We are all witnessing a massive political circus being played out on the national stage as two champions of populism are busy forming their supporters into a power base that can bring them into the seat of presidential power. On one side is Donald Trump, a real estate ‘mogul’ and a billionaire who promises to make American great again, on the other Bernie Sanders, a career politician and lifelong proponent of socialism and income redistribution.
I dont want to write what I fully think of these two candidates, that can take up a few pages, but I wanted to contrast the current state of politics with that of ancient Rome, and the rising tide of violence we are now beginning to see at Trump rallies.
Its become a cliche to compare and contrast US with Rome, but in this case I think the signs are true and obvious, and we can learn direct lessons from historical precedents. What we are seeing now is a slow burn of political hate, grievance and victim-hood politics and a loss of basic civility. These are all very very disturbing signs for the health of the American Republic.
Mob Rule as a political weapon
In the last two weeks or so, I’ve noticed a very disturbing phenomenon coming from both the left and right strands of these populist movements. On the Trump side, there are many documented cases of assaults and harassment of reporters, forced removal of protestors and an almost idol-like reverence for The Donald, who has made a lot of very large promises to his potential constituents based on a very shaky political history. On the Sanders side, the main element of forceful disturbance seems to be coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement whose followers even hijacked Sanders’ own rally at one point.
A more sinister Leftist movement however has been brewing for years on college campuses, where rabid ‘social justice warriors’ shut down any form of debate, dialogue or conversation and enforce political groupthink. This is a whole other topic in itself, but its a very dangerous trend because an entire generation of students are completely comfortable denying people their 1st Amendment rights and group-shaming them in order to promote their version of ‘equality’ or ‘justice’. This is in essence a form of fascism.
This strand of fascism is now translating itself into the current political campaign. The latest Trump rally in Chicago a few days ago was shut down due to anti-Trump protesters rushing the stage, trying to hijack the podium and disturb the rally, while some Trump supporters were also involved in fist fights and low-level violence. This is on top of the fact that a small minority of Trump supporters seem to be racist white nationalists and anti-Semites while a small minority of Sanders supporters are black supremacists within the BLM movement or unhinged leftists yearning for a ‘revolution’ egged on by the mostly leftist media spin. Together this creates a deadly cocktail.
This pattern will likely worsen and we may even see an attempted Trump assassination. Our Republic may very well descend into mob violence during this election cycle.
The Roman state began as a Republic, a Res Publica (of the People), built on rigidly defined social classes, a code of common Law and revered established wealthy political families like the Julia, Bruti, Aquilia and Sempronii. Politics were usually done in the same way they are done today, the common masses (plebs) in a constant struggle with the Patricians (wealthy aristocrat land-owners), promoted Tribunes who effectively argued the Plebian case to the Senate and had the power to veto laws seen as being unfavorable to the poor masses.
Roman power structure not unlike our balance of powers between the 3 branches
Like the Roman political system, our current system is run on patronage and influence in the form of political donors, interest groups and lobbyists, who spend lavishly on candidates to sway their voting in favor of a given interest. Hillary Clinton is seen as a prime example of the corruption within this patronage system and is one of the major reasons why Trump and Sanders are so popular, as they are viewed to be free of corruption or monetary influence (a notion more true of Sanders than Trump). The reason why Sanders is so popular is that he is a modern day People’s Tribune, arguing his case for more public spending towards social welfare at the expense of the Patrician class, which of course causes political pushback and resentment between the two sides. There are obviously more complex reasons behind the rise of each populist, but these ancient societal elements are a major factor.
Populism and Murder
Towards the middle of 2nd century BC, the Roman republic began to crumble and was finally dissolved in 27 BC in favor of a dictatorship under Augustus. There are many reasons why the Republic fell, which are better covered in many history books on this subject, but the one I wanted to focus on was the breakdown of civil discourse and mob violence.
Roman history is full of examples of political murder, assassinations and mobs. The massive civil war between supporters of Sulla and Marius was a precedent for bloody violence in the name of political orientation. Great orators like Cicero were slain by frenzied political mobs who went on witch hunts across Roman cities and usually confiscated property of the deceased to be given to political cronies. For all the merits of civilization, politics in Rome was a barbaric practice, Cicero’s head was cut off and placed in the Forum. All this for being a political opponent of Marc Antony.
