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