The die is cast: why Trump can’t help but try dictatorship

America’s founding fathers read intently Gibbon's account of how Augustus eviscerated the Roman republic’s remaining premises even while persuading them that he was restoring their freedoms. Now we know why.

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
21 January 2017

Augustus of Prima Porta, Ist century, Vatian Museum. Wikicommons/ Till Niermann. Some rights reserved.As Donald Trump rampaged through the Republican primaries last March, I argued here and on the New York National Public Radio station’s Brian Lehrer Show that neoliberal Democrats as well as free-marketeering Republicans were leaving it to Trump to do what his Inaugural Address has left him no choice but to do: to become the dictator of the nationalist, plutocratic regime that he is installing under the banner of what he called “a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.”

He has vowed to vindicate forgotten Americans and, through them, American greatness: “January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer…. I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before.”

Never? Ever? Like never before? As Trump puts his forgotten Americans to work while rolling back overtime pay, benefits, and union-organizing rights, and while protecting those who have already enriched themselves, and channels resentment against only certain neoliberal elites who were complicit in the theft, the word “dictator” will be no euphemism. Let me explain why, in the days ahead, we’ll be left breathless by swift, forceful moves (or lurches) toward an authoritarian, Constitution-warping presidentialism.

Trump’s Inaugural denunciations of “politicians who prospered as jobs left and factories closed” – coupled with his vow that “the American carnage” caused by the hiring and buying of non-American people and products and deepened by crime, gangs, and drugs, “stops right here, stops right now” – leave him no choice but to humble or destroy all those “politicians” who resist him.

It won’t matter whether they’re principled conservatives defending the Constitution itself or neoliberal Democrats who long ago betrayed the New Deal by draping a thin raiment of “diversity” over an increasingly self-serving and, yes, sometimes smug, elitism.


We’ve already seen Trump threaten violence and the imprisonment of his political adversaries and fierce critics. And we’ve watched some of them, from Chris Christie to Mitt Romney, crawl to him virtually on their hands and knees and be humiliated publicly. We’ve watched Trump grab Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by some other part of his anatomy by turning his wife Elaine Chao, into a cabinet member whom he can fire in a heartbeat.

We’ve heard Trump say that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing his supporters. We’ve watched him call on “Second Amendment People” to deal with Hillary Clinton, whom he also vowed to prosecute and “lock up,” only to declare, even more frighteningly, after defeating her, that “I don’t want to see her hurt,” as if that were his seigneurial prerogative, not a matter for an independent judiciary. 

What we may not have noticed is that this frightening course has become path-dependent, and historically very familiar. For one thing, he’s less a challenger than the would-be savior of the American (and global) “regime” of casino-style financing, predatory lending, and degrading, intrusive consumer marketing that has made this financer of casinos and a predatory self-marketer its president.

Past regimes

Some leftists and liberals, among them the leftist writer Corey Robin and the Constitutional law professor JackBalkin have explored the possibility that Trump may fit somewhat normally into the political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s illuminating paradigm, in The Politics Presidents Make, of regime-changing or regime-supporting American presidents. Robin at times seems almost sanguine that Trump is throwing a monkey wrench into neoliberal/market consensus. Balkin comes closer to acknowledging the possibility of dictatorship.

Many presidents have struggled to balance public mobilizations with effective, pragmatic governing, all while coping with their historical moments’ particular clusters of interests and ideologies (“regimes,” as Skowronek calls them), such as the New Deal or Reaganomics. Some come to office, as did FDR and Reagan, championing ‘regimes’ that are rising. Others have to shore up the faltering regimes they inherited because no clear alternative seems viable.

Right now, neither the Reaganite nor New Deal regimes seem viable in a rapidly changing, globally interdependent, democratically fragmenting world. Obama was caught between, on the one hand, the cluster of Reaganites and neoliberals, whose faltering but still powerful markets uber alles regime he helped to bail out and stabilize, and, on the other hand, his own base of seekers of a new New Deal whose time had not yet come. Trump broke through… with a purely electoral mobilization trading in hatred, deceit, and delusion -– a triumph of marketing, not governing.

Trump broke through that paralysis in public imagination and discourse with a purely electoral mobilization, trading in hatred, deceit, and delusion – a triumph of marketing, not governing. It’s all well and good to put some of the blame (as I’ve often done) on smug neoliberals who betrayed the New Deal itself by draping a thin veneer of “diversity” over a self-serving, self-righteous elitism that has divided “affirmative action” blacks from most blacks and “lean in,” corporate-managerial women from most other women, all while forgetting and even openly dismissing Trump’s “forgotten” (and “deplorable”) Americans.

But stoking those Americans’ legitimate resentments cannot produce a better regime, and Balkin acknowledges that Trump may default to ever-more dictatorial measures to channel popular disillusionment. Trump clings to the elements of the failing Republican market orthodoxy that have profited him personally, but when he faces Americans who’ve been screwed by those same elements, he lurches back to old nationalist, protectionist, statist compensations that Reaganism simulated but sapped.

National greatness

Trump’s emphasis on national greatness (like that of David Brooks and William Kristol, who touted “National Greatness Conservatism” a decade ago) was plausible for America when World War II had flattened most other national economies. It flourishes now only in populist denials of new realities.

