Our Rubicon Moment
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
— “Shine Perishing Republic,” Robinson Jeffers
The Rubicon is a muddy creek in northeastern Italy, whose name would most likely be lost to history had Julius Caesar not marched his legions across it in 49 BC, in defiance of the Roman Senate and the laws of the Republic.
When we say that someone has “crossed the Rubicon,” it indicates that they have passed a point of no return. So it was in Rome, when Caesar declared himself dictator for life and put an end to the Roman Republic. Caesar’s rise was an inflection point in history, the confluence of an opportunist and ripe conditions. The institutions of the Republic, weakened by a series of civil wars and partisan infighting, were powerless to resist Caesar’s populist appeal and military prowess.** And decaying and corrupt though they were, those institutions were meaningful; five centuries of res publica, government by the people, were snuffed out.
Today, the vagaries of history have brought us to our own Rubicon moment. Our choice is not Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump; we face an inflection point between further commitment to multicultural, liberal democracy or a backslide into authoritarian white nationalism. Our institutions and governing norms buckle against the weight of partisanship and rapidly shifting social order. And economic inequality drives the rise of a new anti-politics, threatening our shared values and the survival of free government.
II. The Edifice
The men who founded our nation derived our most significant institutions and governing norms from the ideas of ancient Rome. Of the many threats that faced our fledgling republic, none was considered more dangerous than the rise of factions. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison complained that
“our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
Madison hoped that the Constitution, modeled on Rome’s three branches of government, would check the power of factions and force them to compromise on the issues of the day. A free press, the unofficial fourth branch enshrined in the first amendment to our Constitution, would be essential to empower the people to govern themselves.
Other threats loomed overseas. Upon leaving office, President Washington warned against entangling alliances that could lead the young nation into foreign wars. “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course,” he wrote, and for 165 years the United States entered no foreign alliances. Early isolationism was also fueled by suspicions about military power, as the standing armies necessary in times of war could threaten liberty.
And of course, the virtue of the republic would be undermined from within if unfit men were permitted to rule. Our founders presided over a society animated by settler colonialism and chattel slavery. The blessings of liberty were to be secured for the white race, and the prerogatives of citizenship were restricted to the white landed gentry. The mere presence of black Americans constituted a threat. Thomas Jefferson believed that maintaining slavery would lead to civil war, but that black citizenship would lead to a race war; the survival of republican government, in his mind, would require deporting black people to Africa or the Caribbean. President Lincoln would later pursue such a policy in conjunction with emancipation.
Along with constitutional checks and balances and an aversion to foreign wars, white supremacy formed the edifice of our early republican system. The first major shock to that system, the Civil War, arose from a challenge to white supremacy: the movement to abolish slavery. The Confederate gambit to preserve “the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race” was crushed. But since then, we have struggled to accommodate our original edifice to the necessities of multiracial democracy.
III. Pax Americana
The foundations of our republic were further strained by the increasing obligations of global leadership presented in the last century. American victory in the Second World War presented enormous challenges. The United States’ ascendance to hegemonic power and its leadership of the free bloc of nations led to the expansion of executive authority. The struggle against global communism fueled a new, permanent military-industrial complex that weakened the separation of powers and inaugurated the “imperial presidency.”
Questions of citizenship and the expansion of human rights were also primary concerns during this period; the global war against fascism was in many senses a struggle for the soul of the West itself, a Manichean battle between the tenets of free society and the horrors of scientific racism and nationalism.
American leaders justified the new order in a number of ways. Global leadership, they assured all, would be in the service of democratic government and human rights. New institutions would promote free trade, self-determination and civil society. The United States stood as a guarantor of a way of life, willing to “pay any price [and] bear and burden…in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
To the American people, leaders promised prosperity. And, owing to unique advantages in the postwar period, they were able to deliver. The vaunted American Dream lifted millions of ordinary families into the middle class. The majority of these families were white; the policies pursued to create white wealth were closed to black and brown Americans by law and custom.
Our commitment to global order was also implicitly a commitment to protect American business interests abroad. Multinational corporations pushed for American military actions abroad to preserve access to foreign markets and keep the prices of crucial commodities low.
The postwar consensus did not last; another constitutional crisis arose in the 1960s. Marginalized communities continued to resist the dominance of white men in public, economic and social life, while archconservatives denounced shifting cultural mores and distant elites. Upheaval, assassination and economic stagnation prevailed as factions battled for control of the government, slowly eroding norms of compromise and coalescing along racial lines.
The distance between the American Dream and reality during this period was mirrored in the gap between our foreign policy rhetoric and practice. Our commitment to keeping the peace through strength resulted in a policy of constant fighting, covert assassinations, and muddled interventionism. Twenty years of war in Vietnam and the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 further eroded public trust in our institutions and weakened American claims to legitimacy in global affairs.
Today, the declining ability of the American economic system to deliver broad-based prosperity, coupled with costly and divisive interventions abroad, undermine our republican system. Developments over the past quarter-century have brought us closer to an inflection point.
IV. The Crumbling Order
The crumbling of our constitutional edifice began soon after we celebrated victory in the Cold War.
First went the norms that governed our politics and media culture, and protected us against the undue influence of factions. 24-hour news channels and the Internet swallowed newspapers whole, decimating journalism and providing a megaphone for anyone with a half-baked opinion. Gone were the gatekeepers who demanded accuracy and fairness in coverage. The new media, hungry for content and eyeballs, tell their customers what they want to hear. And we are perfectly happy to hear it, through the articles we click on and the digital company we keep. Today there is no universally understood version of truth, just the adjacent realities we choose to live in.
