The parallels between the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the dawning of the Trump era are already frighteningly clear. So, Paul Krugman thought he’d do a little light reading about ancient Rome to take his mind off of the whole upsetting situation. Instead, he found some scary “contemporary resonances of some Roman history — specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell,” he writes in Monday’s column.
Here’s what I learned: Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.
On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here’s what Adrian Goldsworthy’s “In the Name of Rome” says: “However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”
America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.” But now we have a president-elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. (A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though — or, more likely, precisely because — it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election.) Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.
The republic technically survived, on paper anyway. The Senate lost all power and all decisions were made by the emperor. Krugman sees a similar destruction of the substance of our democracy and it is chilling.
Trump is far from the only sign that democracy is being subverted. Look at North Carolina, where the voters’ clear choice of a Democratic governor is being subverted by the. Republican legislature which has stripped him of power.
This is of a piece, Krugman argues, with efforts to discourage minority groups from voting. Trump even went so far as to thank African Americans for not voting. The result could be a “de facto one-party state,” Krugman writes. “One that maintains the fiction of democracy, but has rigged the game so that the other side can never win.”
Krugman’s theory is that the attack on democracy we are witnessing is driven by “careerism on the part of people who are apparatchiks within a system insulated from outside pressures by gerrymandered districts, unshakable partisan loyalty, and lots and lots of plutocratic financial support.” These careerists don’t respond well to criticism and viciously attack those who dare speak up.
Donald Trump didn’t start the sickness overtaking American democracy, though he may be the most perfect expression of it. But the destruction has been underway for decades, and thus that much harder to undo.