On the Late American Republic
Letters from friends on the American mood
My friend Fred Cole—a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York —sent me the following letter, which I’ve asked his permission to publish.
Most Americans have a vague, uneasy knowledge of Ancient Roman history. There was a Roman Republic. Then came Julius Caesar. There was a Roman Empire. Then it fell. Those four sentences sum up what remains, in our shared memory, of a thousand-year civilization.
Year 146 BC marks the beginning of the Late Republic. At last, the Roman Republic conquered Greece and wiped Carthage from the face of the earth. The destruction of Carthage made Rome the uncontested Mediterranean hegemon.
In the traditional narrative, this victory left Rome without external foes to vanquish; conflict in its political system thus turned inward. The Late Republic is when Romans began to fight other Romans.
We impose distinct periods on history to understand and study it. But who at the time realized they had entered a new period? To them, these were merely current events. Life isn’t experienced in periods. No one announced, “We’re now in the Late Republic.”
Indeed, if the fall of the Roman Republic began in 59 BC with the First Triumvirate, it took half a century for Romans themselves to understand this: It was not until 27 BC that Augustus became the emperor. The Senate, although now virtually ceremonial, survived in form.
The same is true of the fall of the Western Empire. By convention, it is deemed to have ended on September 4, 476, when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus. But it took many more years for contemporaries to grasp the date’s significance. Rump states remained under some form of Roman rule. The powerless Senate continued to convene in Rome before disappearing, as historians put it, at “an unknown date” in the 7th century.
Historical comparisons are often overwrought and overread. History does not simply repeat itself. But it is solemn to contemplate the wide arc of a thousand-year civilization. Let it stand that there was a Roman Kingdom, a Roman Republic, a Late Republican period—and then the Republic became something else.
Let it stand, too, that the American Republic cannot last forever. Nothing does. Even were it somehow to endure, in five billion years the Sun will expand and destroy the Earth. But we are not so distinct from other human societies that we should imagine this: at some point, the American Republic will end.
American geography discourages invasion from without. That leaves destruction from within. America will either divide into parts, or the Republic will become something else.
For historic reasons known to any school child, America is unlikely to become a monarchy. Like the United States, Rome overthrew a king to become a republic.
But before the Republic ends, we will have a Late Republic.
In November, I’ll turn 41. I’ve been paying close attention to politics for at least the past 25 years—long enough to see cycles and patterns and to become very cynical about them.
As Bill Clinton’s second term drew to a close, I heard the odd wild rumor that he wouldn’t give up power. I heard similar idle chatter about George W. Bush and Barack Obama. What if he refuses to leave? What if he doesn’t accept the results of the election? What if he attempts some kind of coup?
Never. This is America. “They say that every time,” I told people. “Such things are unthinkable. That’s not how we do things in America.” I was confident in my predictions. Candidates accept the outcome of elections. Losers publicly accept defeat, as do their supporters, and go home to retire, or try again.
Even Richard Nixon, cynical as he was, knew when the game was up, resigned, and left quietly. Because that’s how things work. That’s how the rules work. That’s how the Republic works.
For the first time in my life, I am uncertain about that. I do not know that Donald Trump will accept defeat if he loses. I do not know that he will tell his supporters that he lost and that they should accept the results. I do not know that he will leave peacefully. He has been laying the groundwork for months—years, actually—to do otherwise.
Part of me says that there won’t be a coup. Donald Trump isn’t intelligent enough, or sufficiently schooled in history, or even sufficiently aware how the government works to know to make a power grab. Structures in place will hold.
But his entire presidency has been one example after another of Trump not knowing what he’s doing and doing it anyway. We have seen example after example of structures and institutions failing to function as intended.
Most American Presidents, upon taking office, are thunderstruck by the gravity of their new position. In interviews, they convey the solemnity and awe of the realization that you are now the President of the United States of America—and the buck stops with you. It is as if George Washington throws a thunderbolt from the heavens and charges them with gravitas.
But Donald Trump has never once indicated that he understands the weight, the responsibility, of being the President of the whole country. The thunderbolt never reached him.
A Donald Trump loss, especially a big one, would be a repudiation of his way of doing things. It would be a repudiation of the politics of catering to a narrow base, of being the President only to his supporters, of the cynical politics of power we see in other countries.
But what if he wins? It will be an endorsement of his banana republic politics. Of replacing skilled, experienced professionals with cynical hacks. Of catering to the extremely narrow interests of 40 percent of the electorate. It will be imitated by future presidents. Why wouldn’t it? It works!
Trumpism, rather than becoming a cynical experiment in misgovernance that proved a catastrophic failure, would become the norm.
No matter how unbelievable this seemed four years ago, there’s a real possibility it could come to pass. The root of my unflinching opposition to Donald Trump is this: He is so dangerously irresponsible that he could bring the Republic to an end.
