I'm sure I must have read this when it came out, but I have just (re-?)read Andrew Sullivan's 2019 essay "Our Caesar," just to refresh my sadness at the parallels between early-21st-century America and early-2nd-century-BCE Rome:
It’s impossible to review the demise of the Roman Republic and not be struck by the parallel dynamics in America in 2019. We now live, as the Romans did, in an economy of massive wealth increasingly monopolized by the very rich, in which the whole notion of principled public service has been eclipsed by the pursuit of private wealth and reality-show fame. Cynicism about the system is endemic, as in Rome. The concept of public service has evaporated as swiftly as trust in government had collapsed. When the republican virtues of a Robert Mueller collided this year with the populist pathologies of Donald Trump, we saw how easily a culture that gave us Cicero could turn into a culture that gave us Caesar.
Some argue that although the president has obviously attempted to break the law many times and lies with pathological abandon, he still hasn’t openly defied a court order, suspended an election, or authorized something as lawless as torture. He talks and walks like a dictator, but in practice, his incompetence and inability to focus or plan or even read saves us. That, it seems to me, misses three things. The first is the president’s rhetoric. What happened to the Roman republic was a slow slide into public illegitimacy, intensified by the way in which elites played by the rules only when it suited them and broke precedents and norms when it came to defending their own interests, complaining loudly when others did the same.
If republican virtues and liberal democratic values are a forest of traditions and norms, Trump has created a vast and expanding clearing. What Rome’s experience definitively shows is that once this space is cleared, even if it is not immediately filled, some day it will be. Someone shrewder, more ruthless, focused, and competent, can easily exploit the wider vista for authoritarianism. Or Trump himself, more liberated than ever in a second term, huffing the fumes of his own power, could cross a Rubicon for which he has prepared us all.
It took about 200 years and unending civil war for the Roman Republic to become the Roman Empire. How much time have we got?