Today, Americans will choose between two radically different paths: a populist ideology transforming the values of the country itself, and an attempt to reject it.
However unprecedented these times might feel, it’s a decision as old as democracy itself. Over 2,000 years ago, the Republic on which America was modeled faced the same choice. The Donald Trump of his day, Julius Caesar, promised to return Rome to an imagined ancient glory—but instead constructed himself a throne, bulldozing democratic norms, ignoring checks on his power and eroding political debate. Rome chose to follow Caesar, putting the famed Republic on a glide path to destruction.
Trump himself would undoubtedly relish any characterization as the American Caesar, but that comparison is more damning than he might like.
Like Trump, Julius Caesar was already a celebrity when he took the highest office in Rome—and despised by much of the ruling class. As a leader, questions were constantly raised about his fitness for office; more than simply unconventional, he operated within an entirely new set of rules, overturning procedure and bending the law whenever it was expedient. He was regularly derided for his personal foibles. Embroiled in numerous shocking sex scandals, he never shook the rumour that as a young man he had had an affair with King Nicomedes IV, prompting the derisory nickname, “the Queen of Bithynia.”
Caesar was mired, too, in crippling debt—accrued in the promotion of his own image as he sought to deliver the most ostentatious festivals and gladiatorial games. Deeply concerned with appearances, he performed lavish demonstrations of wealth, exhibiting a penchant for displays of as much gold as possible—and did so by taking on eye-watering amounts of credit. Opponents even ridiculed the way he attempted to hide that he was balding, wearing an oak-wreath to disguise his thinning hair.
Most objectionable to his critics, however, was the explosive form of his message, which threatened to tear the fabric of the state apart. Like Trump, Caesar spoke directly to the people, railing against traditional elites, complaining about noncitizens taking jobs and encouraging violence. Romans had assumed their Republic could weather the threat of iconoclastic populism, that their norms were sacrosanct, that their system couldn’t be brought down. But the consulship of Julius Caesar shattered this illusion in the same way that Trump and Trumpism have radically reconfigured the boundaries of acceptability in modern U.S. politics, revealing cracks in the ability of institutions to withstand the creep of authoritarianism.
The choice made by the Republic guaranteed that, ultimately, it did not survive the premiership of Caesar. Rather, his tenure left the state mortally divided, paralyzed by brutal street violence and sliding toward civil war—a war that Caesar himself would eventually lead against his internal enemies to become the most powerful man in the world—this time, for life. When he was finally removed, it wasn’t a legal repudiation at the ballot box—it was the grisly assassination of a dictator perpetuus, and the damage had already been done. After erupting again into civil war, the last vestiges of the Republic were extinguished when Caesar’s heir emerged the sole survivor to establish an absolute monarchy.
The Roman Republic was much more democratic than many assume from the popular image of toga-wearing, dormouse-eating oligarchs, vying for power in the closed shop of the Senate house. While the Senate usually set the agenda, “The People”—that is, the male, free, citizenry—voted, in person, on almost every law, declaring war, determining government spending and electing magistrates.
At the heart of this democracy was a battleground of public opinion and ideology, the contio—the public meeting held in the forum in the shadow of Rome’s most sacred monuments.
This raucous organ of direct democracy was central to the Republic. As the official means by which legislation and public information were put to the people and debated, it was not a place for the faint of heart; there are stories of shouts at the contio so loud they knocked birds out of the sky—and the risk of riots or even lynching was ever-present. Yet for centuries, the contio was constrained by a set of norms—known as mos maiorum, or the “ways of the ancestors”—that balanced the sovereignty of the people with the authority of the state.
Though powerful and essential in the administration of the Republic, the contio’s power was limited by the powers of other branches of government. It worked in conjunction with the Senate as the means by which that body gauged public opinion and sought to build consent and consensus. Most importantly, the magistrates that officiated meetings rarely strayed too far from sanctioned kinds of political communication. Abiding by laws, conventions and a sense of constitutional propriety represented a faith in the eternal state itself—a kind of Roman “originalism.”
