Early on in Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator (2000), an overwhelming Roman force is poised to slaughter assorted Teutonic tribes, with the aging emperor, Marcus Aurelius wearily looking on from a gloomy, snow-covered hilltop. As the tribesmen raise their defiant clamor in anticipation of battle, a young Roman commander wryly opines: “A people should know when they’re conquered.” Within minutes, that point is brought home with bone-crushing vividness as the tribesmen are utterly decimated and consigned to a blood-soaked earth and to historical oblivion. Only then, however is the movie’s underlying conceit revealed.
For no sooner have the “civilized” Romans vanquished their barbarian foes than the Romans’ own, inner barbarian is released. Thus the old, philosophically inclined Marcus Aurelius is dispatched, no less violently, by his upstart son Commodus, a type who at this precise moment in our nation’s time will seem distressingly familiar: suffused with petty resentments, vacillating between bouts of insecurity and sudden imperiousness, and a narcissist who consistently blurs the lines separating crude gladiatorial spectacle from the craft of politics.
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The scene comes to mind as our country awaits the transfer of political power, from a cool, articulate, and circumspect rationalist to a man of Commodus-like temper who by force of his personality and a lifetime record of fraudulent dealings has at last seized the presidency.
In this, the president-elect ended up being supported by party leaders who, temporarily caught up in a struggle between fading “principles,” stung pride, and native opportunism, predictably resolved that conflict in favor of the latter.
Having concluded its long journey from initial disbelief at an improbable candidate to groveling support of the president elect, the GOP is now poised to seize control of all three branches of government and to enjoy the spoils of a post-democratic order whose contours Trump so vividly drew throughout his seemingly endless and intensely divisive campaign.
Ideological purity and personal integrity have been sacrificed to the prospect of unchecked political power and economic interest. Meanwhile, the president-elect traverses his realm on a “Thank-You Tour,” declares himself immune to conflicts of interest, declines intelligence briefings, stokes the passions of his fanatical supporters with irrelevant tweets at 3 a.m., and generally refuses to distinguish between fact and fantasy, promise and fulfillment.
Predictably, there has been vehement opposition, not just to Trump’s often lurid pronouncements during the campaign (a “beautiful wall” to be built; an opponent to be jailed) but also to his policy proposals: to undo his predecessor’s executive orders aimed at protecting the environment; to strip employee rights and protections; to dismantle the Affordable Care Act; to unweave the delicate fabric of legal restrictions governing business and finance and aiming to establish some semblance of parity between the haves and the have-nots of our society.
Both prior to and since November 8th, opposition to the looming deregulation of this country’s established social contract has mainly originated from what has been so dismissively and (as we now see) effectively been labeled the “liberal media.”
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Facebook and Twitter accounts remain awash with conversation groups and anxious posts recalling or uncovering pertinent statistics and “facts” (a quaint word, it now seems); and social media are deluged with well-meaning advice about how to “fight back” or, more realistically, how to “survive” the coming Trump administration. And, underneath it all, the basso continuo is always the same: “How could it all have gone so wrong so suddenly?”
Which brings me back to my initial quote: “A people should know when they’re conquered.”
For so consumed have Americans been with the startling sea-change in national politics here, that they are only now, and arguably too late, beginning to realize that the shift to an autocratic form of politics in this country is part of a global pattern that has been unfolding ever since Vladimir Putin rapidly transitioned from Prime Minister (1999) to President (2000) of a crumbling and shrinking, post-Soviet empire.
Putin’s ascent was nothing if not Commodus-like as his charismatic machismo obscured unpleasant economic and geopolitical realities. As has often been observed, facts have had little or no standing during the Putin era (nor, indeed, during the eight decades or so preceding it); and anyone attempting to rouse an increasingly apathetic public with details about Russia’s pervasive corruption, the brazen manipulation of the judiciary by a small elite of oligarchs, or the staggering costs of state-sponsored violence in Chechnya and elsewhere, was silenced quickly and decisively. Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov could tell us all about that if they were still alive.
In the context of U. S. politics, raising the tragic fate of Russian journalists and politicians who paid the ultimate price for exposing their leaders’ countless depredations may seem groundlessly alarmist. Unburdened by first-hand experience or detailed knowledge of twentieth-century totalitarianism, most Americans may yet prefer to dismiss, even ridicule, any suggestion that similar state-sponsored killings and repression could ever play out on the streets of Washington or Dallas. Time will tell. Still, evidence is mounting that a similar campaign of intimidation has already begun in this country.
