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Around the time the American president’s street goons sacked the Capitol to stop Congress from confirming he would soon leave power, the Roman republic crashed into mind. The parallels were there before January 6, 2021, and even before the president’s fans were urging him to “cross the Rubicon,” as Julius Caesar did 2,000 years ago. It’s not that Donald Trump is much like JC. The guy struggles to conquer the back nine with a legion of mulligans at his command. But it’s hard to deny now that Donald Trump’s tenure was the start of something—that this cunning and vicious clown opened the door to a place deep and dark, and that others might soon walk through it. He is one of history’s great vandals, but not the first of his kind.
By the time Tiberius Gracchus got himself elected tribune of the plebs in 133 b.c., the Roman republic was ripe for the taking. It had grown fabulously rich, but the vast wealth from conquered territories and consolidated land holdings flowed to a small group of elites while huge numbers of ordinary citizens were displaced from their jobs by slave labor. The upper classes almost entirely missed what was happening as they enriched themselves and secured plum appointments for their sons. But Tiberius, a man with money and connections if not true patrician stock, sensed an opening and ran for tribune on a promise to fight the elites on behalf of the common people. He was the first of the Populares—the populists.
Once in office, he pursued land-reform proposals with a relentless assault on the norms of the Roman republic. He sought to bypass the senate to enact his agenda. He ran for an unprecedented second term. His followers physically removed one of his fellow tribunes from a meeting when the man tried to veto Tiberius’s bill. In the process, says Mike Duncan of the excellent History of Rome podcast, Tiberius “laid bare before Rome the reality that their laws and traditions were just words, and they could be broken with impunity if supported by a loud-enough mob.”
The echoes are there not just in that Donald Trump’s superfans broke down the doors of the Capitol or that he spent four years laying siege to the republic in his care. (When Congress refused to allocate taxpayer funds for his Big, Beautiful Wall, the president tried to seize the money in an outright assault on the Constitution’s separation of powers. He rejected the notion that Congress was empowered to provide oversight of the executive branch. He declared elections rigged before they happened.) Trump’s appeal was rooted in racist backlash and resentment of the Other, but he could not have made it as far as he did if so many Americans did not believe the system was fundamentally rigged against them, and if they were not plainly correct.
In December, as Congress nickel-and-dimed on pandemic-relief aid for Americans on the brink, and we learned that 8 million citizens had already slipped into poverty, a Silicon Valley honcho bought a $29 million Miami mansion reportedly featuring a million-dollar fish tank so big that it requires a scuba diver to maintain it. In a year when GE laid off more than 13,000 workers, its CEO secured a $47 million bonus. America’s billionaires used the plague year to add nearly $1 trillion to their collective wealth. The $4 trillion these 644 people now control is nearly double the $2.1 trillion of the bottom 50 percent of the population—165 million citizens. Wages have been largely stagnant for 40 years, and the fastest-growing segment of the American workforce is low-wage workers. We are living in the second American Gilded Age, and the folks who are shut out of the party have noticed.
While Trump was never much interested in actually Making America Great, Hillary Clinton was far more foolish to suggest it already was. The nation’s preeminent snake-oil salesman knew enough to channel the anger of ordinary people against a system that had left them behind, then he did little to actually help them. His war was theater, an aesthetic battle against elites, but the damage he has dealt to the republic is horrifyingly real. “The slow slide from oligarchy into tyranny truly began,” Duncan says of Rome, “when some of the nobles began to realize that all they had to do was promise the masses a piece of the pie, and they themselves could have the whole world.”
Tiberius was succeeded by his brother, Gaius, then a parade of other patrician types who billed themselves as the latest vox populi. They flouted norms, then laws, and built new power centers outside the institutions that traditionally governed democratic life. The country jerked back and forth between two polarized factions—the Populares and the conservative senate Optimates—enduring increasingly frequent spasms of political violence until one day the whole thing collapsed. The last of the Populares, after all, was a man named Julius Caesar.
Which is to say: Fear for the republic. The American one. The door is open now, and in the Information Age, events that in Caesar’s time might have occupied a great, sweeping chunk of human history have been condensed into a few years, months, days, hours. It may only take one more ambitious politician who’s learned all the wrong lessons from Donald Trump to drag us all into the darkness. The task that falls to Joe Biden is clear, if not simple: break down the runaway power of capital and monopoly while materially improving the lives of working people, all in four years. It’s hard work staying out of the abyss.
This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Esquire.
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