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But Sulla, appalled by the snub, simply refused to follow his civilian orders, gathered his men, and called on them to march back to Rome to reverse the decision. His officers, shocked by the insubordination, deserted him. Sulla then presided over new elections of friendly consuls and went back into the field.

Roman politics had suddenly become a deadly game of tit for tat. When Sulla entered Rome a second time, he rounded up 6, of his enemies, slaughtered them en masse within earshot of the Senate itself, launched a reign of terror, and assumed the old emergency office of dictator, but with one critical difference: He removed the six-month expiration date — turning himself into an absolute ruler with no time limit. Stocking and massively expanding the Senate with his allies, he neutered the tribunes and reempowered the consuls.

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He was trying to use dictatorial power to reestablish the old order. And after three years, he retired, leaving what he thought was a republic restored. What lasted instead was his model of indefinite dictatorship, with the power to make or repeal any law. He had established a precedent that would soon swallow Rome whole. This was no longer a republican culture protected by an austere elite, but an increasingly authoritarian one, with great military leaders and a handful of wealthy men dominating the political scene through money, legions, and military success.

The ancient institutions and customs still existed but were slowly losing relevance.

Trump and the politics of selfishness

The two rivals appealed to both of the factions that had now long since defined the political scene — Caesar was a populist, Pompey a true Establishment figure — and as Caesar prepared to return, the Senate, panicked that another civil war was imminent, overwhelmingly voted that each disarm his forces and deliver them to the state.

Pompey, who was in Rome, simply took no notice. Neither did Caesar, in Gaul, who crossed the Rubicon. These two celebrity commanders had so many soldiers, had conquered so much territory and won such widespread support, that the Senate had effectively become irrelevant.

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It could vote, and it did, but its votes no longer mattered. He used it on a grandiloquent scale; his parades were beyond sumptuous and displayed the humiliation of his domestic as well as his foreign enemies, as the wider public thrilled to the spectacle. He was granted the position of dictator by the Senate to stabilize the war-torn polity, then reappointed as dictator in 48 BCE for a whole year, and by 44 BCE had been formally named dictator-for-life.

At one point, his ally Mark Antony even offered him what looked like a crown. His assassination — the famous murder on the Ides of March — was accomplished not by a mob but by a group of senators, who feared another rex and worried that their own attenuated power — or the republic itself — would disappear entirely.

But it was a last-ditch attempt to save any kind of checks and balances within the system. His reign would last 40 years. Only emperors succeeded him. There is no chance that rival political-party leaders in the U.

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We do not have an existing institution, like the Roman dictatorship, that could be instantly used to impose tyranny. Rome had many civil wars across many theaters as the republic staggered to a close — not one, single catastrophic event followed by a contested but permanent settlement. The vast American middle class that stabilized liberal democracy at the height of the 20th century never existed in Rome.

We have a welfare state that provides some measure of buffer against popular revolt and a written, formal Constitution far harder to flout brazenly than the unwritten mos maiorum of the Romans. But still. We now live, as the Romans did, in an economy of massive wealth increasingly monopolized by the very rich, in which the whole notion of principled public service has been eclipsed by the pursuit of private wealth and reality-show fame.

Cynicism about the system is endemic, as in Rome. The concept of public service has evaporated as swiftly as trust in government had collapsed. When the republican virtues of a Robert Mueller collided this year with the populist pathologies of Donald Trump, we saw how easily a culture that gave us Cicero could turn into a culture that gave us Caesar.

And just as in late-republican Rome, each side has begun not to complement but to delegitimize the other. We have always had a one-man executive branch, a head of state, with exclusive and total command of the armed forces. The two consuls in Rome shared rule and could veto each other; what defines the American presidency is its individual, unitary nature. So what happens when a populist celebrity leverages mass resentment of elites to deploy that power — as Marius and Sulla and Pompey and Caesar did — in ever more expansive, innovative, and authoritarian ways?

When you think of how the Founders conceived the presidency, the 21st-century version is close to unrecognizable. Their phobia about monarchy placed the presidency beneath the Congress in the pecking order, stripping him of pomp and majesty. No newspaper bothered even to post a reporter at the White House until the 20th century. As George F.

Will points out in his new book on conservatism, the president of the United States did not even have an office until , working from his living room until Teddy Roosevelt built the West Wing. Some presidents rose above this level of modesty. Lincoln temporarily assumed far greater powers in the Civil War, of course, but it was Teddy Roosevelt who added celebrity and imperial aspirations to the office, Woodrow Wilson who began to construct an administrative state through which the executive branch could govern independently, FDR who, as president for what turned out to be life, revolutionized and metastasized the American government and bequeathed a Cold War presidency atop a military-industrial complex that now deploys troops in some foreign countries.

And there was no six-month time limit; almost none of these powers has since been revoked. Some hoped that Barack Obama would wind this presidency-on-steroids down. His presidency began with a flurry of executive orders. To advance his environmental agenda, he used the EPA to drastically intensify regulations , bypassing Congress altogether. To push his cultural agenda, his Justice Department refused to defend the existing marriage laws and abruptly interpreted Title IX to cover transgender high-school kids without any public debate. No Democrats regarded these moves as particularly offensive — although partisan Republicans were eager to broadcast their largely phony constitutional objections as soon as the president was not a Republican.