Politicians, responded to the bleeding of entertainment into the news and increasing partisanship by feeding the beast. In 1987, Senator Gary Hart was hounded from the presidential race for an extramarital affair. In 1991, Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court was nearly derailed by Anita Hill’s testimony. By 1998, the private behavior of public men was squarely a partisan issue; congressional leaders attempted to impeach President Bill Clinton for his indiscretions, and several of those leaders were forced to resign instead.
The demand for sensationalism merged with the partisan desire to see political opponents destroyed, not just defeated. The politics of the 1990s were marked by insane conspiracy theories, government dysfunction, and outright character assassination. In Attack the Messenger, Craig Crawford recounts how politicians learned to subdue the media by alternatively feeding them stories for the news cycle and denouncing them in front of voters. Roger Ailes practiced the dark art of attacking the “liberal media” during George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign long before he advised Donald Trump. As trust in the media declined across the political spectrum, many of the norms that constrained political actors or nudged them toward compromise fell apart.
Second went America’s traditional allergy to international adventurism. We continue to maintain a Cold War era network of permanent alliances and hundreds of foreign bases around the globe. A boom-and-bust cycle of intervention and blowback has emerged, precipitating constant crises that require a strong chief executive. The powers of our security and intelligence agencies have rapidly expanded, along with the profits of the defense contractors that serve them. More authority has been concentrated into the office of the president.
Global financial institutions and trade deals backed by the United States made it easier to move operations overseas, hollowing out domestic manufacturing and weakening the union labor that built the middle class. And as globalization brought freer movement of goods, capital and ideas, it also brought freer movement of people in the form of immigrants and refugees.
Third, and most crucially, went America’s commitment to white supremacy as an ideology, if not a practice. Our first attempt at fashioning a multiracial democracy after the Civil War ended in a century of Jim Crow and racial terrorism. We are now fifty years into this experiment, with cause for both optimism and alarm.
That many white Americans, particularly white men, see political participation by Americans of color and women as inherently illegitimate has become abundantly clear during this election cycle. That some white Americans will resist the exercise of political power by black, brown and female Americans – through violent force, in some cases – is abundantly clear from our history. The question today is whether our institutions can withstand the challenge, or if we are ripe for tyranny.
V. Our Choice
Enter Donald Trump.
Like Caesar, Trump is an opportunist; he is a man who fit his times rather than a world historical figure bending history to his whim. He is a creature thriving in conditions that predate him and will, terrifyingly, continue to exist when he moves from the national scene.
Donald Trump made his career generating press – positive and negative – for himself and his business dealings. On The Celebrity Apprentice he expertly blended “reality” and entertainment, transmitting the myth of The Donald into homes across America. He is a master of the new media environment, which praises a perverse version of authenticity grounded in sentiment, not fact. Trump uses his media platform to lie brazenly, taking advantage of our degraded public discourse.
Donald Trump’s authoritarian impulses are well suited for the imperial presidency we have constructed over the last half-century. When Trump promises to bring back waterboarding and torture, to target civilians with drone strikes, and to unilaterally pursue war for material interests, he is not raving like a madman. He is, in fact, recklessly enumerating the worst excesses of our recent heads of state, who have jealously expanded and guarded presidential authority. Ominously, Trump thrills to the abuses of hegemonic power without bothering to pay lip service to the values of liberal democracy and open society that have animated the US-led international order since 1945.
Donald Trump is an avatar for racial and gender revanchism. He captivated many Americans by charging that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, directly attacking his legitimacy to govern. He’s used the same strategy of conspiracy and contrived scandal to disqualify his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He has energized and mainstreamed the cause of white nationalism, presenting the nation an updated version of the racist “redeemer” myth. Trump promises to restore the old order and to undo the injustice of multicultural political participation. Even if that would mean destroying the institutions that made the old order possible.
The choice before us is not just a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Today, we need Hillary Clinton to prevent this particular iteration of Trump from coming to power. But there will be other Trumps – undoubtedly smarter and more sophisticated Trumps – in our future, just as Caesar was not the first general to march his legions on Rome.
Our true choice is this: will we do the hard work to heal our broken politics? Will we reject fear and racial division in favor of the values that have truly made us great – free movement of goods, people, and ideas; representative democracy with a robust press; protection of civil rights and universal suffrage? Will we reimagine a global order that truly preserves the peace instead of sowing instability and discord; that promotes the prosperity of the many, rather than the economic interests of the few; that emphasizes self-determination and diplomacy over the crude instruments of domination and war?
Will we, having come to our Rubicon, turn back?
** The men who founded our nation derived many of our founding institutions and governing norms from the ideas of ancient Rome, and the twin histories of our experiment in republicanism track in eerily compelling ways.
The politics of Casear’s time were sharply divided between populares, who championed the expansion of citizenship and the cause of the urban poor, and optimates, who protected conservative interests and the traditional power of the Senate. Deepening class conflict between patricians and plebeians fueled instability; the stress of military conflict and imperial expansion, the declining economic fortunes of many plebeians and their mass movement to the city, and weakening political norms all contributed to the decline of the old order.
A government shutdown in 133 BC precipitated a constitutional crisis and mass rioting; the elected tribunes of the people were assassinated. Sulla, a general aligned with the optimates, led an army on Rome and declared himself dictator in 82 BC, dealing a blow to the Republic from which it never recovered. Military leaders would continue to dominate politics in the late Republican period, and Caesar consolidated the power of many public offices during his dictatorship. After Caesar’s assassination and a series of civil wars, his adopted heir Octavian established the title of emperor, and the Republic ceased to exist in all but name.