The American Cataline

The continuing of protests against US President Donald Trump is unprecedented, for while protests routinely emerge as a Presidency goes on, their occurrence in what is thought to be the ‘honeymoon period’ is unprecedented. The American people are apparently not accepting the result. This raises the prospect that the USA is heading in the same direction that the Roman Republic did: it converted itself into an empire. The process of conversion from a city-state governed by a constitution with two consuls elected annually, and with a ten-year bar on a second term, to a great empire headed by a hereditary emperor holding power for life, is worth noting. The process may well have set in the USA, making a study of Roman history, particularly the conversion of the republic into an empire, very relevant to the present. Of particular interest at this point would be the Cataline Conspiracy, which saw Lucius Sergius Cataline conspire to overthrow the Republic in 63 BC. He had lost two consular elections on the trot, in 65 BC and 64 BC. Rome was undergoing a series of convulsions at this point, and had elected Gaius Marius consul seven times, in violation of the one-term limit. While the elections were fiercely contested, no election had been challenged. Cataline did not challenge the result. Indeed, his first loss was because his candidacy was ruled invalid. The second time, in 65 BC, he just lost, coming in third. He stood again in 64 BC, and lost again. He felt that the system would not allow him to become Consul, and the only way of gaining power would be by a violent revolution.

Cataline represented something. That was why he kept on polling so much support. But his support was not enough for him to win. His refusal to accept so many losses is similar to Trump’s dark pre-poll hints at armed insurrection if he lost. However, Trump won. True, he lost the popular vote, but he still is President. That was only a potential resemblance. A more current one exists in their support groups. Trump was elected by the economically disaffected, as well as the rich who want their privileges extended and left untouched. Cataline was an aristocrat, whose extravagant lifestyle had led him into debt. He stood for debt relief, which had been a popular measure since the time of the Gracchi, and he stood to gain from it personally; just as much as Trump would gain from tax measures benefitting the rich.

One big difference has been the access to power. Trump got it, Cataline did not. Cataline never had a chance to implement his economic programme. Trump does. At the same time, Trump is facing protests, while it was Cataline who conspired to overthrow the government. Some would see the problem as one of Rome suffering through the transformation needed for a constitution made for a city-state now become an empire. The USA too faces a similar problem: its constitution was designed for a collection of ex-colonies; now it has become a world power.

It should not escape notice that at the time Cataline was conspiring in Rome, Pompey was conquering the East. Caesar had yet to conquer Gaul, while Crassus was the richest man in Rome. Together, these three became the First Triumvirate, which was another step on the way to Empire. Cataline himself had a good military record, but as a commander subordinate to Sulla (the dictator) rather than independently. However, it had already become possible to threaten Rome by military force, and ultimately, the emperor would be he who commanded the most legions. The power of American military commanders is growing. The division of the world into all-arms commands has meant that American soldiers, more likely than not men of great ability, have got more input than ever before into making foreign policy. These commanders have great resources at their disposal. Rome too kept its forces away from the capital, but ultimately Caesar brought his legions, victorious in Gaul, into Italy, across the Rubicon. So far, no American general has crossed the Potomac with his troops, but an unprecedented number have made it into the Trump Administration, including the Secretaries of Defence and Homeland Security, and two successive National Security Advisers.

Another example might be the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century. First, the Ottoman Empire suffered the fate so common to monarchies, of petticoat government, conducted by powerful queen mothers, then those who supported them, the military commanders, pushed themselves to the fore, and called the shots. Pakistan has itself experienced this pattern, where it is assumed that military men are somehow superior, to the extent that they themselves take power, rather than merely maintaining the power of someone else.

Another indication of why Trump might presage a conversion of the American Republic into some form of autocratic rule is the estimate of his rule by Francis Fukuyama, the originator of ‘End of History’ thesis, which predicted the triumph of liberal democracy. Fukuyama in a recent interview said that when he originated his thesis, he could not see liberal democracy being overthrown, but now he could. This might ell indicate a problem with liberal democracy, for Trump was elected after all.

Fukuyama also identified what he represents, noting that the liberal panacea for so much, globalization, had caused a lot of hardship, and it was by tapping into this, that Trump was elected. Again, one circles back to the Cataline programme for debt relief at a time when so many Romans were in debt. The conspiracy was defeated by the consuls of the time, particularly Marcus Tullius Cicero (the other, Antoninus Hybrida, was suspected of being in cahoots with Cataline). The big difference is that Trump is in power, and even the Congress has Republican majorities.

One of the main reasons for exploring Roman history, or rather Graeco-Roman history, is because of the obvious historical parallel to the trajectory of a democracy. However, more important would be the roots of the Enlightenment in Graeco-Roman civilization, and of the extent to which the USA embraced Enlightenment ideals. It is no coincidence that US architecture of that era is so aggressively Graeco-Roman, symbolized by the US Capitol, a reference both in name and in shape to the Roman Capitol, where its Senate (another name directly copied by the USA) was housed.

One of the great ideals of the Enlightenment, carried over to the USA, is the freedom of press. The press must be free to allow the electorate to make an informed choice. The exclusion of several prestigious US news outlets from a White House briefing may be motivated by Trump’s dislike of the press, but also reflects an erosion of those values which the USA espouses. Though, as Fukuyama has pointed, republicans have gerrymandered their way into a permanent majority, the biggest test would be whether the election reflects the will of the people. Trump did not lose. What if a future Republican nominee did?

It must not be forgotten that Republicans have only won the White House since 2000 after losing the popular vote. By that token, they have lost the popular vote six of the last seven times. Historical parallels are indicative rather than predictive, but the USA does seem on a path to trouble.

If the President and Vice-President die before the inauguration, the Speaker of the House takes over as President and serves for that term. What if Democrats are elected President and Vice-President? And a Republican is elected Speaker? Could there be another Cataline Conspiracy?

Cataline was an aristocrat, whose extravagant lifestyle had led him into debt. He stood for debt relief, which had been a popular measure since the time of the Gracchi.

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt