^ Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman Republic’s Trump
The temptation is to say, of Trump (who even looks like Sulla !) that he is a second coming of William Jennings Bryan, the Plains populist who led a rural coalition of racists, religious zealots, and anti-immigrant nativists, almost to victory in 1896 and as Democratic Presidential nominee twice thereafter. I say “temptation” because much of what Bryan did, politically, Trump has done. The coalitions almost duplicate, and the issues too. Yet what is tempting to conclude cannot be concluded, because Bryan never thought to lead an insurrection to overthrow the republic. Perhaps had he been elected President, and then defeated, he might have done so ? Maybe, but history is made by facts, not speculations.
For 12 years, Bryan dominated the Democratic party. Even in 1912, Woodrow Wilson, although defeating him to become the nominee, felt it necessary to put Bryan in his cabinet. Later still, at the Scopes “monkey” trial in 1926, Bryan was lead attorney for the side that sought Mr. Scopes’s firing for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school contrary to the law there. Yet all of the above shows only that religious zealotry, nativism, and bigotry counted large all that time as voting constituencies. At no time did they command an electoral majority, much less threaten the republic. From the time of Wilkson all the way to the election of FDR, LBJ, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, as well as the election of several Republican Presidents, Bryanism never counted more than one part of a coalition which either lost presidential elections or had diminishing influence on the winner.
The same cannot be said of Trump. He was elected, as Bryan never was. He took the Bryan platform — amazing how persistent are American voting habits, interests, and policy objectives ! — all the way to the White House and made it his to-do list. For his bigotry, religion fetish, and nativism, plus his gross incompetence and brazenly criminal corruption, he was soundly defeated. Yet as the long career of Bryan shows, that pf Trump was likely even on his loss day to live on, more powerful even than in Bryan’s time for having actually elected Trump that once. Had the Trump event ended there, that is all that we would have to say : a political problem, a coalition to be defeated every time, yes; but not an existential threat.
The came the two months of refusal to concede and all that followed, leading up to Trump’s attempted coup against our democracy. The damage has been great, and it will not be un done:
( 1 ) the unthinkable, that a mob of rebels could overthrow our democracy, has now been shown doable, and by whom.
( 2 ) a politics of lies, intimidation, and cockamamie disinformation has proven effective. It will almost certainly be used again, probably often, maybe even will become the default method of politicking on the grand scale.
( 3 ) a previously undared disregard of the Constitution, even opposition to it, in favor of a rebel “1776” — which such charge bruited a lot of the violence on January 6th — has now been dared, and it will be dared again.
( 4 ) racism begets racism, and both political parties now include large constituencies which advocate a skin color assessment of people’s worth and rights. We used to call it “identity politics,” but it has now metastasized beyond politics into employment, school, social acceptance. (Curiously, the Trumpian right appears more inclusive of skin colors than the responding “anti racist” left.)
( 5 ) impeachment pursuant to the Constitution has been rendered otiose. As I have written, it was flawed from the beginning. Impeachment in Great Britain had always been used to oust APPOINTED executives, not ELECTED ones. The workable method for ousting elected officers who abuse their office is RECALL. Impeachment might perhaps have worked, but three Presidents have now been impeached, always unsuccessfully. I doubt that anyone will attempt it again.
( 6 ) Trump made disinformation his hallmark. You don’t merely lie — although he always did that — you invent stuff that did not happen, in a way that allows believers to believe it even more BECAUSE IT DID NOT HAPPEN and therefore can’t be disproved.
(Disinformation is an interesting phenomenon in Trumpism. Besides building a never land of not factuals, it serves as a code, a kind of port-manteau way of saying the racist, nativist, and fake-religious zealotry that actually fuels the people who believe and propagate disinformation. The ugly Congress member from Georgia, one Greene, exquisitely exemplifies the code way in which disinformation conveys bigotry, anti-immigrant bias, and mullah-ish religion. )
( 7 ) The calculated failure of most Congressional Republicans to slam trump to the ground, when they had the chance in 2020, and again now, institutionalizes the methods of Trump ; the disinformation, the lies, the disregard of the Constitiution, the money-grubbing sell out and, consequently, the rampant corruption, the utter nihilism. These are now accepted political methods. I doubt that for long they will be spurned by the democrats; political survival will dictate that Democrats disinform voters, lie to them, advance their own versions of bigotry, social bullying, and actual intimidation. Indeed, some Democrats are already doing these. Visit a “Justice Democrat” sometime, contemplate pejorative terms like “white privilege” or “racism unaware of being racist,” or read a screed upon “equity,” or attend the growing numbers of people being shamed or worse for not saying the right things (rtight as proclaimed by self-appointed arbiters, of course, because if lawless is the way to go, why not ?)
Just as, in Rome, the ruptures wreaked by Sulla upon the republic engendered an equally destructive response by Marius — it would be useful top reread Livy — which extra-legal rivalry led eventually to full blown civil war and the dictatorship of Augustus, which ended the republic altogether, so the institutionalization in our politics of lawless, unConstitutional Trumpism will likely lead to the end of our restrained, self-disciplining republic built upon honor, not ruthless enmities. Our honorable politicians, can, like Cicero in Rome, oppose these events; but let us remember that Cicero was eventually executed on Augustus’s orders. Honor is defenseless against armed bullies, thug gangs and coded mouths. We shall almost certainly find this out, to our utter ruin.
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere