Decline and Fall

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March 31, 2019

In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprised the fairest part of the earth,and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. The peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess sovereign authority….

So begins Edward Gibbons magisterial The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The first volume was published in 1776, the year that marks the birth of the American republic.

The Mueller report produced in me an unexpected emotion; I felt reassured; the American justice system had functioned as it should, above partisanship, ideology, interests, and immune to threats.

Prosecutors are not the party hatchet men that Trump would have them be. The president was given a pass by the institution he had worked so hard to discredit, but rather than acknowledging that the Constitution’s protections against a capricious and arbitrary government had worked, this time, in his favor, he has renewed his attacks, with redoubled viciousness. He now talks about a “treasonous FBI” and wants it investigated.  

But perhaps his renewed aggression is because he understands that the decision not to indict did not exonerate. It just meant there was no hard evidence that would support bringing a criminal case. No one took notes at the Trump Tower meeting; there were no tapes. The “collusion” of the Trump campaign with the Russians may have been limited to little more than standing around and watching or offering expressions of enthusiasm for offers of dirt on Mrs. Clinton (vis Donald J.’s “I love it”) but no direct conspiracy, no coordination with the Russian effort.

Mueller carefully uses the word “coordination” to distinguish among the degrees of activity that fit loosely in collusion. That there was a conspiracy, however, to attack and defraud the American electoral system and with the clear intent of helping elect Trump was certain and it spelled out in the July indictments of 12 named Russians who worked for the Russian intelligence services. Was Trump aware of this and did he participate? If so, Mueller found no actionable proof of it. Because he was scrupulously honest in his work, he does not speculate.

Disappointed as we may be about the conclusion, I think truth, in the judicial sense, was well served. Truth, in a moral or absolute sense, is another matter. And so I do allow myself a bit of speculation.

To tease out one thread in the Trump story, I think that in his private talks with Putin, Trump may have hinted at the possibility of easing sanctions against Russia over Ukraine or against Putin’s inner circle of oligarchs. In exchange Trump may have angled for the possibility of a Trump Tower in Moscow and Putin might have nodded (Trump is easily played.)

And we might suspect too that the Russians have something on Trump, something like unreported financial relationships with sanctioned Russian mobsters. Important questions, but Mueller’s brief was limited to the election/conspiracy issue. But he established much.

A number of Trump’s capos and soldiers– Cohen, Manafort, Stone, Gates – were indicted and some are going jail. And other lines of inquiry were opened up: foreign funding for the Inaugural, for instance, and that Trump and his organization may have committed insurance and tax fraud over a period of years.

As Mueller turned over stones, the NY Times and Washington Post dug deeper and revealed that Trump was not the self-made billionaire that he claimed to be (he was daddy’s project from the beginning); that only one bank (Deutsche Bank) would deal with him and that an investigation of said bank is just beginning; and that major American corporations, Facebook notably, consciously allowed themselves to be used to undermine the democracy. Mueller leaves a legacy of honorable professional conduct and, I suspect, a suitcase full of leads.

Compare Robert Mueller with Ken Starr who, as the Republican’s Inspector Javert, puritanically obsessed with President Clinton’s  sex life, charged Clinton of lying under oath for his epistemological duck and weave around the question of what constituted “sex.” Clinton’s evasion, even if lie it was, about whether fellatio counted as “sex,” was enough for Republicans to come close to bringing down a president.

Trump’s lawyers would not allow the current President to be interviewed under oath about anything because they knew that Trump has no conception of what truth is, that he lies always. Compare the Republican Party of the Clinton episode with the Republican Party of today. Black has become white. An Orwellian paradigm come true.

After Mueller, we still have an enormous problem, one that we already knew we had: Trump’s behavior, character, and suitability for the office. The case against him, the charge that he is unsuitable to be president, is worth repeating in the light of his repeated boasts about complete exoneration: his attacks on the judiciary and the free press; his contempt for environmental science; his efforts to destroy a health care system that the public approves; his transparent racism; his tacit support for white supremacists; his refusal to condemn the worst crimes of the worst leaders of the least democratic states, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, North Korea, and Russia; his cozy relationships with the leaders of hostile powers; his efforts to undermine the ‘Western alliance and his advocacy of policies that align with those of Moscow. His cruelty, his lies, his corruption,  his demagoguery, his shamelessness. All that is still with us.

What a long way we have come! From the America of my childhood, Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, to Trump. The American democracy (with plenty of problems to be sure) suddenly finds itself on the edge of becoming, by popular acclaim, a dictatorship – 80% of Republicans support the President.

It is the same path Germany took to Hitler and  that Italy took to Mussolini. The people, disoriented and anxious, wanted to be taken in hand and the demagogue appeared on cue. So in thinking about Trump, let us dispense with the word “authoritarian;” the hard word to say and to get one’s mind around is “dictator.”

Trump has no respect for the political principals that America stands for and is actively undoing the Constitution’s protections against the rise of a tyrant. The tyrant was the Founder’s greatest fear. But since “king” and “emperor” are not in the modern vocabulary, we are left with “dictator.” And the Republican Party, trapped in a sort of collective Stockholm Syndrome*, is letting him get away with it. It is a moment of terrible danger, a grotesque Second Coming;  Yeat’s ” rough beast” is Donald Trump.

How did the America get to this abject state? Edward Gibbon asked the same question about the Roman Republic; he set out to “deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall.” Can the same sort of exercise be engaged in with respect to the United States? Not certainly in a few pages (Gibbon’s great work is three volumes long.) But spurred by a longing for a return of the “Better Angels of our Nature,” I’ve made an amateur’s effort.  