But even prior to Sulla’s bloody dictatorship, a striking example of such violence was the case of the Gracchus brothers. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were plebian magistrates who argued for land reform to benefit Rome’s poor and landless classes. Their proposal would redistribute land taken from aristocratic families.
Central to the Gracchi reforms was an attempt to address economic distress and its military consequences. Much public land had been divided among large landholders and speculators who further expanded their estates by driving peasants off their farms. While their old lands were being worked by slaves, the peasants were often forced into idleness in Rome where they had to subsist on handouts due to a scarcity of paid work. They could not legally join the army because they did not meet the property qualification and this, together with the lack of public land to give in exchange for military service and the mutinies in the Numantine War, caused recruitment problems and troop shortages.
The Gracchi aimed to address these problems by reclaiming lands from wealthy members of the senatorial class that could then be granted to soldiers; by restoring land to displaced peasants; by providing subsidized grain for the needy and by having the Republic pay for the clothing of its poorest soldiers.
The reforms proved lethal to the brothers. Tiberius was clubbed to death at the Forum by a frenzied mob, some of it consisting of his fellow Tribunes who feared that these reforms would strip them of their own coveted estates and latifundias. Tiberius’ brother Gaius later committed suicide as a mob approached him for a lynching. The reforms died with the Gracchi brothers.
note the described aftermath of these events,
The emergence of new forces of urban factions, rural voters, and others, engaging in continued conflict with each other for their own interests, meant that the problem of effective governance awaited resolution. The populist government of the Gracchi had come to an end by violence; and this provided a brutal precedent that would be followed by many other rulers of Rome.
A deadlocked government awaiting a resolution, in need of a rescue by an energetic populist making promises he can’t keep. Sounds very familiar.
The Roman republic subsequently dissolved when its citizens could no longer promote interests and ideas through elected representatives, nor engage in policy negotiation, but instead opted for a zero-sum game of political violence, choosing their champions who ultimately became “princips” and Emperors. The mob violence seen during the Gracchi years would return again and again during the subsequent centuries, and especially during the Late Imperial period with constant political in-fighting (see Year of the Four Emperors), cronyism, mob violence, blacklists and constant purges of political targets and their families. The civil discourse between the Senate and the interests of the people as represented by the Tribunes was over.
Cult of Personality
An especially repugnant and worrying trend is the idolization of Trump by some of his supporters. Despite objective facts about his political inconsistencies and statements, many Trump supporters have a very creepy tendency to idolize their champion and completely ignore fair questions about his policy. Reporters are often maligned, attacked or threatened with a lawsuit for implying or asking the wrong question. He threatens to use libel laws to enforce media compliance. Trump’s populism gives the people what they want to hear without making them analyze how those promises will be made true.
Historically, political idol worship precedes a dictatorship. Augustus was the first to propagandize himself as the First Citizen, a Princip, who ‘found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble’. His later followers established a cult to worship him as a demigod.
Roman denari showing Octavian aka Augustus Caesar “Divus Iulius”, the Deified Julius
There were countless examples of idolatry with many dictator figures throughout history. In modern times the obvious examples are usually of the leftist/Communist Cult of Personality, like Stalin, Mao, Tito, Che Guevarra and the recently deceased Hugo Chavez. The disturbing sight of Trump worship is that it shows all the hallmarks of historical Leftist totalitarianism.
The obvious signs of this are unquestionable loyalty, in-group aggression towards out-group behavior, blindness to obvious gaps in the leader’s logic or arguments, eagerness to use violence in order to promote political goals and a belief in the Messiah-like powers of the leader to promote change and do a clean sweep of the old corrupt system. These same points can also be attributed to Sanders supporters who already showed signs of aggression and violence and suppression of free speech.
Taken together, these two massive strands of populism are a sign of a dying Republic.
When people believe that shutting down free speech is legitimate, ending free-trade in favor of mercantile protectionism, using violence, threats and libel laws to enforce obediency and swallowing populist rhetoric as fact without analyzing the details, this is in fact a sign of the collapse of basic social cohesion. A Res Publica cannot exist without the general public believing in the legitimacy of their own society and the validity of their own citizens’ opinions. You dont have to agree with everyone’s ideology or opinions, but these opinions are legitimate opinions of fellow citizens. Once these fellow citizens become a hated ‘other’, the Republic cannot continue to function.
If you’re interested in Roman politics, I highly suggest these 2 great books,
- Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss
- Rubicon – The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland