Rages, scandal, chaos: it’s a normal White House

 The shape of Trump's tenure is not unique; just look at Clinton's first year

"Once Trump came into the Oval Office with a newspaper folded into quarters showing some story based on a leak from the White House. 'What the f*** is this?' Trump had shouted. Presidential flare-ups were common enough, but Trump often would not let an incident go, roaring on for too long before calming down."

"A joke among Trump's aides was that it was better to f*** up really big rather than have a series of daily minor mistakes, since Trump identified with the celebrated, all-points f***-up."

"The White House problems . . . were organisation and discipline. The staff was too often like a soccer league of 10-year-olds."

You are probably thinking - and I really don't blame you - that you have read more than enough about Michael Wolff's explosive bestselling book Fire and Fury, the core thesis of which (that President Donald Trump is a retarded man-child) received fresh support last week from the president's own potty mouth and Twitter feed.

In fact, all three of those quotations are taken from another book about another president's first year in office - The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, which Bob Woodward published in 1994. I just changed the president's surname.

A recurrent theme of The Agenda is Bill Clinton's explosively bad temper. His press spokesman George Stephanopoulos told Woodward that "he had seen and experienced Clinton's temper tantrums . . . many times . . . Others called them 'purple fits' or 'earthquakes'. Stephanopoulos simply called it 'the wave', an overpowering, prolonged rage that would shock an outsider and often was way out of proportion to what caused it."

We know from Wolff that Trump is also capable of "rages".

"Typically these would begin as a kind of exaggeration or acting and then devolve into the real thing: uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly-face, tantrum stuff. It got primal."

And: "At points on the day's spectrum of adverse political developments, he could have moments of, almost everyone would admit, irrationality. When that happened he was alone in his anger and not approachable by anyone." This, writes Wolff, was Trump's "fundamental innovation in governing: regular, uncontrolled bursts of anger and spleen". Nope. Twitter hadn't been invented in 1993 so Clinton's outbursts were confined to his inner circle.

My point is not that Clinton is like Trump, of course. My point is that the presidency will infuriate even the best of men. Show me a presidential biography and I'll show you - with a few notable exceptions - eruptions of fury. Yet each presidential biographer makes the mistake of presenting this as a significant character trait of his subject, rather than appreciating that it's structural: the job is inherently maddening.

So let's leave aside personality for a moment and consider a structural interpretation of the past 12 months. I submit that most presidencies have the following characteristics in the first year. The White House operates much like a royal court in the time of Shakespeare - an analogy suggested to Wolff by Steve Bannon, but not a new one. The president is the focal point; access to him is power.

In his first 12 months, however, he is a powerful novice. Those he appoints to key positions are also often new to government. The other branches of government - Congress, the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve - operate according to different rules. The president needs to work with them or at least to avoid their opposition. But to do that he needs experienced insiders, not his campaign sidekicks.

Meanwhile, the press exists in a symbiotic relationship with the government, needing the news it generates, communicating its actions to the voters who elected it, but also seeking to shape those actions by the stories it publishes. Somewhere out there, too, are the other governments of the world, sizing up the new guy.

Irrespective of the president's personality, the Clinton and Trump administrations had the following five traits in common during year one:
" a painful transition in personnel from campaign people to Beltway operators
" because of poor co-operation with Congress, failure over healthcare reform and narrowly won success over taxation (hikes for Clinton, cuts for Trump)
" a fixation on a particular financial market as a metric of success (the bond market for Clinton, the stock market for Trump)
" excessive involvement of family members in policy-making (Hillary/"Javanka")
" lousy press coverage.

In other words, Wolff could have written Woodward's book and vice versa.

Indeed, Wolff could have made the events narrated by Woodward sound so much worse. James Carville, Clinton's campaign manager, was dating Mary Matalin, a Republican spokeswoman who called Clinton "a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger". Zoë Baird, Clinton's nominee for attorney-general, had to withdraw because of tax evasion. Not only did the first lady play an absurdly large role in formulating healthcare policy; Clinton even put a relative in charge of the White House travel office. Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel and an intimate friend of the Clintons, shot himself dead in a Virginia park six months after the inauguration. Now that's what I call fire and fury.

As for Trump and the media, we've seen the movie before. Things were so bad in 1993 that Hillary tried to move the press out of the White House into the Old Executive Office Building. Just as Trump jettisoned Sean Spicer, so Clinton sidelined Stephanopoulos. In neither case did the press coverage improve. Still to come in Clinton's case were David Hale's revelations about Whitewater and the allegations about the president's liaisons with Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Juanita Broaddrick. Still to come was the Chinese attempt to meddle in US elections (the Russians have taken over that role).

Context matters, as well as structure. Another reason the Clinton and Trump White Houses resembled one another in year one was that neither had to contend with a crisis as big as George W Bush (9/11) and Barack Obama (the financial crisis).

I know what you're thinking. Trump is crass. Clinton is charming. Trump doesn't read. Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. Trump is a racist. Clinton's best buddy was Vernon Jordan, a former civil rights lawyer. All true. But does any of that really matter in terms of historical outcomes?

How, after all, did the Clinton era unfold after its first, chaotic year? The president's party lost control of the House of Representatives in year two. He still got re-elected but - as scandal after scandal surfaced - the other side impeached him, although he survived and, with the economy booming, even saw his approval rating rise.

I cannot guarantee Trump's fate will be identical to Clinton's. But what makes you so sure it won't be the same old Shakespearean drama - just with a different cast?


Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

In Praise of Hierarchy

 Established, traditional order is under assault from freewheeling, networked disrupters as never before. But society craves centralized leadership, too.

ILLUSTRATION: PETER OUMANSKI

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.

Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.

But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?

True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.

Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter , told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”

Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.

The printing press helped build a network that bolstered Martin Luther’s leadership of the 16th-century Protestant Refomation challenging the established Catholic Church PHOTO: STOCK MONTAGE/GETTY IMAGES

The printing press helped build a network that bolstered Martin Luther’s leadership of the 16th-century Protestant Refomation challenging the established Catholic Church PHOTO: STOCK MONTAGE/GETTY IMAGES

Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

 

‘Unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world.’

 

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza. This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.

Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.

In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere. At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.

Ambassadors attending the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reset hierarchical order in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.

Ambassadors attending the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reset hierarchical order in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. PHOTO: UIG/GETTY IMAGES

Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.

Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.

Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.

The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.

The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.

It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.

Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.

There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.

Netflix’s popular ‘The Crown,’ starring Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, attests to fascination with the modern British monarchy and its continued stabilizing influence.

Netflix’s popular ‘The Crown,’ starring Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, attests to fascination with the modern British monarchy and its continued stabilizing influence. PHOTO: NETFLIX/EVERETT COLLECTION


Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.

We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.

Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.

We let Lenin rise, millions died. Now it’s Islamism

 The West failed to stop communism and is repeating the awful blunder

Last week marked the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. On the night of November 7, 1917, the Winter Palace in Petrograd was occupied by the Bolsheviks. Seventy-two years later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened. In the intervening period, according to the estimates in The Black Book of Communism, the grand total of victims of communism was between 85m and 100m.

Mao Tse-tung alone accounted for tens of millions: 2m between 1949 and 1951, another 3m in the course of the 1950s, a staggering 45m in the man-made famine known as the “Great Leap Forward”, yet more in the Cultural Revolution.

The lowest credible estimate for the total number of Soviet citizens who lost their lives as a direct result of Stalin’s policies is 20m.

All communist regimes everywhere, without exception, were merciless in their treatment of “class enemies”, from the North Korea of the Kims to the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh, from the Ethiopia of Mengistu Haile Mariam to the Angola of Agostinho Neto. Pol Pot was the worst of them all, but the differences were of degree, not of quality.

Communist regimes were aggressive, too, invading country after country during the Cold War. Moreover, we now know just how extensive and ruthless the KGB’s system of international espionage and subversion was.

Could more have been done to halt the communist pandemic after it broke out in Russia in 1917? And, if so, have we learnt anything from the mistakes of those who failed to stamp it out when they might have?

The Bolsheviks could certainly have been stopped. After all, the only reason Lenin was able to get from Zurich to Petrograd in 1917 was that the imperial German government paid for his ticket — and more. An estimated $12m was channelled from the Kaiser’s coffers to Lenin and his associates. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equivalent to about $250m (£190m) today.

The provisional government thus had every right to arrest Lenin and his band of associates on arrival. They were German agents. And Alexander Kerensky, the Socialist Revolutionary who took control of the provisional government in July 1917, had even better grounds to round up the Bolsheviks: by then, they had attempted a coup and failed.

