Tacitus and the Decline of Republics

Tacitus, the Roman historian, is considered one of the great chroniclers of Rome’s descent into decadence and collapse. In a recent War on the Rocks post, Iskander Rehman likens his descriptions of the mass displays of loyalty and a capricious imperial violence to conditions under authoritarianism, with modern Russia and China as frequent points of comparison. But while some of these ring true, others do not, and Rehman’s piece elides the real likeness that is immediately apparent: the ongoing decline of the American republic as it slips ever closer to barbarism.

This is by no means an omission unique to Rehman. Even today, faced with mounting evidence of the boundless cruelty of the state and the bigoted, avaricious attitudes of its stewards, many Americans refuse to confront the creeping authoritarianism in its midst. Rehman writes, “where Tacitus truly excels is in both his harrowing portrayals of the psychological aspects of life under authoritarian rule and his detailed — and at times anguished — commentary on the quiet inner struggles and daily moral compromises of citizens caught under the deadening weight of tyranny.” But so long as “tyranny” is synonymous only with literal brownshirts and concentration camps – and nothing less – it is impossible to conceive of an America that might possibly be headed in that direction. But as for daily moral compromises? How many compatriots and fellow citizens have not been faced with those, and have to set those qualms and compassions aside lest we find ourselves utterly paralyzed? As Luke O’Neil presciently wrote, about the Trump Administration’s earlier failures to contain COVID-19:

we will come to accept thousands dead every single day as another voice in the churning ambient chorus of suffering we do our best to tune out already much like with gun violence or unnecessary deaths due to the cost of healthcare or the thousands our military kills around the world. Many of us even the “good ones” like me and you already have started to do that in a way right or else how would we manage to function on a daily basis? How do you get up and measure out the coffee and heat up the water and poke your stupid face into the fridge for a nice piece of fruit every morning without pretending if at least for a while that no one is dying outside your walls?

The utter collapse of federal capacity in the face of the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the extent to which “meritocracy” has been exposed as a myth and how any pretense of capability has been erased or suppressed from national-level government. Rehman again quotes Tacitus: “In an environment governed by risk aversion and in which advancement was often more dependent upon imperial good graces than on actual merit, the overt pursuit of excellence could prove perilous. ” However, rather than make the obvious connection to our own hollowed-out bureaucracy and ongoing attempts to fully politicize executive branch agencies, he instead cites the various anti-corruption drives of Xi Jinping as “paralyzing” on low-level officials.

Such comparisons are not necessarily wrong, but Tacitus’s writing on the process of decline bears much more relation to the United States under Donald Trump than to already-authoritarian China or Russia. Superficially, as well: the vicious emperor Domitian is described by Suetonius as taking:

“a personal insult to any reference, joking or otherwise, to bald men, being extremely sensitive about his appearance,” even publishing a haircare manual in which he whined about his capillary loss. Suetonius, ever one for colorful anecdotes, recounts how, in his spare time, the disturbed ruler would while away the hours in solitude “catching flies — believe it or not — and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.”

Echoes of “very nasty questions,” the ongoing saga of Trump’s own hair, and his ability to take anything personally resound, though the idea of having the dexterity necessary to catch a fly beggars belief.

The idea of total obsequiousness and complete burial of facts under a flurry of ass-kissing is relatively new within the federal government: while toadies have always abounded, so too have professionals more concerned with the truth and due process than with satisfying the whims of the president. Unfortunately, they were all run out of their posts by halfway through 2019.

Sextus Julius Frontinus, another governor of Roman Britain serving later under Vespasian, is also presented in the Agricola as a “truly great man” — but only “as far as circumstances would permit,” or only so long as his reputation did not overshadow that of the emperor.

How many administration officials have been ousted because Trump believed them to be getting “too much credit”? How has much of America been on pins and needles waiting for the same fate to befall Anthony Fauci, who has demonstrated a rare willingness to acknowledge unpopular truths, and whose stock in the White House dropped as the American public’s confidence in him grew? (Compared with, for instance, Deborah Birx.) Rehman draws the conclusion that:

Reading Tacitus, one is therefore continuously reminded of the debilitating effects that such caution-driven behavioral patterns can have on authoritarian societies, and of democracies’ ability to more fully draw on their reservoirs of human potential.

Perhaps this is true, but then so is the fact that the United States isn’t much of a democracy any longer. It is in the past week that the choice has become stark, thanks to the secret police tactics being used by unidentified federal agents in Portland, Oregon. Snatch-and-grabs, kidnappings, unmarked vans: these are the tools of a regime long past any pretense of legitimacy.

In an almost irredeemably corrupt political environment where fear, opportunism, and violence run rampant, the line between the oppressor and the oppressed becomes increasingly hard to discern over time as citizens weld themselves — and their bleeding conscience — to the state in a desperate bid for survival.

Police? Federal law enforcement? Military? Boogaloo boys? Three-percenters? All look alike; all blur together. Fortunately the United States has not yet reached the point of outright executions and show trials, but recent pardons of war criminals and white-collar felons alike show how the very idea of “justice” continues to grow ever more perverted under this regime.

To his credit, Rehman closes the piece by arguing that:

[T]he leaders of our troubled democracies would certainly gain from keeping a well-thumbed edition of the great Roman historian’s works within close reach — not as a guide to power but, rather, as an enduring reminder of the fickleness of human nature, of the pathologies of authoritarianism, and of the preciousness of the liberal political tradition increasingly under siege here at home.

So perhaps it’s not so much that we disagree, but rather how far along in the process we are. How far have we fallen? How long will it take to reach the bottom? And if, as it was for Tacitus, withdrawal, resignation, and/or ritual suicide are all inadequate to the challenge posed by tyranny…what then?

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