Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Warnings from the Romans
On your right
“He was quite deliberately making himself hated by the upper classes, and the people, who were delighted when insulting language was used against the Senate … kept on encouraging him and urging him, if he wished to give pleasure to the masses, to show no mercy to important personages.”
Donald Trump? Ted Cruz? Barack Obama maybe, or Bernie Sanders? Nope.
This was the Roman historian Plutarch’s description of Gaius Marius, a political innovator who ruled Rome as a strong man forty years after the triumph of the Punic Wars and whose tactics began the unravelling and destruction of the Republic.
What do the actions of men long dead in empires long vanished have to tell us about the world we live in today? Anyone watching what passes for debate on either side of the aisle here and now knows the answer: What has occurred already is likely to do so again because invention is harder than imitation, and because human motives are similar, always and everywhere. The past offers warnings about what is likely to happen again if we don’t pay attention.
I was reminded of this by the birth of my fourth grandchild this Saturday last. As I looked at him, I wondered what sort of country he would live in at my age, and, as I considered Plutarch, Suetonius, Tacitus and other classical historians, I was not re-assured.
Before the United States, Rome was the most successful republic in human history. For over four hundred years, it was sustained by its traditions of forbearance and frugality, simplicity and honesty, the rule of law and placing the interest of Rome above self. Under these principles, it grew from a collection of villages along the Tiber to rule much of the known world. Then, in less than fifty years, the republic was smashed by a series of leaders who pursued self-interest above all. They who ignore those events and their later iterations are whistling past the graveyard of nations.
For some time, talk of the “national interest” has been absent from our political discourse, its place taken by cults of personality and the basest of appeals to various groups and individuals: blue-collar workers; illegal immigrants; the “one percent,” sometimes collectively referred to as “Wall Street”; women who want unlimited access to abortion; and groups defined by sexual preference, ethnicity, race and other identities useful for sowing division. Candidates openly tailor blandishments to these groups; no one speaks any longer for the nation as a whole.
Political violence is the next step. To date, we have been treated to the relatively benign threat of Donald Trump supporters rioting if he is schemed out of the nomination at the Republican convention. We have also seen more malignant threats against both him and his family, and violent, disruptive protests by well-known Leftist groups aimed at denying him and his partisans their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly. We lack only the next logical step: Violent counter-protests aimed at doing maximum damage to the greatest number of political opponents in ways not easy for the authorities to stop or punish.
At that point, and it seems to be near, the American people will have a choice: Step back, take a breath, and decide to re-embrace the values and principles, which served us well as a nation for more than a century and a half — or plunge headlong into the naked pursuit of personal advantage and self-interest through politics. The former has the best chance of returning us to the self-confident, prosperous, balanced country we once were. It is also improbable.
Much more likely is a deliberate plunge into the maelstrom of division, self and grievance. We will quickly reach a point at which much more divides than unifies us as we glare at each other across gulfs created by our political class to make us easier to rule: Suspicion and hatred are ever the friends of the tyrant. Few will then be able to justify the effort necessary to keep our country functioning. The United States won’t fall to a conquering army; it will evaporate in a fog of indifference to the benefits unity confers and exhaustion from bearing the cost of placating the voracious appetite of the mob.
This has happened in other times and places, and we have no special dispensation against it. The only question is, are we gullible enough, lazy enough and ignorant enough to allow it to happen to us?
Forty-two years separated the deaths of Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar; forty-two years to kill the Republic. Remember that this election year. Inform yourselves about the lessons of the past. Think about who represents the interests of the country. Then participate.
This year, it matters more than ever.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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