Our Catiline Crisis? | The American Conservative
The classic Mary Beard begins her book in 2016, SPQR: A History of Ancient Romewith a bizarre and unsettling episode dated 63 BC. Took place shortly after the great orator, philosopher, joke and politician Cicero was elected in Rome’s highest office, the consulate. His opponent had been Catiline, born in privilege to an old family, but burdened with a reputation for being unsavory and perhaps criminal.
Shortly after the election, Cicero announced that he had uncovered a terrorist conspiracy led by Catiline to assassinate Rome’s elected officials, destroy the city and destroy its civil structures. The newly elected consul’s sensational revelation was backed up by a package of letters he had received incriminating Catiline and others in the conspiracy. Cicero quickly got permission from the Senate to thwart the conspiracy and save Rome. The extended authority, Beard tells us, was “roughly the old equivalent of a modern law on” emergency powers “or” preventing terrorism “and no less controversial”.
Cataline immediately fled Rome, organized a Ragtag army, and was defeated and killed. Cicero then used his emergency services to round up the suspected conspirators and have them “unceremoniously executed” without a show trial, some of whom are almost certainly innocent. Afterwards, Beard writes, “the great speaker” used his rhetorical talents over and over again to boast of exposing Catiline’s terrible conspiracy and saving the state.
However, since ancient times, skeptics have emerged who find that Cicero’s narrative plays very much in his favor, and Beard suggests that a fundamental question for today “shouldn’t be if Cicero has exaggerated the dangers of the conspiracy, however how far. “After all, she writes, exaggerating an opponent’s malignancy is not uncommon in politics and can show how“ political paranoia and selfishness often work ”.
When thinking about the Cicero-Catiline episode in our time of political turmoil in the United States, one cannot help but notice similarities between then and now. First and foremost, the political loser refuses to accept the election result and tries to tear down the succession structure. That seems to be Donald Trump. But there are also the disgruntled loser’s opponents who are out to exaggerate the episode for political gain. That sounds like some of Trump’s critics warning of what they call widespread right-wing terrorism. Or, in a broader sense, remember those who, in 2016 and 2017, invented and spread accusations of a shameful Trump conspiracy with a foreign power. This “russiagate” passion seemed ultimately designed to undermine the new president and even destroy his presidency on the basis of “political paranoia and selfishness,” to use Beard’s term.
As fascinating as we may find the Cicero story to be analogous to today’s American civil struggles, it is difficult to see which conclusions we should draw. However, if we step back and put the Cicero-Catiline episode in the full context of the 465-year history of the Roman Republic, it becomes more illuminating – and far more threatening.
After 376 years of remarkably stable governance, the brilliantly constructed Roman Republic began to stutter. The polity fell into a regime crisis – “a long, drawn-out, drawn-out spiral of disorder,” as historian Garrett G. Fagan once put it – that lasted nearly a century before the system became so inoperable that Julius Caesar eventually killed it and reinstated the kings of the old days in the form of emperors entitled by its name. When Cicero became Rome’s great protector from Catiline’s mortal threat, Rome struggled with this regime crisis for 70 years. After that, it would only have to last 19 years.
This crisis was complex and involved in various aspects of the social, cultural, political and economic life of Rome. But in essence it was a progressive erosion of what Abraham Lincoln in another context called the “mystical chords of memory” – a widespread constitutional sensibility and heritage that held the people strong and maintained a mutual loyalty to them republican pact. Called mos maiorum and often simply distilled as “the path of the ancestors,” the Roman constitution, though unwritten and vague in concept, was nevertheless generally sanctified and so dominantly governed.
Thus, for centuries, this cultural ethos transcended any problems that might arise in politics, and a bourgeois community prevailed. Then, around 133 BC BC, the political problems that plagued Rome assumed a definitive occupation and penetrated into the heart of Rome’s identity. The subjects became more important than the mystical chords of the state, and politics increasingly assumed a meaningful occupation. The opposition not only had to be defeated, it had to be destroyed. It must also be noted that once the Romans gave up mos maiorum only a little further decryption followed. Eventually, the Roman Constitution no longer retained its traditional influence over the public imagination or control of the machinations of politicians.
In this context, the Cicero-Cataline episode becomes clearer in the context of a much broader regime crisis that led the republic into a downward spiral that eventually led to its decline. This raises some questions for America today: Are we in a similar regime crisis, and if so, can we break out of it and get the country back on the path of its past? We may be in such a crisis, and we will not get out of this crisis without realizing its nature and dangers.
