Rome, Trump and the risk to the modern world
“But, as statesmen, even these better aristocrats were not much less remiss and short-sighted than the average senators of the time. In presence of an outward foe the more eminent among them, doubtless, proved themselves useful and brave; but no one of them evinced the desire or the skill to solve the problems of politics proper, and to guide the vessel of the state through the stormy sea of intrigues and factions as a true pilot. Their political wisdom was limited to a sincere belief in the oligarchy as the sole means of salvation, and to a cordial hatred and courageous execration of demagogism as well as of every individual authority which sought to emancipate itself. Their petty ambition was contented with little.”
Theodor Mommsen — History of Rome.
Six decades before the Christian Era began, the Roman Republic faced one of its greatest domestic threats. The mishandling of this threat, the failure to understand its nature and its causes, caused the end of the Roman Republic and ushered in centuries of despotic rule. In 2016, in the era of anger and populism, the world’s only superpower faces the same crisis, the same problems and faces the risk of failing in the same way as Rome.
In 63 BCE a macho aristocrat called Lucius Sergius Catalina had his sights set on attaining supreme power in Rome, either through the ballot box or less constitutional means. He had banded together an alliance of poor and disaffected workers, angry veterans and disenfranchised members of the upper class with twin goals of debt relief and restoration of the rule of the old nobility. He believed that Rome had been betrayed decades of rule by self-made ‘new men’ and clever lawyers, was laughed at by its allies and threatened by its enemies, and he wished nothing more to take power and make Rome great again.
Catiline was a manifestation of Old Rome, blood, iron and conquest. He had made his name as a brutal and successful military commander, and his family line stretched back to the city’s founding. He he and his views had no small following in both the Senate and among the People,despite his reputation for cruelty that he had carried with him since being an enforcer for Rome’s most recent strongman, Sulla.
Standing opposed to him was New Rome. New Rome was a relative meritocracy, where the smart and hardworking could rise high, even to the highest office. Catiline’s opponent, first in the election for Consul and then later in his insurrection, was the manifestation of that meritocracy- Marcus Tullius Cicero. A sharp-minded, sharper-tongued lawyer from Rome’s rural suburbs who had climbed the ladder from regional treasury official to first among equals in the Senate, Cicero was everything Catiline and his supporters hated.
They battled hard during the elections for Consul, the Republic’s dual head of state, and in the glare of a public election, Catiline’s rumoured personality faults became known such as his rage, his cruelty and his corruption. The sight of their supposed standard bearer as such an unstable and deplorable candidate led many of the conservative establishment to hold their noses and vote for Cicero, ending Catiline’s political career and leaving him personally and professionally ruined.
Defeated at the polls, Cataline attacked the Senate for rigging the contest in Cicero’s favour. Cicero’s response was so thoughtful, so ruthless and so effective that it has gone down in history as the first of the Catiline orations, excoriating Catiline and angering him so much that he left the city and tried to lead an armed uprising.
But the Republic stood firm. The Catiline conspiracy ended swiftly, but bloodily, and Catiline became a minor footnote in history. One of the many angry aristocrats who thought constitutional democracy was for other people, and ended buried in a paupers grave.
In contrast Cicero was hailed as father of his country and his actions at this time secured his place as one of the great men of history.
But Catiline wasn’t the real instigator of the problems that led to his attempt at revolution. He was akin to a surfer, riding the wave of poverty, instability and insecurity of the working people of the Roman era, the people who only felt connected to the Republic when it was taking their taxes or asking for their votes. He was the man who spoke to veterans and the poor and made them feel purpose in their lives again. His reason for failure was that he was a deeply unpleasant and erratic individual, unable to build coalitions or maintain a calm temper.
In the years that followed, little attempt was made to deal with the problems that Catiline used to try and overthrow the Roman Republic. The problems rotted and stank, a fetid air overpowering the Republic and paralysing the state. Only a few allies of Catiline, unpunished for their role in the uprising, made investments in popular electoral support.
In 49 BC a Roman general crossed the Rubicon river, entering Roman territory with troops. This man was charming and intelligent, a politician as skilled as he was a military commander. He had spent the 14 years since the Catiline conspiracy building bridges with the angry poor and the disaffected veterans of Catiline, but also the swing votes in the middle classes and the powerful patricians. He was a consummate PR man, who sent home gold, jewels and slaves from his conquests in Northern Europe, along with thrilling accounts of his war in Gaul to enhance his support with the electorate. Like Catiline, he craved power and cared little for legal niceties or constitutional precedent, but crucially he differed by hiding his ambition behind smiles and wit and remaining dignified in public. He had spent his career climbing the ladder slowly and conservatively, becoming the senior priest, a successful war leader and a commended statesman, and he had made enemies only of people who he could defeat or ignore, and friends and allies with everyone else.
Within two years, the Roman Republic was finished. The Senate was dead and exiled and replaced with cronies of the general. The ancient system of checks and balances had been swept away and replaced by centralised rule, and the general, Gaius Julius Caesar was proclaimed dictator for life.
The old Republican values never recovered from Caesar. 4 years after he was anointed Dictator, he was dead. His murderers claimed they ended his tyranny to restore the Republic, yet the civil wars that followed were about which individual ruled in his place. His adopted son Octavian emerged victorious from the wars, and named himself Augustus, taking the title of First Citizen, and claimed to restore the old institutions of the Republic, But it was all for show. Power had moved from the Senate House to Augustus’ house on the Palatine Hill, the magistrates and officials were appointed at Augustus order and executed his commands, and after his death his heir Tiberius dispensed with the show of humility, declaring himself Emperor.