Consider hundreds of documented instances of hate-speech and violent attacks that followed the November 8 election or such the president-elect’s decision to invite CEO’s of the major news organizations for a widely-reported dressing-down at Trump Tower in NYC less than two weeks after the election. The proposition so unsubtly extended on the occasion was plain enough: give up your claim to independent and critical reporting, or lose all access to information.
Meanwhile, having steadily expanded his game plan, Putin for the past several years has systematically, and lately in increasingly brazen fashion, sponsored Western Europe’s far-right parties as they plot to overturn democratic institutions and processes across Europe. He has acted as an ideological and financial sponsor of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front in France and, just this week, has signed a cooperative agreement with Austria’s far-right Freedom Party.
Putin’s autocratic style has served as the template for ultra-nationalist leaders in Poland and Hungary, and it shapes the aspirations of other far-right politicians diligently working to destabilize and, in time, overthrow a seemingly threadbare and irresolute liberal-democratic framework in Italy, Holland, and Germany.
Yet the consummation of Putin’s carefully orchestrated destabilizing of his Western competitors must surely be this country’s election on November 8th. Already, the president elect and his foreign policy advisors have removed Russia from the list of this country’s major threats; and all indications are that Putin’s strategy will pay off handsomely as the reputed bastion of liberal democracy (and Russia’s greatest geo-political competitor) is poised, starting January 20th, to join the post-democratic order that he has patiently been forging across Eastern and Central Europe.
Still, it would be a mistake to credit Putin with unilaterally bringing about this fateful denouement in American politics. More accurate would be to say that he has patiently and systematically exposed and exploited the deterioration of democratic process and the self-sabotage of this country’s major institutions, a pattern that has been unfolding since September 11, 2001.
The way stations of our democracy’s by now palpable demise are many: a frivolous and ruinous war waged against a far-away country starting in 2003; accelerating gerrymandering across many of the fifty states driving a wedge between popular vote counts and effective representation; a Citizens United Supreme court decision equating money and speech, and thus drowning out the voices of those without significant financial means; the rise of disinformation networks (right-wing talk radio and social media), all of which have cumulatively erased the one capacity that Plato had regarded as indispensable to a just state: being able to distinguish between truth and opinion.
So, if “a people should know when they’re conquered,” they should also acknowledge their own responsibility for that outcome and, most importantly, should understand the full magnitude of their defeat. Those intent on thwarting Mr. Trump, our nation’s Commodus, need to begin by letting go of all the old verities: traditional demographics of the electorate have proven deeply flawed; the dignified and stubborn appeal to “facts” has clearly proven an ineffectual strategy; judicial redress against the expected depredations and potentially unconstitutional actions of an autocratic president and his administration seems a long shot; and expecting congress to do anything other than what it has always done, namely, take care of its own, would be downright foolhardy.
Here, too, the rise of Putin offers an instructive analogue. For it was his predecessor’s violent 1993 siege of parliament and dismantling of an independent judiciary that had laid the foundation for Putin’s autocratic style.
To be sure, not every coup d’état is sudden and marked by conspicuous loss of life. It can also take the form of protracted legislative and judicial inertia or outright obstructionism, such as we have seen in this country for the past decade: a Congressional majority deciding not to make law but, instead, to thwart all legislative proposals for eight years; a Federal judiciary crippled by countless vacancies (currently numbering 107) that have gone unfilled for years; and a protracted degrading in word and deed of the very idea of institutions (Congress, the judiciary, the media) as agents needed to sustain a viable and balanced social order. Such, after all, has been the daily bread of Americans over the past decade or so, with talk radio, Fox News, and alt-Right websites spewing disinformation and paranoid fantasies on a daily basis. Unsurprisingly, then, distrust in congress, the judiciary, and indeed the presidency is now at an all-time high.
Hence, with this country’s key institutions having long betrayed and discredited their intrinsic purpose, recourse to traditional politics and constitutional remedies will no longer prove effective when it comes to checking a small and rapacious financial and political elite single-mindedly pursuing its interests.
In less than a month, Americans will learn the hard way that their notion of democracy, long thought to be an eternal covenant, has become an empty shell whose institutional pillars have long been crumbling. Four years from now, the oligarchs and kleptocrats about to enter through the gates of our nation’s capital will likely have reduced the Jeffersonian ideal to a fading memory. To be sure, one may hope that America and the democratic ideals it has long taken itself to embody will rise again from the ashes of 2016, hopefully as a covenant of genuinely communitarian spirit and capable of geo-political restraint.
Yet whether post-democratic America turns out a Phoenix or just the latest in a long history of empires fading into the twilight, this much seems clear now: the institutional foundations of our democracy no longer furnish viable grounds for effectively opposing those who have just conquered the Republic.
By Thomas Pfau, the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English and Professor and Chair of Germanic Languages & Literatures at Duke University