The problem was that people underestimated Lenin & Co. They seemed an unruly bunch of intellectuals: writers of pamphlets, makers of speeches. No contemporary western observer thought for a moment that their crackpot coup would last. Naive American bankers failed to appreciate that the Bolsheviks meant exactly what they said about defaulting on the entire Tsarist debt. No one foresaw that hereditary nobleman Ulyanov (to give Lenin his original name) was equally capable of ordering mass murder.

Foreign intervention, incompetent liberals, clueless bankers: that makes three reasons the Bolsheviks weren’t stopped. Let me not forget the fellow travellers. John Reed, with his risible glamorising of the revolution, would have many, many heirs. George Bernard Shaw’s callous commentary on the show trials of the 1930s perfectly encapsulated this intellectual deformation.

Not many went as far as the Cambridge spies, who shamefully betrayed their own country to Stalin. But how many intellectuals between 1917 and 1989 turned a blind eye to communism’s crimes? Because Hitler’s crimes were in some way worse. Because the industrialisation of Russia could be achieved in no other way. Because one had to crack an egg to make an omelette — and all the other cant.

Another, less obvious, reason that the communist virus continued to spread for so long was that good men underestimated the Soviet threat and were assailed by doubts about how much should be done to resist it.

From the outbreak of the Korean War to the final confrontation in the early 1980s, even those who considered themselves anti-communist frequently lacked the stomach for the fight. Time and again during the Cold War, eminent Americans — especially the products of Ivy League colleges — succumbed to relativism. Perhaps this contest between the superpowers was really the fault of the United States? Perhaps the US should simply withdraw its forces from the contested grey zones — from southeast Asia, from Central and South America, from sub-Saharan Africa?

And yet behold what happened when the US did that. It is now more or less orthodoxy that the Vietnam War was a great disaster. I am of the unfashionable view that the real disaster was to abandon the people of South Vietnam to their cruel and entirely predictable fate at the hands of the communist North.

Have we learnt anything from this history? Not nearly enough, I would say. It is not just the millennials in Che Guevara T-shirts I worry about. It is not just John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who as recently as 2011 said he “still sees the relevance of Trotsky” and who owned a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book until 2015, when he tossed it at George Osborne in the House of Commons. It is not just the revival of “Antifa” by young Americans presumably unaware of the co-operation between the German communists — the original Antifa — and the Nazis that helped seal the fate of the Weimar Republic. It is not just the rising power of a China still ruled by communists. It is not just the North Korean nuclear missiles.

No, what concerns me today is the entirely familiar response we see to a different but, to my mind, equally dangerous threat. Ask yourself how effectively we in the West have responded to the rise of militant Islam since the Iranian Revolution unleashed its Shi’ite variant and since 9/11 revealed the even more aggressive character of Sunni Islamism. I fear we have done no better than our grandfathers did.

Foreign intervention — the millions of dollars that have found their way from the Gulf to radical mosques and Islamic centres in the West.

Incompetent liberals — the proponents of multiculturalism who brand any opponent of jihad an “Islamophobe”. Clueless bankers — the sort who fall over themselves to offer “sharia-compliant” loans and bonds. Fellow travellers — the leftists who line up with the Muslim Brotherhood to castigate Israel at every opportunity. And the faint-hearted — those who were so quick to pull out of Iraq in 2009 that they allowed the rump of al-Qaeda to morph into Isis.

A century ago it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire, despite their stated intention to plot world revolution and overthrow both democracy and capitalism. Incredible as it may seem, I believe we are capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our existence.

It would be hard to devise a better illustration of George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)

Fetch the purple toga: Emperor Trump is here

 As in Rome’s republic, America’s balance of powers has quietly corroded

Wildfires ravage the vineyards. A hurricane lays waste to an island colony. A great port is submerged by flood water. Meanwhile, in the capital the most powerful citizen of the republic behaves ever more erratically. He picks quarrels with athletes. He threatens to tear up treaties. He relies excessively on family members. He throws tantrums at his staff.

In the Senate and the courts, the old constitutional forms continue to be observed, to be sure. But the plebeians sense that the elites are losing their grip. How could it be otherwise? Every week brings a new revelation about the hypocrisy of those elites. They preach civic virtue; they stand accused of sexual depravity.

And, even as the actresses belatedly bring their charges against the debauched impresario, hard-bitten legions continue their wars in distant deserts and mountain ranges. Increasingly, the soldiers wonder what they are seeking to achieve in these far-flung places. They hear with disgust of the shabby treatment meted out to returning veterans back home. But they console themselves that at least there are generals — men like them, seasoned by battle — in the corridors of power.

