Hail, Caesar — or Not

     The Republican Party’s helplessness against its own spawn, Donald Trump, is the result of a profoundly sick political system. And the best explanation of it, as usual, comes from a historian who was writing about something else.
     A sick political system “produce(s) outsiders rather than internal political opponents,” Christian Meier wrote in his influential, unflattering biography of Julius Caesar.
     See the genocidal dictatorships of the 20th century, and today.
     The genius of the U.S. political system, until recently, was that it permitted “internal political opponents” to change it — dare I say, improve it. But Trump’s party has made that impossible, in Congress, and now on the Supreme Court.
     Meier wrote “Caesar, a Biography,” published in Germany in 1982 and in English in 1995, with nervous glances over his shoulder at the history of his own country.
     With overt references to Hitler, Meier wrote that Caesar emerged at a moment when unprecedented freedom for individuals coincided with a moment when there was “no hope for structural change” in the government.
     The Roman Senate and consular class had granted themselves so many privileges that when the boldest among them seized everything, they were powerless to stop him. Nor did they want to.
     “Instead of decency, self-discipline and competence, there was insolence, corruption and rapacity,” the historian Sallust (86-34 B.C.) wrote.
     “Great men” emerge at such moments. Meier asked whether the world in Caesar’s day, and in our own, really needs great men. Whether we do or not, they emerge, like Napoleon, during the dying days of a political system.
     Caesar started the civil war for no reason other than his own aggrandizement, in Meier’s opinion. Cicero, who watched it happen, wrote of Caesar: “All his cause lacked was a cause.”
     Like the American Air Force major who had to destroy Ben Tre village in order to save it, Caesar destroyed the Roman republic, claiming he was trying to save it.
     “It seems, then, that power to act co-existed with powerlessness to change anything,” Meier wrote of the end of the Roman Republic.
     Millions of Americans’ well-founded belief that we too are powerless to change anything is fueling the Trump phenomenon.
     “Great men” emerge at times of political crisis, Jacob Burkhardt wrote. And the people who idolize them, the historian said, are spurred by a “sentiment of the most spurious kind, a need for servility and wonder, a craving to be intoxicated by an impression of greatness and to fantasize about it.”
     I cribbed all these quotes from Meier’s book. What struck me was the historical parallels between Caesar’s day, Germany in the 1930s, and my own country today.
     Sick political systems, waiting for a hero to arrive.
     Begging for it.
     Sallust said that though he despised the insolence, corruption and rapacity of his own day, he was “nevertheless corrupted, in the presence of such great vices, by the desire for honor and gain, and became their prisoner.”
     In such a time, Meier wrote, quoting the novelist Robert Musil, “one has only one choice — ‘to conform with the baseness of the age (and do in Rome as the Romans do) or to become neurotic.'”
     Writing of Caesar’s day, Meier continued: “Although there were some highly honorable and responsible men among the senators, their policy-making was desperate and feeble. … Everything was overlaid with endless self-seeking and unrestrained exploitation of position. The general picture is one of corruption and incompetence, of swimming with the tide.”
     So it is that we get today’s discordant chorus, “Throw the bums out!” — except for my bum.
     Do not misunderstand me. Donald Trump is not a great man. He’s no Caesar or Napoleon. He’s not even Mussolini. But he has emerged at a similar historical moment, for the same reasons those men did.
     Trump alone is not to blame for this. We are, if we elect him.

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