How does it come to this? A democratic nation is built on principles of citizen voting rights, offices and magistracies that are limited in power, multiple magistracies to dilute control, and checks and balances. Then political and social order is overturned, the democracy replaced by despotism, fascism, monarchy, or other authoritarian governments. The disturbing notion is that the people could do this to themselves. That they could be swayed by a polarizing, populist figure, seeking to undermine democratic institutions. It would seem completely baffling for a people to voluntarily vote themselves out of freedom, or to accept a dictator at their doorsteps, but a cursory glance at the history books shows that in the right conditions, with a citizenry poised to accept a fundamental change, it becomes easy for a populace to do away with their own responsibility to govern, and to put total power in the hands of a few, or a single carrot-colored individual. Let’s look at the time Athens became an oligarchy, and the political situation that caused the fall of the Roman Republic and rise of Augustus. Since fear-based politics is all the rage nowadays, the short version is WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.
It’s the year 411 BC. Athens has been engaged with Sparta in a death struggle for the past two decades. The Peloponnesian War has been devastating. Athens’ allied states have been revolting, Sparta is ravaging Athenian lands and causing a financial crisis. Thousands have been killed. Only 4 years ago, Athens sent a large force to Southern Italy. The “Sicilian Expedition” was an absolute disaster; the Athenian navy, the source of power for the Empire, utterly destroyed, along with thousands of sailors and hoplites. Athens has managed to limp on, but fewer and fewer think the war is winnable under the current leadership.
So people were angry, felt their way of life was dying out, were tired of wasting money on foreign wars, and couldn’t make a middle class living anymore. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? With a notorious Alcibiades helping pull strings and providing financial support from Persia (their version of Russia), the oligarchs decided it was time to Make Athens Great Again and plotted the coup.
In two cities, Athens and Samos, the duly elected leaders revolted against democracy and instituted an oligarchy. While pro-democracy elements at Samos prevented the oligarchs from succeeding, the oligarchs at Athens managed to take over the government. Thus was born The Four Hundred, and they had an excellent plan for keeping their new power. Fear over the size of the coup, its supporters, and the violence caused kept the pro-democracy citizens in check. The Four Hundred ostensibly ruled alone but created a group of 5000 to participate in the government. For the average Athenian, this meant they had no idea who among their neighbors were members of the new oligarchy, and who were freedom loving democrats. By dividing the city and causing suspicion among the citizenry, everyone sort of just went along with it and little resistance came about. This is how, rather anti-climactically, Athens, the birthplace of democracy, became an oligarchy. Democracy died quietly, quickly, passively, and with surprisingly little bloodshed.
Fortunately, the oligarchs had no intention of pivoting to appear more mainstream, and that proved their downfall. The new government was unsure how to proceed – almost like even they didn’t expect to win – and divided between an extremist view wanting a strict oligarchy, and a moderate view allowing more of the citizenry to participate. As they quibbled, democratic forces gathered to take back their city. People finally woke up and overthrew the oligarchs after just over a year.
Let’s switch to Rome. Unlike Athens, Rome was a constitutional republic (just like us), and utilized an indirect, representational form of democracy (just like us). Their “comitia” existed mainly to restrict the power of the popular vote (just like us with the Electoral College). Despite appearances, the wealthy minority elite pulled most of the strings (just like us). And it all fell away (just like. . .FUCK). The late Republic was disturbingly similar to our own situation.
They had a housing crisis with land increasingly becoming expensive, they had a large veteran population that wasn’t being well cared for, foreign wars created an influx of immigrants, large scale latifundia were pushing out small business owners, the rural population was feeling outcast and impoverished by the coastal elites and the politicians who lived in cities and urban centers. Out of this situation arose two main political movements, somewhat similar to our political parties – the Optimates or “best ones”, and the Populares, or “populists”. The Optimates were aristocratic and concerned with protecting the status quo, while the Populares were looking to upend the mainstream political order. The populists wanted to drain the swamp. They were led by people like the Gracchi brothers, Julius Caesar and Augustus, while the Optimates had Cicero and Pompey. You know how this story ends – the populists won, destroyed the Republic, and ruled as the new aristocracy, more or less as promised for those who paid the slightest attention. Sometimes you get exactly what you vote for.
The people went from having term limited representatives through votes to an Emperor with absolute power for life. Democratic institutions, when they weren’t outright disbanded, were merely shells with no real influence over the imperial court. The very people who thought they were fighting against aristocracy, enabled aristocracy to solidify itself under a new political order. They should have been quite pissed, right? They should have held these populists accountable and demanded they fulfill their promises, right? Here’s the scary part – both Caesar and Augustus fought under the banner of “restoring the Republic”, actively destroyed it, and the people loved them for it. That should scare the shit out of every American right now, because that’s how democracy dies – to the sound of thunderous applause (thanks for that line George Lucas!)
The people felt so abused, so divided, and so in need of a savior, the dissolution of democratic control was never looked at as a negative. The Republic in essence collapsed under its own weight. Displaced veterans created a land crisis, while the constant influx of immigrants and slaves pushed poorer Roman farmers and workers out of business. That “cheap foreign labor” thing is nothing new. Wealth became consolidated among fewer and fewer holding more and more, to such an extent that the state became reliant upon (and essentially controlled by) rich generals who could pay their soldiers. The Gracchi, Caesar, and ultimately Augustus were speaking directly to the people, using the most democratic institutions to create policies, and in the end, stripped them of their ability to select such champions in the future. The people let the populists overthrow the Republic. They weren’t benefitting from it anyways. Or so they believed. By the time people realized what had happened, the Republic was gone, voting was obsolete, and there was essentially nothing anybody could do about it.