And it casts a very dark shadow on Skowronek’s observation that “The strongest political leaders in the American presidency, those who have had the most durable political impact, have been those, like Lincoln, who came closest to changing things on their own terms…. [T]he only way for an American president to keep control over the meaning of his actions in office and stamp that meaning on the nation is to reconstruct government and politics fundamentally, in effect marginalizing those who hold an alternative view and compelling their deference.” Trump’s emphasis on national greatness… was plausible for America when World War II had flattened most other national economies. It flourishes now only in populist denials of new realities.

I’ve mentioned some instances of that compelled deference, but a lot of the deference to Trump is more pathetically slobbering than it is compelled. We need to understand why, and perhaps the best guide to what lies ahead is Chapter III of Volume I of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Historical analogies can be facile and sometimes dangerous, and Gibbon had biases, enemies, and agendas peculiar to his eighteenth century England. But as his volumes came off the presses in the 1770s, the founders of the American republic were reading intently his account of how Augustus eviscerated what was left of the Roman republic’s premises and liberties even as he persuaded them that he was restoring their freedoms, using both guile and brutality to enslave them in “an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth.”

James Madison’s, Alexander Hamilton’s, and John Adams’ prophetic skepticism about their new republic was richly informed by Gibbon’s uncanny prescience in passages like this:

“Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom. A feeble senate and enervated people cheerfully acquiesced in the pleasing illusion…”

Gibbon sketches the Romans’ varied motives for exchanging robust citizenship for servility. You may be able to locate some Americans including Trump's heartland supporters and even yourself, in the following:

“The provinces, long oppressed by the ministers of the republic, sighed for the government of a single person, who would be the master, not the accomplice, of those petty tyrants. The people of Rome, viewing, with a secret pleasure, [Augustus’] humiliation of the aristocracy, demanded only bread and public shows; and were supplied with both by the liberal hand of Augustus. The rich and polite Italians [today’s New Yorker readers?], who had almost universally embraced the philosophy of Epicurus, enjoyed the present blessings of ease and tranquility, and suffered not the pleasing dream to be interrupted by the memory of their old tumultuous freedom." 

Especially chilling is Gibbon’s account of how Augustus “reformed” the Senate. For all the differences between ancient Rome’s Senate and ours, and between their Constitution and ours, the hairs on the back of your neck will stand on end when you read Gibbon’s account of how Augustus blackmailed and brutalized certain Senators, so terrifying the rest that they passed laws that passed prerogative after prerogative from the people and the Senate to him: 

“The reformation of the senate was one of the first steps in which Augustus laid aside the tyrant, and professed himself the father of his country. He... expelled a few members, whose vices or whose obstinacy required a public example, persuaded [others] to prevent the shame of an expulsion by a voluntary retreat,… But whilst he thus restored the dignity, he destroyed the independence of the senate. The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.


"Before an assembly thus modelled and prepared, Augustus pronounced a studied oration, which displayed his patriotism, and disguised his ambition.  …[He said that] the humanity of his own nature had sometimes given way to the stern laws of necessity... He was now at liberty to satisfy his duty and his inclination. He solemnly restored the senate and people to all their ancient rights; and wished only to mingle with the crowd of his fellow-citizens, and to share the blessings which he had obtained for his country.


"It was dangerous to trust the sincerity of Augustus; to seem to distrust it was still more dangerous. The respective advantages of monarchy and a republic have often divided speculative inquirers; the… greatness of the Roman state, the corruption of manners, and the license of the soldiers, supplied new arguments to the advocates of monarchy; and these general views of government were again warped by the hopes and fears of each individual.”

You may have noted news reports that Trump was considering creating his own private security force, independent of the Secret Service, a move which The American Prospect has rightly dubbed, “a precedent-breaking decision" that "raises troubling questions about transparency and accountability.”

When Trump’s transition team discovered that the President also has complete command of the National Guard unit of the District of Columbia, it informed that unit's commander, Errol Schwartz, that his dismissal would be effective precisely at noon on Inauguration Day, in the middle of the ceremony, so that he wouldn’t even be able to welcome back the troops he’d sent out that morning. (Two days before the Inauguration, that decision was reconsidered, and Schwartz was granted enough time to finish the ceremony and wrap up his affairs.)

All this is eerily similar to Gibbon’s account of the formation of Augustus’ Praetorian guard after the Senate granted him  “an important privilege:... By a dangerous exception to the ancient maxims, he was authorized to preserve his military command, supported by a numerous body of guards, even in time of peace, and in the heart of the capital.”

Prove me wrong

I don’t see anything in Trump’s record, character or “regime” circumstances to discourage or curb such trends. More important, many Americans, after decades of being trapped like flies in a spider’s web of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered, pick-pocketing and surveillance machines, remind me that Gibbon’s Romans were slow to discover “the latest causes of decay and corruption,” the subtle introduction of “a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire,” until Rome's citizens “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army….” “By a dangerous exception to the ancient maxims, he was authorized to preserve his military command, supported by a numerous body of guards, even in time of peace, and in the heart of the capital.”

The more subtly impoverished and imprisoned we Americans become in the regime that has given us Donald Trump, the more we also resort to palliatives in pills, vials, syringes and empty spectacles that leave us, as Cicero said of his fellow Romans, “too ill to bear our sicknesses or their cures,” capable only of occasional, mob-like eruptions and cries for a strongman who boasts that, having already bought the politicians whose deregulatory excesses and corporate welfare payments have stupefied and imprisoned America, he can “fire” them.

I hope that we Americans will find ways to do whatever we can to prove me wrong. For starters, I commend Six Principles for Resisting the Presidency of Donald Trump.

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