Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The last years of the Republic

A wildfire ravaged through a forest west of Napa, Calif., last week.
David McNew/Getty Images
A wildfire ravaged through a forest west of Napa, Calif., last week.

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 practice sexual depravity.

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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.

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

Somehow the cast of characters was especially Roman last week. Think only of Harvey Weinstein, the serial predator whose behavior 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.

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

In Holland’s telling, the Republic dies too imperceptibly to be mourned. Superficially, its decline was the consequence 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 northwest shore of the Gulf of Naples, it is impossible not to be reminded of present-day La La Land.

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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.”

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

Last month, at an illuminating conference organized at the Hoover Institution by the great George Shultz, the historian David Kennedy presented a brilliant 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 supposed to be the dominant branch of government. But from 1832 on, candidates were chosen by the nominating conventions of political parties. From the 1880s on, progressives pressed for reform of what Woodrow Wilson disparagingly called “congressional government.” The 1900s saw the first presidential programs — 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 Donald Trump, king of the Twitter trolls.

Imperceptibly, in other words, the foundations of the Republic have corroded. In Rome, no one quite noticed that Octavian — or Augustus as he was renamed in 27 BC — was stealthily 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.

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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 Harvey Weinstein and the president-emperor he both reviles and resembles.

Niall Ferguson’s latest book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power.”