The big question given our current political clusterfuck: How much at risk are we for turning into Trumplandia and crowning him as our Emperor? Are we in danger of turning towards dictatorship and despotism? Fascism and monarchy? The answer is both yes and no. Our nation continues to be highly divided, and our confidence in the system at an all-time low. The political games being played are of such a nature as to be singularly dangerous for the precedents they set. Our leaders’ inability to react with rationality instead of emotion is also on full display. A single horrific terrorist attack might be enough to push us into authoritarianism, vainly attempting to give up freedom for security. Stacking the white house with billionaires won’t help address issues of income inequality, or the sentiment that the rich rule and the poor suffer. As is, many are questioning the competence of a system where a candidate with 2.5 million votes more than the other somehow loses. Many people feel their votes don’t count, and in essence, they are partially correct; by design, not all votes are equal. We’re ready for something new, and with the people in charge being a different breed, and a notably less democratic breed, something new might be exactly what we get.
We do have some saving graces though (yes, I was eventually going to talk you off the ledge). This is a big one. There is no written constitution for the Romans. With only unwritten codes and precedent deciding the course of governance, it was just a matter of time before the Gracchi or Caesar, or any other divisive figure came along and said “why not try something new”. It’s more difficult for that to happen to us, with a codified separation of powers, term limits, and other protections. That said, there are always loopholes, and it’s very possible we’re in for a bumpy ride to preserve democratic institutions. This is the same document that contained the three-fifths compromise. Despite appearances, we have a long, horrendous history of being a terribly unfree nation, especially among certain demographics.
A second ray of sunshine comes in the buildup to this fundamental change. Roman society broke down along several points, and the civil wars resulted in widespread death and destruction. The Gracchi, Caesar, and Augustus weren’t just talking to the people for economic and political gains, they were talking about saving their lives. The Republic was dysfunctional. By the time Octavian became Augustus, the whole of Roman society was so sick of war that monarchy was preferable to yet another conflict, even if to save the Republic. Augustus’ own lengthy reign, outlasting practically everyone who was alive to remember the Republic, didn’t hurt any. By the time Augustus died and Tiberius was to succeed him there were few people who could even remember what it was like to live under the Republic, and even fewer willing to start a war over it.
Finally, the greatest protection against that orange goober’s ability to usurp power is that same orange goober. It’s often the case that dictators are their own worst enemies. While seen as clemency, Caesar just as often sent incompetent senators and generals back to Pompey as he did jailed or executed them. He knew they were more useful alive and in the enemy’s camp than dead or captured. Late in the war, plans to assassinate Hitler were more or less cancelled; by a certain point, his incompetence was doing us a favor (which is also why it was the Germans themselves who tried to assassinate him). Anybody wonder why it’s places like Russia and China who support Trump, while none of our five living presidents do?
Likewise, the nature of becoming a figure so powerful they can overthrow the entire political order is one that concerns itself in every corner. You have to be perfect, right down to the looks. Image is power, and critical for any leader, let alone one looking to create fundamental change. The Presidency is still an august station, and the president needs to look the part. Speaking of things august, this is the Augustus Prima Porta.
Here is Augustus as Pontifex Maximus.
Here’s a Benevolent Augustus.
Entire books have been written over Augustan imagery and iconography. He was very careful over his representation, as one can see. Note the arms outstretched to the people, the depiction in varied roles. One statue as a military leader, one as a priest and Republican office holder (lending some credence to his claim of restoration), and one wearing a toga as a benevolent caretaker to the masses. The facial features, clothing, arm motion, even the eyes are designed to invoke an image. It was critical that both his friends and enemies see him in the ways he wanted them to. He never styled himself as a monarch; his great manipulation to explain power was “primus inter pares”, first among equals. It’s very likely this deference to old Republic values and styling himself as just another guy saved him the same fate that befell Caesar – whose enemies at the very least heavily implied he was trying to become a king.
By comparison, here is the man we just decided best represents us and the United States of America.
Notice something different? Trump is no Caesar, and certainly no Augustus.
While 60 million Americans might have stupidly decided this guy was good enough, not only did 62.5 million decide against him (seriously, our electoral process is fucked up), but many of his own voters think he’s a dickhead too. The possibility of Trump ushering in a monarchy for himself or his successors is relatively small, even as he seems to be grooming his children for the role. He’s too stupid to accomplish the creation of a dynasty. I’d estimate only a 10% chance our Republic collapses within the next 10 years. See? I can be an optimist!
As a stable form of government, democracy relies on the input and integrity of the people. But people are stupid, fickle, emotional, and ambivalent. That’s part of how the experiment ends and democracy dies. It’s like eating ice cream three times a day. While it might seem fun to do when you first become an adult, you soon realize why most adults don’t do that. Unfortunately, democracy allows us to screw ourselves, and often times, we do. Both Athens and Rome highlight just how precarious the institution really is, and as we come to grips with the fact that we just elected a man who looks and sounds like a cross between Jabba the Hutt and Patrick the Starfish to lead the most powerful military on Earth, it is worth remembering that our representative democratic republic is not invulnerable. It is only as good as we are as a people. Given that depressing realization, I think I’ll be trying out a new eggnog and cyanide recipe this year.
Have a terrifying Christmas everyone!