Five days a week, on average, I reassure myself that everything that has happened in the United States in the past 10 years is well within the range of normal American history. Two days a week, however, I fear I am living through the republic’s final years.

The cast of characters was especially Roman last week. Think of Harvey Weinstein, the predator whose behaviour was for years an “open secret” among precisely the Hollywood types who were so shrill last year in their condemnation of Donald Trump for his boasts about “grabbing” women by the genitals.

“Women should never be talked about in that way,” declared the actor Ben Affleck a year ago, after the release of Trump’s “locker room” exchange with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in 2005. However, Affleck became “angry and saddened” about his mentor Weinstein’s record of assaulting and harassing women only after it was splashed all over The New Yorker. This was too much for Rose McGowan, apparently one of Weinstein’s many victims, who told Affleck to “f*** off” — whereupon other actresses claimed Affleck himself had groped them.

In my experience few things enrage ordinary Americans more than the hypocrisy of the liberal elites. No doubt Trump too could attribute his sexism to the fact that, in Weinstein’s words, “he came of age in the 1960s and 1970s when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different”. But at least Trump does not pretend to be a feminist. Weinstein raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In January he joined the anti-Trump Women’s March in Park City, Utah. In May he sat next to Clinton at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, America’s biggest provider of birth control products and procedures, including abortion.

“In Rome,” writes the brilliant Tom Holland in his book Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, “censoriousness was the mirror image of a drooling appetite for lurid fantasy.” Yes, that does sound familiar.

No historian of my generation has done more to rekindle interest in ancient Rome than Holland, whose books have given me more pleasure than anything else I have read this year. In his telling, the republic dies too imperceptibly to be mourned. Superficially its decline was the result of recurrent civil war. But the underlying causes were the self-indulgence and social isolation of the Roman elite, the alienation of the plebeian masses, the political ascendancy of the generals and the opportunities all these trends created for demagogues. Reading Holland’s description of the libidinous orgies and extravagant cuisine of Baiae, the fabled Roman resort on the Gulf of Naples, it is impossible not to be reminded of present-day La La Land.

The founding fathers knew very well that the independent nation they proclaimed in 1776 might ultimately find itself in the Roman predicament. In particular, they feared the advent of a populist demagogue. As Alexander Hamilton warned in the first of The Federalist Papers, a “dangerous ambition . . . often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people . . . Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

It was a theme Hamilton returned to in 1795. “It is only to consult the history of nations,” he wrote, “to perceive that every country, at all times, is cursed by the existence of men who, actuated by an irregular ambition, scruple nothing which they imagine will contribute to their own advancement and importance . . . in republics, fawning or turbulent demagogues, worshipping still the idol — power wherever placed . . . and trafficking in the weaknesses, vices, frailties or prejudices” of the people.

And Hamilton was, of all the founders, the one willing to give the office of the president the most power.

Last month, at a conference organised by the former secretary of state George Shultz, the historian David Kennedy presented a magisterial paper on the history of the presidency that left me more pessimistic than I have felt in a long time. As Kennedy pointed out, the presidency has over time become a lot more powerful and “plebiscitary” than was intended by the framers of the 1787 constitution, with its ingenious system of checks and balances.

Congress was meant to be the dominant branch of government. But from 1832 candidates were chosen by the nominating conventions of parties. From the 1880s progressives pressed for reform of what Woodrow Wilson disparagingly called “congressional government”. The 1900s saw the first presidential programmes — the Square Deal, the New Deal, the Fair Deal — sold to the public through newspapers and later radio and television. The 1960s brought presidential primaries and caucuses. With the advent of the internet the system took a further step down the road to direct plebiscitary presidential rule. The result was President Trump, king of the Twitter trolls.

Imperceptibly, the foundations of the republic have corroded. In Rome no one quite noticed that Octavian — or Augustus as he was renamed in 27BC — was becoming an emperor, for the outward forms of republican governance endured. Yet the symptoms of corrosion were all around, not least in the decadence of the Roman elite.

I have never been persuaded by those who fear an American fascism in the style of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. None of the protagonists in today’s American drama would look well in a brown shirt, jackboots and tight breeches. But togas? I can’t imagine a garment better suited to Weinstein and the president-emperor he both reviles and resembles.


Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power is published by Allen Lane

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