Or Trump vs. Clinton, take your pick.
Several decades before the Senate got stabby with Caesar, there were Sulla and Marius. Sulla is pictured on the left, and that’s Marius there on the right, looking like Lyndon Johnson.
I don’t have enough time to go into all the details here. For those, you should go to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series on the Death Throes of the Roman Republic. The title of that should give you some clue of where we’re headed with this post.
For our purposes, it’s enough to know this highly simplified version. Gaius Marius was a populist general, hyper-ambitious, who managed to get himself elected Consul seven times, at a time when Consul was a strictly term-limited position: once in your lifetime, and that was it. He posed as a champion of the people, while reworking the Roman command structure so that his legions were personally loyal to him, as opposed to the Senate as an institution. In doing all of this, he severely upended Roman political institutions, which were having trouble enough functioning as it was, and mostly in the service of his own ambitions.
Sulla, among others, was displeased with this. If Gaius was a corrupt, self-serving general, Sulla truly saw himself as a Roman patriot, but a particularly ruthless and brutal one.
In his effort to restore the traditional order, and traditional Roman virtues, reduce the powers of the Consul, restore the primacy of the Senate, and return politics to “normal” functioning, he engaged in a series of political and military battles with Marius, eventually ousting him. Upon arriving in Rome, he addressed the Senate in the Forum, speaking over the screams of those his men were beheading just yards away. In the need to sweep away the entrenched powers, he cleansed Roman politics in blood, so much so that when he eventually retired from public life, he was able to walk about Rome without a bodyguard, having killed everyone who could possible pose a threat.
I have been saying for several months now that the prospect of a Trump vs. Clinton matchup – which I frankly never thought would happen – would let me know exactly how a citizen of Rome, circa 80 BCE, would have felt, having to choose between Marius and Sulla.
The analogs aren’t perfect, but if forced to map one contest onto the other, I think I’d make Trump Sulla and Clinton Marius. Clinton has Marius’s ambition and corruption. Trump has Sulla’s brutality (though not his courage) and his appeal is largely nostalgic. Marius had a party; while Sulla had followers, he was mostly a one-off.
None of this bodes well for us, but it should provide a particular object lesson for those conservatives and Republicans who, in their earnest and right-minded desire to have nothing to do with Trump, are in the process of convincing themselves that Clinton would be bad, but not all that bad.
Let’s be perfectly clear – a Clinton presidency would be a catastrophe for freedom and liberty, for actual traditional American values.
Clinton is not only personally corrupt and mendacious, she has managed to harness the institutions of government to her personal ambition. She has never drawn, in her mind, a clear line between herself, her campaigns, and the public offices she has held. It was the Clintons who put a price tag on the Lincoln Bedroom, and continued to run a likely illegal foundation while she was a Senator and Secretary of State, using the State Department to arrange thank yous to foreign governments who had contributed to the foundation. In her zeal to conceal these activities from public scrutiny, she set up a home-brew email server so she could conveniently delete tens of thousands of emails, depriving investigators of the starting end of the thread when they tried to recover them. In doing so, she put the nation’s most sensitive secrets into the hands of hostile foreign governments, likely getting overseas operatives killed.
This is not merely power for the sake of wealth, it’s wealth for the sake of more power. Clinton is not, a some conservatives are telling themselves, a stable centrist. She is a leftist ideologue leading an increasingly ideologically leftist party. What would be her predecessor in office, the current president, has managed to weaponize the IRS and the Department of Justice against political opponents. Clinton would revise and extend that abuse to any agency with police powers or powers of enforcement.
She would be relentless in her pursuit of a functional one-party state. And she might well be able to achieve it.
Over the last several decades, as political power has shifted away from the states towards DC, and away from Congress towards the Presidency. Democrats have been increasing their base in the Electoral College at the same time. Which explains why, even as Republicans have been cleaning up at the state and local levels, and have been ascendant in Congress, those victories have seemed increasingly hollow.
And she would leave no respite at the state or local levels. The are currently test-piloting the use of state Attorneys General in California, New York, and the Virgin Islands to criminalize political opposition. Likewise, the flim-flam prosecution of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the John Doe investigation in Wisconsin were designed to hamper leading Republican presidential candidacies at the local level.
Her Supreme Court picks, who see the Court not as a third branch of government but an enforcement mechanism for the Left, would do nothing to stop it.
In politics, it is organization above all that matters. Those trying to organize opposition into cohesive, coherent, cross-state operations capable of resisting federal overreach or effectively winning electoral or legislative battles would find themselves on the receiving end of audits, OSHA visits, and Justice Department investigations.
Fortunes would be confiscated and distributed to leftist, Democrat-supporting political organizations. Donor lists would be demanded and conveniently leaked. This, too, has already been test-piloted by the current administration.
Hillary Clinton would use all of these tactics and more to pursue her political and ideological opponents to the ends of the earth. After four or eight years of her, following eight years of Obama, that would mean an entire generation had grown up thinking this was how things were done.
In all of this, not one senior member of her party has objected. Indeed, they have either denied that any such abuses took place, or denied that openly political prosecutions are abuses at all.
Make no mistake, Trump is a danger all his own. He is more chaotic, less predictable, than Clinton. If Clinton thinks the laws don’t apply to her, Trump sometimes seems to think no rules apply to him at all. He might very well use all the same tools against his political opponents that Hillary would. I strongly suspect that those who think they can control him once in office are in for a rude surprise. His only saving graces appear to be that his patriotism can’t be in doubt, and that the Republican party is just a vehicle for him, rather than an ideological stronghold.
In Sulla’s immediate aftermath, all seemed to be returned to normal. Of course, it wasn’t. As Carlin points out, in using his army to forcibly restore a political order that Romans had lost the will to maintain, he didn’t really put things aright; he just provided a road map for the next strongman who wanted to seize power. (Ironically, against his better judgment, he spared one of Marius’s party – one Julius Caesar. “You fear Marius. I tell you this one contains a thousand Mariuses.” But he spared him anyway.)
Our salvation, if it comes, will not come from anyone we elect President. Even a Ted Cruz, who despite his deep personality flaws, is plainly in love with the Constitution and confined his considerable ambition squarely within its constraints, even a Ted Cruz wouldn’t be able to restore Americans’ faith in a representative system of limited government all by himself. Just as the Romans remained stuck with a fragile system that begged for a strong executive, our own Congress seems uninterested in governing, more interested in running against an executive it won’t rein in.
The choice, therefore, is simply this – which candidate provides the best chance for liberty and freedom, representative government, limited government, to survive as living political movements and ideas in 2020 or 2024? I am, as well, perfectly willing to entertain as a strategy helping to elect one of them, and immediately setting about to undermine him or her, in order to give American more wriggle-room.
I’ll be damned if I know yet, but let’s not fool ourselves about what’s at stake.