After all that has happened—all the Tweets, the outrageous statements, the lying, the scandals, the lawbreaking, the chaos, the naked authoritarianism; after nearly 200,000 American deaths and telling people to drink bleach—40 percent of Americans still support him. That says something harrowing about the state of the Republic.
It means 40 percent of Americans are unaware or unconcerned with Donald Trump’s dangerous attitude toward the presidency and republican government. They’re willing to accept a dangerously incompetent lunatic—so long as they get what they want.
This is very new to me. Never have I had to cast a vote that is not based not on my policy preferences, but as a referendum on continuing to have a Republic. Never has an election been this precarious.
It sounds like the usual election cliché. “The most important election of our lifetime.” I’ve heard it every four years since, at least, 2000. But I think I actually believe it this time.
Never before have we had a President who would send in the army to crush protesters if he could. Never before have we had a President who might not peacefully accept defeat. Never before have we had a president who tells people to drink bleach.
Are we now in the Late Republic?
The Late Roman Republic was full of men who put their personal ambition above the weight of their office and before the Republic. Before Caesar, there was Sulla. Before Sulla there was Marius. Before Marius, the Gracchi brothers.
Each destroyed norms. Each broke laws. Each introduced a new level of violence to the political system. Each went further than the one before in destroying the Republic for their own power. And along the way, they were cheered by their supporters.
For the first time in my life, I genuinely fear for the future of the American system of government. The next six months will determine the course of American history.
But if we are indeed in the Late Republic, we probably won’t know for another half a century.
—Fred Cole is a freelance writer living in upstate New York with his wife and many cats. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another friend sent me the following, with a link to this article in The New York Times. He prefers to remain nameless.
Two things must be happening for the Democratic nominee to cut ads against “rioters and looters.” It must be showing up in polling in negative ways; and it must be attributed mostly to the left. The last item is of course entirely correct: The overwhelming responsibility for the civic violence of the past several months is the left’s, as is the overwhelming responsibility for most of the civic violence of the past decade. There is a direct line from the Occupy violence (a leftist movement) to the first iteration of the Black Lives Matter violence (a leftist movement) to the violence in the early Trump administration (a more distributed leftist movement) to the latest iteration of the Black Lives Matter—and Antifa, depending on what sort of opaque analysis you adhere to—violence (again, the left). As has been noted time and again, in the context of the various left-wing city-center seizure exercises of the past few years—think back to the various mass marches and their expeditious nature—there is an apparatus that has been honed here, and it is willing to act.
There is also a cadre of veterans by now, from Manhattan to Ferguson to Portland to Kenosha, with a great deal of experience and understanding of how the system works, and how it breaks.
A few items on this:
1) The Democratic nominee, and the Democrats in general, will denounce specific acts—when compelled—but they aren’t going to denounce the ideological precursors to those acts. This matters a great deal, because the violence is not actually going to end until those ideologies lose their grip on the huge segments of the public psyche. The reality is that if you adhere to a certain set of propositions—for example, that policing in 2020 is morally indistinguishable from slave-catching in 1850, or that the American republic is fundamentally a white-supremacy superstructure, or that immorality is literally impossible for a person of color versus a white person—then violence is both inevitable and, by those premises, justified. There’s a direct line from the 1619 Project to Minneapolis and Portland wracked by unrest. If you are opposed to the existing insurrection on anything more than tactical grounds, you have to directly address this. They won’t.
2) The on-the-ground foot soldiers of the insurrection have no structural imperative to actually heed the Biden plea. They’re in control of the ideological narrative on the Democratic side—remember, this same Presidential campaign has literally been bailing some of them out of jail—and they don’t feel themselves under any particular constraint or pressure from the mostly Democratic city and prosecutorial officeholders in whose jurisdiction they operate. Ending violence means giving up the source of their own power, and no institution is going to do that. Furthermore, assuming for the sake of argument that their actions are in fact a boon to the President’s re-election, the smart radical might ask: so what? If you’re interested in accelerating a cycle of radicalization on the left-base, doesn’t that help?
3) The attempts on the right to mobilize counter-violence will be alternately stupid and doomed. (To be clear, I do not mean here Americans who defend their own property, lives, and livelihoods: but then, who can doubt that the famous 1992 rooftop Koreans would not today be jailed and prosecuted by aspiring Kamala Harrises in Democratic DA offices across the country?) Stupid because the way out of this is not bigger and better brawling street militias; and doomed because the left’s well-honed apparatus will beat them. The recent Portland incident, with a right-wing mob rolling into town with paint guns, and having one of their number literally executed by a left-wing mob with real guns, is the template. Anyone considering getting into the fight and taking on the bad guys, in a manner and place of the bad guys’ choosing, should stay home.
