at least nothing new. We are all accustomed to awful policies being forced on us by people we disagree with, and it is a tradition of the American republic that each side will eventually counteract the excesses of the other. No matter how egregious the new administration’s policies, they can be reversed in four, or eight, or twelve years. The damage, then, can be mitigated, and Trump may prove in time to be nothing more than an outstandingly bad President.
But with such a crook in power, we can’t be assured even of this. There is another more sinister danger to a Trump presidency, one that must be watched for and prevented at all costs. The new leader, and the revolting surge of fascism that has carried him forward, may not be content to push a new agenda in accordance with the country’s laws and traditions. There may be popular license and even popular encouragement to tamper with the Constitution; to increase the authority of the executive; to muddy the separation of powers; and to hamstring the democratic institutions that serve as checks and balances, until they are ineffectual or sycophantic like the Roman Senate under the Julio-Claudians. What’s more, Trump has indicated that any newspapers and magazines so bold as to stand up to him will be suppressed, sued, and bankrupted. For how much longer will the First Amendment guarantee the right to publish articles such as this one? Americans do not have to cede much political ground before their strength to organize themselves, and to speak freely, is compromised; it is therefore imperative that they cede nothing of their freedom to Trump and his legion of gloating fascists.
Any attempt on his part to carry out the antidemocratic reforms of the above paragraph would not, at first, be obvious. Such measures would initially take a murky bureaucratic form that only the sharpest and most watchful eyes will notice. But it is at this early stage that they can be fought most effectively, and now is therefore a better time than any to pay close attention to politics — to take an interest in the rituals of government, however tiresome they might be. Everyone who wants to keep Trump in his place and eject him at the end of four years needs to find a trustworthy news source, stay attentive, and stay informed. The newly chastened media cannot do anything to stop Trump unless there is a politically active public behind it.
It is important, but often difficult, to distinguish between the relentless changing tides of normal politics, and the prolonged withdrawal of the ocean that signals an approaching disaster. Gore Vidal, in his essay on The Twelve Caesars, points out that “the surface storminess of our elections disguises a fundamental indifference to human personality: if not this man, then that one; it’s all the same, life will go on.” But he goes on to issue a grave warning to all those who are bored with democracy, who see nothing fragile about it, or who think it needs no protecting. A habit of cynicism towards the establishment leaves us “vulnerable to the first messiah who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarian certainty.” That messiah has now arrived. The catastrophe of November 8 is something quite different to the usual gloomy affair of an electoral defeat. Trump is not to be taken lightly, and we must be on our guard.