Trump and Weinstein: depraved elites who symbolise a decaying republic
Niall Ferguson says the lessons from the latter days of Rome’s republic are instructive – and alarming – when we consider not only Donald Trump, but Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood enablers
Wildfires ravage the vineyards. A hurricane lays waste to an island colony. A great port is submerged by floodwater. Meanwhile, the most powerful citizen of the republic picks quarrels with athletes. He threatens to tear up treaties. He throws tantrums at his staff.
In the Senate and courts, old constitutional forms continue to be observed. But the plebeians sense the elites are losing their grip. Every week brings a new revelation about the hypocrisy of those elites.
Five days a week, on average, I reassure myself that everything that has happened in the United States in the past 10 years is well within the range of normal American history. Two days a week, however, I fear I am living through the republic’s final years.
The cast of characters was especially Roman last week. Think of Harvey Weinstein, whose behaviour was for years an “open secret” among the Hollywood types so shrill last year in condemning Donald Trump.
“Women should never be talked about in that way,” declared Ben Affleck a year ago. However, Affleck became “angry and saddened” about his mentor Weinstein’s record of assaulting and harassing women only after it was splashed all over The New Yorker. This was too much for Rose McGowan, apparently one of Weinstein’s many victims, and other actresses who claimed Affleck himself had groped them.
Few things enrage ordinary Americans more than the hypocrisy of liberal elites. Trump does not pretend to be a feminist. Weinstein raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In May, he sat next to Clinton at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, America’s biggest provider of birth control products and procedures, including abortion.
“In Rome,” writes Tom Holland in Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, “censoriousness was the mirror image of a drooling appetite for lurid fantasy.” That does sound familiar.
Harvey Weinstein’s sex scandal
In Holland’s telling, the republic dies too imperceptibly to be mourned. Superficially, its decline was the result of civil war. But the underlying causes were self-indulgence and social isolation among the elite, alienation of the plebeian masses, political ascendancy of generals and opportunities these trends created for demagogues.
The founding fathers knew that the independent nation they proclaimed in 1776 might ultimately find itself in the Roman predicament. As Alexander Hamilton warned in the first of The Federalist Papers, a “dangerous ambition ... often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people ... Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”
Last month, the historian David Kennedy presented a magisterial paper on the history of the presidency that left me more pessimistic than I have felt in a long time. As Kennedy pointed out, the presidency has over time become a lot more powerful and “plebiscitary” than intended by the framers of the 1787 constitution. Congress was meant to be the dominant branch of government.
But from 1832, candidates were chosen by the nominating conventions of parties. From the 1880s, progressives pressed for reform of what Woodrow Wilson disparagingly called “congressional government”. The 1900s saw the first presidential programmes – the Square Deal, the New Deal, the Fair Deal – sold through newspapers and later radio and television. The 1960s brought presidential primaries and caucuses. With the advent of the internet, the system took a further step down the road to direct plebiscitary presidential rule. The result was President Trump, king of the Twitter trolls.
I have never been persuaded by those who fear an American fascism in the style of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. None of the protagonists in today’s American drama would look well in a brown shirt, jackboots and tight breeches. But togas? I can’t imagine a garment better suited to Weinstein and the president-emperor he both reviles and resembles.
Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power is published by Allen Lane