Before the creation of the Empire, the Romans weren’t democratic by modern standards. In their system, the vote of a rich man was literally worth more than the vote of a poor man, and it was only men who could vote. But their histories reflect the problems we face in the modern world, and can guide us on the possible results of inaction and poor action.
Populism is the political vogue of 2016. Right across the world there are whole swathes of the electorate who are “mad as hell and not prepared to take it anymore”. These people feel unsafe, ignored and left behind by social, economic, political and even technological developments. They wish to be listened to and respected, and have been sending warning signals of their malcontent for a while. Now they are front and centre of the political landscape, and whether left wing or right wing, they are united in their disdain for the ‘political class’ and the need for ‘revolution’.
Such movements can offer a catharsis to public debate, by allowing grumblings on immigration, education, healthcare or foreign policy to enter the area and be dealt with by politicians head on. The role of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in highlighting personal debt matters and the impact of trade deals on workers has led to substantive policy responses from their party’s presidential nominee, and pressure is relieved, at least in the short term.
However, the more likely scenario is that such grumbling enters an echo chamber. Lone and disparate voices are joined in a crescendo, group think takes hold and rhetoric and dogma take precedence over rationality. Compromise is treated as treason, and discussion becomes dissent.
Members of populist movements are people who feel no control over their lives, and who have been let down by the systems around them, whether social, economic or political. Therefore they require a leader or a saviour or a strongman to defeat the dark forces that plague them, and so populist movements are always at risk of charlatans who seek political reward with none of the effort.
The final danger of populism is that it is, by definition, popular. Simple ideas, perfectly packaged with slogans like ‘Make America Great Again’ ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’ attract attention and support from outside the group, accelerating a movement’s electoral success.
Often such movements have a political ‘ceiling’, a limit placed on them by other factors, usually money or manpower. Politics is an expensive and labour intensive business, and companies and wealthy people loathe donating to populist movements. Members of populist movements are generally not well off in time or money, and the away from the ballot box the general population’s political engagement is discussion of the news on social media.
However, 2016 has seen a surge in successful populists around the globe. The United Kingdom voted by a razor thin majority to leave the European Union, long a nemesis of left and right populists. The National Front is a serious presidential contender in France, anti-immigrant movements are surging in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany, and Greece is run by grassroot socialist movements. In Russia and in the Phillipines, actual fascists have taken power at the head of popular movements, using the mob and compromised state institutions to cement their power. And a bigoted rabble rouser is running for the most powerful job in the world.
Donald John Trump is the perfect modern day counterpart to Lucius Sergius Catalina. A boisterous and blustering billionaire with a surprising common touch, Trump began his run for the presidency as a joke, smearing the US Hispanic population as rapists and seemingly banking his campaign on his existing public profile as a businessman and reality TV star. In the 18 months since, he has bulldozed his way to the Republican nomination with cunning, guile, and an absolute lack of decency or morality. He has lied his way through destroying political opponents with assaults on their families whilst exciting a coalition of the dispossessed and angry. Like every populist in history, he has blamed every problem on a combination of the political class and foreigners, and has shown an ignorance of legal and political convention that now seems terrifying. He seeks to tear down international treaties, ignore decades of economic stability, and to lock up his political opponents
Donald Trump is a bully, a bigot and a misogynist. In the last year, he has shown to be intolerant of dissent, but tolerant of white supremacy and sexual assault. He is totally without wit or charm, and his response to failure is to lash out. His poll numbers have crumbled, and like Catiline before him he faces a far more tolerable opponent. Like her or not, Hillary Clinton is the most experienced candidate for President in half a century, with proven skill and judgement in high office. She is not necessarily likeable, nor does she have the charisma of Cicero, but she is the obvious candidate for the job. Hillary will win, and Trump will return to late night tweetstorms and building golf clubs.
On his own, Donald Trump is no threat to the nation or the world, because Donald Trump will not win
The danger to the United States of America, and indeed to the world, is if the second Clinton Administration does not seek to address the problems raised in the 2016 election campaign, both by Trump’s supporters on the right and the Sanders/Warren contingent on the left. The Clinton Administration and its centrist fellow travellers would be sensible to offer respect and engagement to those voters and their opinions and bring them back into the community of democratically engaged citizens.
Why is this? Because there will be people studying the Trump strategy. People, who have an equal desire for totalitarian power, but people who have cooler tempers and more genial, gregarious personalities. People with a tolerance for media scrutiny until the point they take power, and who have avoided tacit involvement with organised crime in their private career, and who kept their hands to themselves when their attention wasn’t invited or wanted. There are people who will look at Trump, and be inspired, not disgusted.
Liberal democracy is the premier system of government in the world today, as it remains malleable for reform and development by its members. It is, however, a fragile institution that is always in danger of destruction through carelessness and lack of civic engagement from and between ordinary citizens. The Catilines and Trumps and the Caesars will always exist and always seek to overthrow democracy and remake the world in their own image. They will exploit social, economic and political inequality to advance their own dreams of a throne and a crown and a statue.
It is therefore the duty every single citizen of a democracy to lead and to manage and improve their system to be inclusive, egalitarian, and unable and unwilling to support these dictatorial charlatans.
When Hillary Clinton gives her victory speech on November 9th, the world will breathe a sigh of relief that Trump has been defeated. But the world will act as if this is the end of the story, and it is not. When Trump is sent back to running his gaudy chain of hotels and spewing bile on social media, the world will have simply dodged a bullet. Next time around, with no effort to change the conditions in which Trump and his ilk developed, the world might not be so lucky.
Just ask the Romans.