By Nicholas Nicastro
On January 20, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as our new President.
This unfolded largely as it always has, 57 times previous. There was some reflection – in this case, about his address’s populist tone, and the lack of A-list entertainers for the after-party. Millions of women marched the next day, earning their minute in the media spotlight. Now the punditry will pivot to anticipating Trump’s upcoming State of the Union Address.
But the real state of our Union is not routine. And while it’s hard to predict how future historians will judge our times, there’s a good chance they will observe that we are the last generation of the American Republic.
Not that Trump nor his enablers will ever acknowledge this. Autocrats from Augustus to Putin rarely do. In his life testament, the Res Gestae, Augustus boasted “When the dictatorship was offered to me, both in my presence and my absence, by the people and senate…I did not accept it…When the annual and perpetual consulate was then again offered to me, I did not accept it.”
Forty-one years into his autocracy, Augustus still cultivated the illusion that he was one powerful man among many, primus inter pares. He insisted on this even though the system of distributed power in Rome was long extinct. By that time the Republic had become a zombie institution. It retained the outward forms of the old order, lumbering onward in its politico-religious rituals and trappings. But inside, it was dead.
History doesn’t literally repeat itself, but it whistles familiar themes. There is an almost palpable anxiety in the country now, as we stare down the barrel of a Trump Presidency. Many pin their hopes on historically strong American institutions of self-government to restrain His Orangeness.
Unfortunately, many of those institutions already lie in ruins. Congress is dysfunctional and (according to one poll) in lower repute than cockroaches, root canals, and Nickelback. Jefferson wrote “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” Yet the press today has been discredited, the waters of public discourse so muddied that citizens can’t even agree on what is reality and what isn’t. The independent judiciary, which Hamilton called “…requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals…” is hamstrung by partisan obstructionism.
In short, to believe what is left of our republican (with a small ‘r’) institutions will assure our rights after the next major terrorist attack, or the next constitutional crisis, is to cling to very slim hope. To believe writing checks to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood will matter one bit, when there are armored police in the streets, is delusional.
The signs are everywhere. The demise of settled political norms, which historians Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt call the “soft guard-rails” of democracy, is accelerating with the speed of collapsing bee colonies. To further mix our metaphors, those norms – the tacit but acknowledged limits on what is allowable in government – are the essential lubrication for the cogs of government. Without it, constitutional checks and balances do nothing but jam.
Trump has gleefully defied those norms. Yet the emblematic blow came from Senator Mitch McConnell. In 2010, with the nation still embroiled in two foreign wars and struggling under the worse economic crisis in generations, McConnell – then Minority Leader – declared that “The single most important thing [the GOP] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”As an expression of priorities by a national legislator in a time of crisis, with our soldiers dying overseas and the jobless all over America in despair, this is stunning.
And yet, perhaps more stunning, the GOP paid no electoral price for it. Republicans, after refining scorched-earth obstructionism into high art, after shutting down government and musing publicly on national default (POP! goes one of those settled norms), was not just not punished, but rewarded in 2016. They now control the Executive and Legislative branches, and after having deprived a Democratic President of a Supreme Court appointment with nearly a year left in his term (POP! goes another), soon the apex of the Judicial branch as well.
This isn’t to blame everything on Republicans. Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Iraq debacle, the internet – all paid their parts. The election of the first black President was a step too far for some, triggering a collective breakdown that unhinged half the nation. The work of two hundred years wasn’t undone in the last eight.
Yet the zombification is clearly underway. Not among the marble edifices in Washington, but in the minds of the people who no longer believe in what they represent. Though far apart in time, those future historians and old Romans would probably agree of one thing: if you have to ask if your Republic is still alive, chances are it’s already dead.
It took Republican Rome generations to devolve into a state where an Emperor could make his horse a senator. Judging from the Trump circus so far, it shouldn’t take our President-elect that long to dispose of what remains of ours.
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Nicholas Nicastro is a novelist and former film critic for the Weekly. His latest novel, “Hell’s Half-Acre,” was published by HarperCollins in 2015.