The last item suggests the question: what is the way out of this? The proximate answer is simple: use the police, National Guard, and regular military available to nearly every chief executive at every level across the nation. Lawful authority, the sole actual voice of the American people, must assert itself. Every single mayor and governor presiding over a city in turmoil could do this immediately, and America could be at peace within a fortnight.
But they don’t.
Interestingly, I agree, in parts, with both letters. But I will vote for Biden and urge you to do likewise.
In the coming presidential election, you will not be voting for an ideology or a culture. You will be voting for a person.
Joe Biden is clearly committed to a Republican form of government.
Donald Trump is not.
Biden’s Party has published a platform.
Trump’s has not.
Biden is sane.
Trump is not.
Biden is decent.
Trump is not.
Biden is not Bernie. The Democrats who picked Biden knew what they were doing. The party’s voters repudiated the left wing in the primary. The party’s base—Southern Black women—are people like Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms. They are not women like Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan.
Biden has a mandate from his party. He ran as a centrist; he was nominated as a centrist; he will be a centrist: He is too old to change. Nor will he cede power to his vice-president—or to anyone else. It’s absurd to imagine that after striving his entire life to reach the White House, Biden would at long last land that prize and then cheerily hand over the power.
Nor, for that matter, would it be a catastrophe if he did. Harris is not a woman of the radical left, despite her willingness, when it is politically convenient, to pander to it. She dropped out of the race following relentless attacks from the left criticizing her for her allegedly retrograde record as a prosecutor.
Would the famous 1992 rooftop Koreans be prosecuted by aspiring Kamala Harrises? You tell me: The Los Angeles riots are known to Korean Americans as Sa-i-gu, or “April 29" in Korean. In 2017, Feinstein and Harris introduced a resolution to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Sa-i-gu. Does you really think aspiring Kamala Harrises would prosecute them? Particularly if they are, like Harris, Asian Americans? I do not. Perhaps aspiring left-wing prosecutors would. But she would not.
I’m simply not worried that a Biden-Harris presidency would be a soft-on-rioting presidency. “Ask yourself,” Biden said. “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioting?” No, he does not.
If Biden were in the Oval Office, left-wing mayors would be far more likely to ask for federal assistance, were it needed, to contain any further violence. That they have failed to do so is good cause to vote them out. But it is not a reason to vote for Trump.
Even if Biden were closer to the left wing of his party, however, I would vote for him, because Trump has broken the most fundamental of democratic norms—he is a systemic threat to our system of governance—and Biden is not.
I agree, largely, about the ideological narrative that is driving left-wing violence. But it can’t be repudiated while someone like Trump is in office, because he confirms the narrative. If there’s a direct line from the 1619 Project to Minneapolis and Portland wracked by unrest, there’s also a direct line between Trump’s Twitter feed and the metastasis of far-right terrorism in the United States and Europe. The same direct line links Trump’s ravening about “Third World caravans” of “hostile invaders” from Central America who “kill our people” to Robert Bowers shooting up the Tree of Life Synagogue.
In June, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is bipartisan—to the extent anything is anymore—analyzed a data set of terrorist attacks in the United States from January 1994 and May 2020. They concluded:
Far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020.
Between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. Overall, right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority—57 percent—of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.
CSIS predicted that “terrorism in the United States will likely increase over the next year,” in particular because of the upcoming presidential election.
Trump’s casual bigotry and cruelty have encouraged the radical right. They have also made him—and those he’s encouraged—an ideal foil for the radical left. Trump’s enthusiasm for racist lunatics genuinely frightens racial and ethnic minorities. Including me. Justified fear makes it all too easy for the far left to prosecute its case—and to radicalize minorities in return. It is Trump’s history of inciting right-wing violence that allows our preposterous mobs of young zombie Bolsheviks in Portland and Seattle genuinely to believe they are fighting the Spanish Civil War. These mobs and louts need Trump—and he needs them—to justify their existence.
A vote for Biden is a vote for centrism and normalcy. Will we get that? It’s hard to say. The civic fabric of our society is worn thin. We will certainly not get it, however, if Trump is re-elected. Four years is quite enough for me to be certain of that.
I will vote for Biden, too—and above all—because our international position is precarious. The international order has not been this dangerous since 1945. Trump has severely weakened our national security and our credibility.
I am certain the next President will be confronted with major security crises. The Commander in Chief has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. I do not for a moment believe Biden would incinerate whole cities in a reckless panic or a narcissistic rage. But I cannot say this of Trump. I simply do not trust Trump not to get every last one of us killed. Everything about his handling of the coronavirus has confirmed me in this sentiment.
I wrote, in 2016, ten essays titled, “Why I voted for Hillary.” It has been every bit as bad as I feared.
A second term would be worse.