But this faith in the constitution—this insistence that politics would always be done “the right way” in the end, and that mechanisms always existed to correct threats to the system—was a powerful illusion, belying the deep structural vulnerabilities within the state.
The spell broke during Julius Caesar’s consulship, when he first ascended the speaker’s platform. Caesar turned the contio from an arena of fierce, multisided debate into a rally, addressing crowds of the faithful with calls for resistance against the corruption of the elites—a “drain the swamp” message that fostered massive support among disaffected plebeians.
Caesar bypassed the ordinary channels of power: Typically, consuls worked closely with the other great institution of state, the Senate—but, upon meeting resistance there from opponents who would not ratify his radical legislation, Caesar simply walked away. He chose, instead, to broadcast his ideological message directly to the people in the forum. In this way, Caesar managed to circumvent the checks and balances on consular power that had been in place for centuries, while solidifying his support among the people. A vote would be held on his legislation without senatorial approval, he announced. This was, technically, an illegal political move—but one justified as the Will of the People.
This early form of “Twitter democracy” must have felt radical and empowering. But it was also dangerous. As real debate and discussion disappeared, the citizen body became ever more radicalized into opposed ideological camps. As Plutarch tells us, prominent opponents of Caesar began to be afraid to go out in public without protection; political violence was becoming an inevitability.
The tipping point came on the eve of an important vote. Caesar was holding an assembly to pass his landmark piece of land reform legislation, when a number of highly prominent magistrates—including Caesar’s co-consul that year, Marcus Bibulus—arrived at the voting pens to exercise their legal veto. Suddenly, Caesar’s supporters attacked. It was unthinkable; two Tribunes of the People (whose bodies were considered sacrosanct by divine law) and Bibulus were set upon; in the attack, Bibulus’ fasces—the symbolic totem of state authority—were broken, and—adding the most profound insult to literal injury—a bucket of excrement was thrown over him. Wounded and humiliated, the magistrates retreated to the Senate, and the law passed unopposed.
When Caesar declared that there was nothing to gain by engaging politically with his opponents, and instead addressed his loyal followers directly, he embarked on a political arms race that drew the battle lines of an internal conflict that consumed Rome for a generation. The same is happening in America today. When Trump communicates at the contio of social media, there is no debate, no call for consensus or cooperation, simply a merry-go-round of tweets attacking the “corrupt elite” and promoting the brand of Trumpism. As this year’s critical election has drawn closer, Trump’s rhetoric has become more inflammatory, painting opponents as corrupt or malign, courting conspiracy theories like QAnon, and framing American politics as a war between good and evil. The corresponding rise in violence—from the vigilantism in response to Black Lives Matter to the plot to abduct Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan—is alarming.
At the same time, the U.S., like Rome, is experiencing a profound shift toward acceptance of authoritarianism. Returning to the Senate after the attack, Bibulus attempted to have Caesar denounced for what was clearly an illegal act—the veto had still been declared, protested Bibulus, despite the chaos in the forum. Nevertheless, though the chance was there to disavow Caesar, at the crucial moment, he was acquitted. Caesar had embedded supporters—through favors and the promise of material gain—into the state apparatus, apologists who could block, maneuver and misinform on Caesar’s behalf and who cared more about power than about protecting the rule of law. The strength of Caesar’s support meant that his removal risked an armed, popular coup. Caesar left office only with assurances and massive personal gain: the governorship of an unprecedented three provinces, an army, and immunity from prosecution. Today, as with Caesar and the Roman Senate, the Republican Party’s pivot from opposition to full-throated support of Trump after his election victory four years ago has transformed the GOP into an institution that is simply unwilling to stand up to the president.
