“A republic, madam — if you can keep it.” That was supposedly Benjamin Franklin’s reply to a woman who asked him the result of the Constitutional Convention after it adjourned, in 1787.
Each generation of Americans frets that they will be the ones who fritter the republic away. At least once every decade, it is the sad lot of some journalist to draw strained parallels between the state of the nation and the last days of the Roman Republic. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, this has become more like an annual ritual. My old friend Andrew Sullivan is the latest amateur classicist to try his hand at “We Are Rome.”
The only thing to be said in favor of this analogy is that it beats “We are the Weimar Republic.”
Last week was, as usual, a turbulent week for the Trump administration. In the wake of two politically motivated mass shootings — one by an avowed white supremacist who set out to kill Hispanic “invaders,” one by a left-wing extremist who last year tweeted “kill all fascists” — the president found himself under pressure from a horde of commentators blaming the former on his inflammatory rhetoric. His visits to the crime scenes were marred by characteristically solipsistic and undignified tweets.
Meanwhile, the financial fallout from the president’s latest threat to slap additional tariffs on Chinese goods was proving rather bigger than he expected.
But are these problems best understood as symptoms of an imminent reversion to monarchy or slide into empire? Hardly.
My bedtime reading last week was “Seven Days in May,” a best-selling novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel, first published in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was president. It’s a reminder that “We are Rome” was a much more plausible claim in the early phase of the Cold War than it is today.
Inspired partly by the clashes a decade before between Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur and, more recently, between Kennedy and a noisily anti-Communist general named Ted Walker, the novel — set in the spring of an imagined 1974 — tells the tale of an attempted military coup against a liberally inclined president, led by a Caesar-like chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It is always worth reading works set in imagined futures that now lie in the past. They make you realize how very differently history usually turns out from the way contemporaries feared it might.
The president, Jordan Lyman, is a bookish former governor who has signed a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The would-be emperor, General James Scott (played with wolfish charisma by Burt Lancaster in the movie), regards Lyman as a weakling and a dupe.
This is a quite different American future from the one that actually happened. The fictional president who pursues détente with Moscow is a high-minded political liberal, whereas in reality that was the foreign policy of a Machiavellian conservative, Richard Nixon. The generals in the book have fought and tied another Korean-style war over Iran, a quite different scenario from the humiliating defeat the real generals would suffer in Vietnam.
In every single respect, the authors missed the great social upheaval that was about to sweep America, even as they wrote. The four female characters in the story are 1950s stereotypes: the devoted housewife, the equally devoted secretary, and two foxy Manhattan mistresses. Everyone is white except a couple of White House servants, who appear fleetingly and say nothing. Of a disaffected younger generation there is not a trace.
This not to say that there was no Roman scenario to worry about in 1962. MacArthur and Walker were far from the only politically ambitious generals of that era. General Curtis LeMay, who was chief of staff of the Air Force in 1962, went on to become the running mate of the segregationist George Wallace in the 1968 election.
The point is that the United States has consistently disappointed the ambitions of such men precisely by worrying about a replay of Roman history. And this is where all the “We Are Rome” essays go wrong. The founding fathers themselves were haunted by the lessons of Roman history. That was precisely why they designed a constitution that was and remains profoundly different from that of the ancient republic on the Tiber, above all in the way that it circumscribes the power of the presidency.
Yet the most glaring flaw of the imperial presidency hypothesis is that Trump has no appetite whatsoever for empire. He itches to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. He drew back from regime-change in Venezuela. His approach to all US overseas deployments is transactional (“Pay for our protection, or we’re out of here”). He has initiated a kind of Cold War with China, but he will try to call it off if he decides the costs threaten his hope of reelection.
Americans are too reverential of ancient Rome. Last week I found myself idly browsing clips from the British comedy classic “Up Pompeii!” Produced just seven years after the publication of “Seven Days in May,” it was therapeutic. On a regular basis, the slave Lurcio (Frankie Howerd) has to contend with the soothsayer Senna, whose constant refrain is impending doom: “Woe, woe and thrice woe!”
The next time you read that America is Rome, I recommend a Frankie Howerd roll of the eyes. “A republic, madam — if you can keep it. Or an empire – if you can keep a straight face.”
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.