One thing that needs to be said about the crisis of the Roman regime is that those senior officials who struggled inside it never understood what it was, never managed to define it so that they could address it. You were too determined to win the next political battle. Another thing to say is that the two major Roman factions are fighting to define the polity – the optimates or the traditional elites; and Populares, people in general – just couldn’t get along with an accommodating mind. They saw themselves as mortal enemies. One or the other faction had to prevail, or a higher authority had to emerge to settle their differences through unchecked power. This higher authority finally appeared in the figure of Caesar and his successors. As mentioned earlier, the Roman crisis eventually arose out of questions of definition that centered on the true nature of the regime, its essence and what it stood for. The gap between the two visions was huge.
All of these elements of the Roman Syndrome are evident in America today. Certainly the nature of the crisis in America is little understood by our political leaders. They go about their business as if they were engaged in the politics of Franklin Roosevelt versus Alf Landon or Lyndon Johnson versus Barry Goldwater. The politics of those days could be violent and intense, but there was no regime crisis. Today there is, but nobody seems to be aware of it.
Furthermore, there is little interest among politicians today, like in crisis-ridden Rome, in dealing with the opposition in good faith, which means loyalty to the structures of our republic. Consider Donald Trump’s empty governance, sustained by the solid support of around 40 percent of the electorate during his four-year tenure. He couldn’t build on that basic support to form a coalition government because he couldn’t bring himself to work with those who weren’t already wearing MAGA hats.
We see almost the same thing about Joe Biden in the first few weeks of his presidency, particularly his decision to ram a major stimulus package without Republican Senate support. This is also evident in the President’s bold, one-sided actions on the most controversial issue preoccupying the nation in these times: immigration. With several executive actions, Biden has signaled that he no longer wants to seek a middle ground on this matter as Trump does during his tenure.
And the erosion of constitutional rules and restrictions has been going on for years, especially in the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Trump and now, it seems, Biden. These men have shown that if the president wants to do it, he will find a way. Watch out what the ruling Democrats are doing about the huge overhang of student debt. Will they come up with what they claim is a constitutional basis for the president to use executive power to cancel much of the debt, as many top Democrats are now advocating? That would certainly fit a pattern: Bush’s “signature statements” attempting to change the meaning of statutes; Bush’s bugging devices without warranty; Obama is tinkering with the clear meaning of the Affordable Care Act after it is passed, which goes against the intentions of Congress. Obama’s unconstitutional DACA executive action that unilaterally changed the immigration status of illegals brought into the country as children, contrary to current law; Obama’s efforts to pile up the National Labor Relations Board by bypassing the Constitution’s “deliberation and approval” clause (measures the Supreme Court put down in a 9-0 ruling); Trump’s diversion of federal funds for purposes (e.g., his border wall) that have not been approved by Congress; Trump’s statement that he was empowered to take military action against Iran if no such authority appeared credible; and the general growth in size and scope of the administrative state over the years.
The trend is unmistakable and threatening.
Meanwhile, rural Americans are fighting with an intensity of anger rarely seen in American political history. Many of the problems that divide the US factions are clearly defined and therefore very divisible – ideologically between globalists and nationalists; in socio-economic terms between elites and ordinary citizens; geographically between the coasts and transit states; in foreign policy between interventionists and proponents of realism and restraint.
During last year’s campaign New York Times Commentator Thomas B. Edsall produced an astute piece examining the divide between today’s US factions and the increasingly intense passions that drive them. Edsall quoted Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies as saying that more and more people were looking at the election apocalyptically, as if it would “determine the success or failure of the United States.” Such an intensity of political sentiment, he suggested, “increases (actually increases) the importance of the elections in a way that makes violence almost inevitable.” Indeed, violence soon broke out in the country’s capital, killing five.
If America is in a Rome-style regime crisis, we are in the early stages, certainly a long way from the 70-year-old mark that spawned the damaging spectacle of the Cicero-Catiline standoff. There is still reason to hope that America will regain a foothold in the years to come. But we are on a dangerous path and part of the danger lies in the reality that hardly anyone seems to understand the true nature of the crisis we are in.
Robert W. MerryThe longtime journalist and publishing director in Washington, DC, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.