...I couldn't help noticing the contemporary resonances of some Roman history - specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell.
Here's what I learned: Republican institutions don't protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.
On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here's what Adrian Goldsworthy's "In the Name of Rome" says: "However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family's reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power."
America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop "partisan politics at the water's edge." But now we have a president-elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. (A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though - or, more likely, precisely because - it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election.) Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.
And what happens to the republic as a result? Famously, on paper the transformation of Rome from republic to empire never happened. Officially, imperial Rome was still ruled by a Senate that just happened to defer to the emperor, whose title originally just meant "commander," on everything that mattered. We may not go down exactly the same route - although are we even sure of that? - but the process of destroying democratic substance while preserving forms is already underway.
Consider what just happened in North Carolina. The voters made a clear choice, electing a Democratic governor. The Republican legislature didn't openly overturn the result - not this time, anyway - but it effectively stripped the governor's office of power, ensuring that the will of the voters wouldn't actually matter.
Combine this sort of thing with continuing efforts to disenfranchise or at least discourage voting by minority groups, and you have the potential making of a de facto one-party state: one that maintains the fiction of democracy, but has rigged the game so that the other side can never win.
Why is this happening? I'm not asking why white working-class voters support politicians whose policies will hurt them - I'll be coming back to that issue in future columns. My question, instead, is why one party's politicians and officials no longer seem to care about what we used to think were essential American values. And let's be clear: This is a Republican story, not a case of "both sides do it."
So what's driving this story? I don't think it's truly ideological. Supposedly free-market politicians are already discovering that crony capitalism is fine as long as it involves the right cronies. It does have to do with class warfare - redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy is a consistent theme of all modern Republican policies. But what directly drives the attack on democracy, I'd argue, is simple careerism on the part of people who are apparatchiks within a system insulated from outside pressures by gerrymandered districts, unshakable partisan loyalty, and lots and lots of plutocratic financial support.
For such people, toeing the party line and defending the party's rule are all that matters. And if they sometimes seem consumed with rage at anyone who challenges their actions, well, that's how hacks always respond when called on their hackery.
One thing all of this makes clear is that the sickness of American politics didn't begin with Donald Trump, any more than the sickness of the Roman Republic began with Caesar. The erosion of democratic foundations has been underway for decades, and there's no guarantee that we will ever be able to recover.
But if there is any hope of redemption, it will have to begin with a clear recognition of how bad things are. American democracy is very much on the edge.
--How Republics End: By electing a Trump and allowing a GOP to legislate. Krugman https://t.co/QLhGIyXQig
...The durability of our democracy is not destined. It is not impervious to harm or even destruction. The Constitution can't completely prevent that, nor can protocols and conventions. The most important safeguard against authoritarianism is an informed, engaged citizenry vigorously opposed to acquiescence and attrition.
In other words, it may well be that the only thing that can protect America from the man who will sit at its pinnacle of power is the urgent insistence of the public that radical alteration of our customs and concepts of accountability are not on the table, that authority in a democracy is imbued by the ballot, but it is also accountable to its people.
And people are already ill at ease with Trump. There is increasing resolution on the dimensions of Russian interference in our election - an effort that, according to recent reports, appeared aimed at injuring Hillary Clinton and installing Trump as president. The implications of such a breach, something that comes close to an act of war, are absolutely staggering.
The fact that a hostile foreign government executed a plan to influence, and therefore irrevocably damage, the bedrock of our democracy is unfathomable. The repercussions are nearly incalculable: it corrodes faith in the process, faith in elected officials, faith in national security, faith in our assumed autonomy. To have a president who refuses to acknowledge the violation in order to avoid the asterisk by which he might be forever marked a Manchurian candidate or, more plainly, Moscow's mule, is not normal.
Furthermore, to have a president who is disturbingly complimentary when discussing Russia; whose onetime campaign manager had pro-Russia ties; whose son said in 2008, "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets," and continued, "We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia"; and who has nominated for secretary of state a man on whom Vladimir Putin bestowed Russia's Order of Friendship, is not normal. Americans shouldn't have to worry about whether the White House will become an annex of the Kremlin.
Furthermore, to have a president surround himself with a rogue's gallery of white supremacy sympathizers, anti-Muslim extremists, devout conspiracy theorists, anti-science doctrinaires and climate-change deniers is not normal.
To have a president for whom we don't know the extent of his financial entanglements with other countries - in part because he has refused to release his tax returns - is not normal.
To have a president with massive, inherent conflicts of interest between continued ownership of his company and the running of our country is not normal.
Presidents may be exempt from conflict of interest provisions in the law, but exemption from legal jeopardy is not an exemption from fact or defilement of the primacy of a president's fiduciary duty to empire above enterprise.
To have a president who nurses petty vengeances against the press and uses the overwhelming power of the presidency to attack any reporting of fact not colored by flattery and adoration is not normal. It doesn't matter if he is motivated by calculation - particularly toward diversion - or compulsion: His behavior remains unsettling and even dangerous.
To have a president who apparently does not have time for daily intelligence briefings, but who can make time for the most trite anti-intellectual stunts, like staging a photo-op with a troubled rapper and twilight-tweeting insults like a manic insomniac, is not normal.
I fully understand that elevated outrage is hard to maintain. It's exhausting. But the alternative is surrender to national nihilism and the welcoming of woe. The next four years could be epochal years in the history of this country. They could test the limits of presidential power and the public's passivity.
--Trump: The nation is soon to be under the aegis of an unstable, unqualified, undignified Republican demagogue. Blow https://t.co/VvLJbkhhDg