And Congress had long since acquiesced to presidentialism anyway, wriggling out of any serious input on the war on terror, dodging the difficult task of amending the health-care law, bobbing and weaving on the environment. Like Roman commanders slowly acquiring the trappings of gods, presidents have long since slipped the bounds of republican austerity into a world of elected monarchs, flying the world in a massive, airborne chariot, constantly photographed, and now commanding our attention every single day through Twitter.

But Obama was Obama, and Trump is Trump , obliterating most of what mos maiorum remained after his predecessor. Like Pompey, who bypassed all the usual qualifications for the highest office of consul, Trump stormed into party politics by mocking the very idea of political qualifications, violating norms with abandon.

He had never been elected to office before; he was a businessman and a brand, not a public servant of any kind; he had no serious grip on the Constitution, liberal-democratic debate, the separation of powers, or limited government. His tangible proposals were slogans. He referred to his peers with crude nicknames, and his instincts were those of a mob boss. But he offered himself, rather like the populares in Rome, as a riposte and antidote to the political and cultural elite, the optimates.

How America Lost Its Mind

No one in the American system at this level has ever behaved like this before, crudely trampling on republican practices, scoffing at the rule of law, targeting individual citizens for calumny, openly demonizing his opponents, calling a free press treasonous , deploying deceit impulsively, skirting the boundaries of mental illness, bragging of sexual assault, delegitimizing his own government when it showed even a flicker of independence — and yet he almost instantly commanded the near-total loyalty of an entire political party, and of 40 percent of the country, and this loyalty has barely wavered.

If republicanism at its core is a suspicion of one-man rule, and that suspicion is the central animating principle of the American experiment in self-government, Trump has effectively suspended it for the past three years and normalized strongman politics in America. Nothing and no one in his administration matters except him, as he constantly reminds us. His Cabinet appeared to rein him in for a while, until most experienced adults left it as his demands for total subservience became more insistent. Vast tracts of the bureaucracy are simply ignored, the State Department all but shut down, foreign policy made by impulse, whim, nepotism, for financial gain, or from strange personal rapport with thugs like Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, rather than by any kind of collective deliberation or policy process.

Pliant nobodies fill administrative roles where real expertise matters and pushback against the president could have been effective in the past. Congress has very occasionally objected, but it has either been vetoed, as in the recent attempt to curtail U. Writing honestly about this — and the extraordinary upping of the authoritarian ante this presidency has entailed — comes across at times like a dystopian portrait of a nightmare future, except it is very much the present and greeted either with enthusiastic support from the GOP or growing numbness and acceptance by the broader public.

The old-school relative reticence of the republican concept of a president had already been transformed, of course, but Trump ramped up the volume to a propaganda channel broadcasting round the clock, with memes almost instantly retweeted by the president, endless provocations to own the news cycle, and mass rallies to sustain his populist appeal. The press? Vilified, lied to, ignored, mocked, threatened. When Trump has collided with the rule of law, moreover, he has had a remarkable string of victories. Checked for the first time this year by a Democratic House, he has responded the way a monarch would — by simply refusing, in an unprecedentedly total fashion, to cooperate with any congressional investigation of anything in his administration.

Far from being transparent to prove his lack of corruption, he has actively sued anyone seeking any information on his finances. He has declared a phony emergency to justify seizing and using congressional funds for a purpose specifically opposed by the Congress, building a wall on the southern border, and gotten away with it. He has taken his authority to negotiate tariffs in a national-security emergency and turned it into a routine part of presidential conduct to wage a general trade war. And he has enabled an army of grifters and opportunists to line their pockets or accumulate perks at public expense — as long as they never utter a word of criticism. He has also definitively shown that a president can accept support from a foreign power to get elected, attempt to shut down any inquiry into his crimes, obstruct justice, suborn perjury from an aide, get caught … and get away with all of it. He muses constantly about extending his term of office indefinitely, just as those Roman populists did.

Does he mean it? And he has an unerring instinct for where the weaknesses of our republican system lie. He has abused the limitless pardon powers of the president that were created for rare occasions of clemency, a concept that to Trump has literally no meaning. He has done so to reward political friends, enthuse his base, and, much more gravely, to corrupt the course of justice in the Mueller investigation.

He has also abused various laws allowing him to declare national emergencies in order to get his way even when no such emergencies exist. But when the Supreme Court recently lifted a stay on the funds in a legal technicality, where was the outcry? The ruling registered as barely a blip. The whims of one man now determine much of what happens in what we think of as a republic, where power should, in principle, be widely disseminated.

You can feel the difference in the culture. He talks and walks like a dictator, but in practice, his incompetence and inability to focus or plan or even read saves us. That, it seems to me, misses three things. What happened to the Roman republic was a slow slide into public illegitimacy, intensified by the way in which elites played by the rules only when it suited them and broke precedents and norms when it came to defending their own interests, complaining loudly when others did the same. This generated a feeling that the system was rigged, that it made sense to cut corners, or lie, or take care of yourself before you followed the letter of the law.

But when the president himself declares the system he works in is rigged, when he opines that electoral fraud is rampant, when he accuses his own FBI and intelligence services of being corrupt, he accelerates this process of delegitimization. And that matters immensely. In politics, words are not separate from acts; words are acts.

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