My perspective is that of a child of the “greatest generation,” one who still believes that America’s sacrifice between 1940 and 1945 especially, and between 1945 and 1990 in respect to the Soviet Union, saved civilization from the barbarians. Hyperbolic? Perhaps a bit, but despite its imperfections, I, and I am sure many others, believe that America stood for the best values that human societies have ever aspired to.

But little by little, we lost not just the honor, but the protection that those victories had earned for us. We have lost the sense of “disciplined valor,” and discarded the “laws and manners,” as Gibbon described the Roman virtues.  Americans built a virtual wall in Europe and the Pacific against darkness, a wall first of military resolve and then of values. The rant about a physical wall on the southern border is a feint, a distraction. The more important wall has been breached. The barbarian is within; he is one of us. Perhaps he is us. Or some of us.

There are scars in our collective psyche that might provide something of an outline for this lamentable history. The assassination of JFK in 1963, followed soon after by the murders of RFK and MLK jr, mark my sense of the beginning of the decline. The most corrupt of the Roman Emperors, Nero, had his political enemies murdered. In America, something in the national character pulls the trigger; but make no mistake, those three murders were political assassinations, not crimes of passion.  

America is still unresolved about the true meaning of the Republic and its foundational ideas. The existential clash of values that led to the Civil War – human rights vs the rights of money, and about the locus of power in a society, dispersed in the people or in the hands of a few – still torments the American soul.

The frequency of these self-inflicted wounds has increased in the last half century, the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq notably among them. When the arch neocon Donald Rumsfeld boasted that “We are the new Rome,” I marveled at his ignorance. Did he not know how that story ended?

With the slaughter of the innocents at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut, in December 2012, and when the Republicans refused to do anything about it, I saw not the influence of lobbyists, but a disciplined indifference. The house was on fire and they watched it burn; they offered prayers and walked away.

To allow unrestrained military-type weapons to be in the hands of a populace seething with angers and resentments, conspiracy theories and pathologies, was either a frightening political calculation or something worse. If the answer is political, it was an immoral favoring of a fringe, a seeking of partisan advantage over the common good. If it was a “something worse,” it posits a treasonous ambition, a fantasy, perhaps repressed, of the overthrow of the republic and its replacement with an oligarchy of white males, power permanently in the hands of Republicans.

In this scenario, militias of 2nd Amendment “patriots” and renegade solitaries with their AK-47s form a potential a Fifth Column in case the political life of the nation so deteriorates, becomes so seized by parliamentary deadlock (as now), that the Republicans would advocate, perhaps just with a wink, an actual insurrection.

This was the path Germany took. Before 1933, the Nazi’s produced a climate of fear and violence – daily violence on the streets, the so-called spontaneous demonstrations of Brown Shirts, Steel Helmets and Storm Troopers – that led to Hitler’s seizure of absolute power.

If I overstate this danger, we are left with considering the Republican position on guns as a collective mental illness or criminal negligence. Whatever the explanation, the hecatombs of mass slaughter in America – Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, the Pittsburg synagogue – are as sure a sign of America’s decline as would be hospital wards full of cholera victims.

Nero’s Rome was similarly full of slaughter. He, absolute in his power, could have people killed who did not applaud his lyre playing or singing enthusiastically enough; he had them thrown into the arena to be killed by beasts or attacked by paid thugs on the street. To read Suetonius (The Twelve Caesars) and Tacitus (The Annals) is to plunge into an appalling maelstrom of corruption, extremes of luxury and depravity, of gratuitous cruelty and violence, ignorance and capriciousness in the highest places.

Luxury, cruelty, ignorance, capriciousness are all terms that come to mind thinking of Donald Trump. Nero burned Rome to clear space to build himself a vast palace the he called the Golden House. Suetonius says he sang an epic song cycle about the fall of Troy as he watched the flames. Nero imagined himself to be a great singer; as emperor he entered contests all over the Roman world. That he was a great singer was confirmed because he always won first prize. Nero had an insatiable need for attention, notice, and applause. This too brings Trump to mind.

Trump is deliberately destroying the American democracy. Tearing things up, burning down the house, gratuitously, without a plan for a replacement. He wants to destroy what men and women whom he knows were his betters had made. The America of George Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln is being erased to prove that he, Donald Trump is the real winner. His immediate target is Obama’s legacy and the electoral system itself.

At the core of Trump’s presidency is the threat of violence; he has no other argument. If he is defeated in 2020, he may claim the election was rigged, that a deep-state conspiracy is out to get him, and his followers will believe him. They will rise up, he says over and over. In March, Trump made his threats explicit. In an interview with Breitbart, he said “it would be very bad, very bad” if his supporters in the military, police, and motorcycle gangs were provoked into getting “tough.” The insurrection, as far as Trump is concerned, is now.

It’s not over yet. Much is still working. The example of Mueller and the independence of courts not in the hands of loyalist judges (see Vue #22), the Democratic majority in the house, give some hope. Task number one is getting the entirety of Mueller’s report released. Given the Attorney General’s stated biases, a four page summary is not sufficient. The young progressives in the House must be persuaded that in order to change America they must first save it. Nancy Pelosi is the pivotal figure in all this. She has a Herculean task ahead.

* Stockholm syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity. These alliances result from a bond formed between captor and captives during intimate time together, but they are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims.

This term was first used by the media in 1973 when four hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. The hostages defended their captors after being released and would not agree to testify in court against them. Stockholm syndrome is paradoxical because the sympathetic sentiments that captives feel towards their captors are the opposite of the fear and disdain which an onlooker might feel towards the captors.

There are four key components that characterize Stockholm syndrome: 

  • A hostage’s development of positive feelings towards the captor
  • No previous relationship between hostage and captor
  • A refusal by hostages to co-operate with police forces and other government authorities
  • A hostage’s belief in the humanity of the captor because they cease to perceive the captor as a threat when the victim holds the same values as the aggressor

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