At the same time, opponents of both Trump and Caesar have woefully misunderstood their appeal. As with Trump, Caesar’s image was mired in what his opposition always felt would be his downfall; his braggadocio, his hostility toward political opponents, a history of financial, political and sexual irregularities. And yet, the more outrageously he behaved, the more devoted his followers became. The political class of both Caesar and Trump’s time failed to understand the image as part and parcel of the underlying message; these men were crusading on a platform of smashing the conventions of the state for their own benefit, conventions which meant little to their fervent supporters.
Trump’s opponents, too, have often reacted like Caesar’s: at first with pearl-clutching incredulity about his “unpresidential” image while failing completely to deal with the power of his message—followed by a propensity to adopt a Trumpian, Caesarean style of “us vs. them” communication themselves. The first presidential debate confirmed this shift, as Biden responded to Trump’s constant attacks with needling, personal rebuttals. Many Democrats don’t advocate a return to “normalcy” brought about by reconciliation, but are rather preparing for a reckoning if Biden wins—expanding and packing the Supreme Court, extending the franchise of statehood and securing the conviction of the Trump leadership.
These parallels come with a warning for the United States today: Two thousand years ago, many establishment Romans misunderstood the damage that Caesar was doing to the state’s political culture and institutions, and a nervously asserted sense of complacency continued in certain circles. History’s most famous orator, Cicero, decried this complacency—the belief that the damage of “one bad consul” could always be undone. In Rome, that was far from the case: Caesar left office legitimized, emboldened and—even in his absence—an ever-present force in the political landscape of Republican Rome. When he departed for the provinces, the rot of authoritarian populism had already set in. Rome fell almost immediately into civic violence as new leaders of the Caesarean ideology emerged, jostling for power. Even Cicero, whose political philosophy was constructed on the idea of consensus within the state, began to speak of society “divided in two.” By failing to curtail Caesar, and failing to address the deep social and structural inequalities driving ordinary supporters into his arms, the establishment ensured that the tribal rhetoric espoused by Caesar at the contio translated into a destructive and pervasive authoritarian ideology.
With violence now a legitimate form of political expression, when Caesar returned to Rome, it was at the head of an army. The environment of strongman politics he helped to create left civil war and violence as the only effective means of political change—and ultimately sealed his own fate. After he had himself appointed “Dictator for Life,” there was no longer a legitimate political avenue by which to remove him: The result, famously, was a bloody tyrannicide in the Senate house itself. But even with his death, transformation of Rome’s political culture into the rule of the strong could not be reversed, as new contenders emerged for yet another round of brutal civil wars that finally extinguished the Republic once and for all.
The Romans of 59 bc were unaware they lived in a period now known as the “Late Roman Republic.” The same will be true of whatever time historians of the future refer to as the “Late American Republic.” If that period is to be averted, the lessons of the past must be learned. Rome’s example tells us that the ability to debate is necessary for democracy to function. Rule by social media and a breakdown in the ability to debate, whereby each message is tailored to each bubble and the same views are parroted back and forth between true believers, serve only to create a nation of entrenched mutual enemies.
Just as the Romans discovered, the political structures of the U.S. are not as robust as many thought they were. The conditions for enabling real debate based on democratic principles of consensus need to be built-in, or written into, the system itself, rather than propped up purely by convention. Today, some steps to fix the fracturing political environment have been taken—token efforts by social media companies to tackle direct misinformation, the much-needed addition of a “mute-button” on the last presidential debate, but it comes as very little, and much too late. The challenge of fixing public discourse in the age of QAnon and Covid-19 conspiracies may be insurmountable, particularly without a resounding result this week that legitimately rejects Trumpism. Nevertheless, regardless of who wins, avoiding the fate of the Roman Republic will require an enormous shift across society, and a frank reappraisal of the weaknesses of an 18th-century pluralistic political system. Real democracy promotes a range of voices; Twitter democracy—the democracy of the contio—privileges the loudest. If America is to survive this new era, it must relearn how to speak, and how to listen.
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