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Will the U.S. Pass a Point of No Return?

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James Fallows has a particularly interesting column in the Atlantic, that perhaps is appropriate for Friday the 13th. It begins:

This is the latest installment in a series that began back in 2019, with an article I did for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome.

Many people wrote in to agree, disagree, and otherwise react. The online discussion begins here. But the most sustained line of response has been from my friend Eric Schnurer.

In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way. In a third and more cautionary extension of his argument this summer, he concentrated on the U.S. Senate.

Now, chapter four: crossing the Rubicon. Schnurer argues that this is more than just a familiar phrase. And he says that a Rubicon moment is in view—which would be triggered by a possible indictment of Donald Trump. Over to Eric Schnurer:

Crossing the Rubicon:
If the United States, in recent years, has been tracking the decline and fall of Republican Rome, when do we pass the point of no return?

By Eric B. Schnurer

As James Fallows has observed, Americans long have been fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and frequently fret whether a similar fate awaits our own. But the more pressing comparison is the collapse of the Roman Republic: How did a wealthy, powerful, and successfully self-governing people—proud of their frontier origins, piety and traditional values, and above all their origin story in throwing off monarchical rule—essentially commit democratic suicide and settle, more-or-less willingly, for a half-millennium of dictatorship?

Over the last two years I’ve been charting how our politics today increasingly resemble those of ancient Rome. From rising economic inequality, political violence, and governmental dysfunction on through the generally lackadaisical reaction of the Senate to a losing chief-executive candidate’s conspiracy to murder many of them, overthrow the government, and thereby block certifying his defeat, events in ancient Rome have remarkably paralleled some you might recognize more recently.

History isn’t destiny, of course; the demise of the Roman Republic is a point of comparison—not prediction. But the accelerating comparisons nonetheless beg the question: If one were to make a prediction, what comes next? What might signal the end of democracy as we know it?  There is, it turns out, an easy answer at hand.

While there is no precise end date to the Republic, there was a bright-line occurrence generally recognized as the irreversible beginning of the end for participatory government. In fact, it is such a bright line that the event itself has become universally synonymous with “point-of-no-return”: Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon.

And there is indeed an event looming—probably before the end of this year— that poses almost precisely the same situation as what provoked Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon: the possible indictment of former president Donald J. Trump.

Not long after empanelment of the special grand jury investigating the former president and the Trump Organization, Maggie Haberman, who has covered Trump for the past half-dozen years for The New York Times, tweeted that he is obsessed with the idea that he will soon be returned to office by the various, multiplying efforts to recount and overturn state-level results from the 2020 election. As Haberman reported, the impetus behind Trump’s restoration fever-dream is the realization that he needs the immunity afforded by the presidency to avoid prosecution for the career that got him there. Just last month, Michael Wolff recounted his conversations with Trump for his new book in Times opinion essay and concluded that Trump believes that “[r]unning for president is the best way to directly challenge the prosecutors.”

Now the month prophesied in Trumpian circles for his restoration to the White House has arrived—and with it, the intelligence services are reporting increased online traffic on the subject, including calls for violence, not unlike the uptick in advance of January 6th. It is no coincidence that insurrectionists that day carried banners urging Trump to “Cross the Rubicon” and declaring “The Die Is Cast”— Caesar’s words upon alighting on the Italian side of the river—or that they will be with him to storm the forces of the Republic and ignite a civil war over Trump’s potential indictment: Avoiding criminal prosecution is precisely why Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and ignited a civil war 21 centuries ago.

The ancient Roman Republic diverged from our notions of republican government in several respects. Although the word “republic” itself derives from a Latin phrase meaning “a thing of the people,” it was more like a closely-held corporation than anything we think of today as a public enterprise—more-or-less “owned” by those who operated it. Elected officials were expected to spend their own money on state functions like erecting public structures or organizing public events (such as the famous gladiatorial games), and in return they could expect to reap sizeable “profits” when they attained higher office. Today, we would think of basic Roman government as institutionalized graft.

Yet even the Romans had their limits. Officials who pushed the envelope too far could be criminally prosecuted. But the Romans also had a concept very similar to ours, and crucial to what motivated Caesar’s actions and is now animating Trump’s:  As long as an official held “imperium”—essentially, the authority of the state itself— he was shielded from prosecution. As soon as he left office, however—boom!, he could be subjected to criminal charges.

Caesar, like most politicians, had committed his share of excesses and gained his share of enemies in his rise to the highest office in Rome, the consulship. After his consular year, he had secured the governorship of one of the more lucrative provinces—Transalpine Gaul—and, partially for self-advancement and partially to postpone prosecution, got his governorship extended to an unprecedented five years. Officials historically had been limited to serving only a single one-year term in most offices, in order to keep one man from accruing too much power, but constitutional norms had begun to fray under ambitious men like Caesar, who had his eyes on a second, and then hopefully permanent, consulship.

But he faced three obstacles. First, his governorship was scheduled to end six months before the beginning of the next consular term, so he would have to keep his army in the field until then to maintain his imperium and immunity to prosecution.  Second, his political enemies had enacted a requirement that candidates had to campaign for consul in-person in Rome—which, thirdly, since it was illegal for a general to lead armed men into Italy or Rome itself, meant that Caesar had to choose: return to the city to campaign without legal immunity, almost certainly to face prosecution; forego the consulship, and thus forfeit any further hope of future immunity; or cross the Rubicon that formally separated Italy proper from the provinces at the head of his army—by definition an act of insurrection not only stripping his immunity but criminal in itself.

Caesar’s ultimate rise had begun with . . .

Continue reading. Wasn’t today the day when true believers thought Trump would ascend to the presidency?

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 6:23 pm

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