I think we can all agree that the current political climate has become surreal to the point of absurd. While the Democratic party is still squabbling over who will ultimately become their nominee, the Republican party has essentially surrendered whatever dignity they had to the bombastic bluster of Donald J Trump – a figure so cartoonish that his very existence seems like a punch line to an off-color joke.
How did we get here??
Of late, I have read several op-ed pieces comparing our current political climate to that which brought down the ancient Roman Republic. I would agree to a certain extent, but would add another facet to the argument.
The Republic was torn apart by bitter political infighting, the disenfranchisement of ordinary citizens, and ultimately, civil war. One need look only at the abysmal performance and dysfunctional behavior of our current Congress to draw unnerving parallels. In addition, the increasing influence of very rich donors and corporations – aided by the formation of SuperPACs and the passing of the Citizen’s United bill – has effectively placed political influence in the hands of a very few, very wealthy individuals. The oft-cited appeal of Donald Trump as being “self-financed” and a “Washington Outsider” can be drawn directly from the inexorable drift of lobbying power (however tenuous) from the masses of the Electorate to the remote Elites.
The irony, of course, is that Trump is himself, an Elite; as well as a ruthless, ambitious demagogue. Rome was eventually united under the formidable military might of Julius Caesar and his Praetorian guard and power consolidated under an autonomous Emperor. Essentially, the state became a dynastic monarchy which paid little more than lip service to the reinstated, but substantially weaker Senate. While no-one in their right mind would compare Trump to Caesar, it is not impossible to imagine that he sees himself as the savior of our maladjusted Republic. Without the benefit of a loyal personal army (thank goodness!), however, he has to command attention in a different, more underhand, way.
Apart from internecine murder, what the Roman Emperors feared most was The Mob. Rome’s lower classes had little power individually, but as a group were formidable. The plebeians far outnumbered the upper, patrician class, and the threat of riots or rebellions was a powerful incentive to keep them appeased. Emperor Augustus established the practice of providing free grain and keeping food costs low, so the populace wouldn’t starve; as well as entertainment – such as gladiator fights and chariot races – to stop them from becoming bored. This “Bread and Circuses” policy was basically state-sanctioned bribery. Trump, in his way, is utilizing this technique of distraction as a way of blurring the extent of his ambition and his lack of practical policies. He is his own “Circus”. He plays to the lowest common denominator. He feeds on barely concealed nativism, racism and violence, while spouting the vague, insubstantial ways he will “Make America Great Again”; skillfully employing the confident manner and self-righteousness of the snake oil salesman that he ultimately is.
The problem that our political establishment faces is of their own making. Trump (or even Bernie Sanders for that matter), did not emerge in a vacuum. Consciously or not, Trump realized that he had to appease The Mob – the people who have been systematically worn down and ignored by their own political party at the expense of money and power. By manipulating their deepest, darkest fears and prejudices, he has maneuvered his way into the hitherto, unbelievable position of the Republican nominee for President of the United States.
If our Republic is to be saved from Trump – or indeed any other of his kind – the political and social institutions that comprise the basis of our Constitution need to radically rethink their current attitude to the Popularus Vulgaris. The fact that so many citizens seem willing to throw in their lot with a glorified huckster because they believe he is not a Beltway Insider, should be ringing alarms bells in all the boardrooms and back rooms in DC. The people will be heard, one way or another, and to dismiss the lessons of history will ultimately result in national chaos and global humiliation.