The Atlantic - April 2021
But resilience does not prevent calamity. And being blindsided in slow motion is the hardest fate to avoid. The historian Ramsay MacMullen once distilled the long arc of the Roman empire into three words—“fewer have more”—but only the time-lapse perspective of a millennium and a half allows us to understand such a thing with brutal clarity. The sack of Washington unfolded suddenly, in a way no one could miss. The greater dangers come in stealth.
The scenes at the capitol on January 6 were remarkable for all sorts of reasons, but a distinctive fall-of-Rome flavor was one of them, and it was hard to miss. Photographs of the Capitol’s debris-strewn marble portico might have been images from eons ago, at a plundered Temple of Jupiter. Some of the attackers had painted their bodies, and one wore a horned helmet. The invaders occupied the Senate chamber, where Latin inscriptions crown the east and west doorways. Commentators who remembered Cicero invoked the senatorial Catiline conspiracy. Headlines referred to the violent swarming of Capitol Hill as a “sack.”
Outside, a pandemic raged, recalling the waves of plague that periodically swept across the Roman empire. As the nation reeled, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the role of a magister militum addressing the legions, issued an unprecedented advisory that put the sitting ruler on notice, condemning “sedition and insurrection” and noting that the inauguration of a new ruler would proceed. Amid all this came a New York Times report on the discovery and display of artifacts from the gardens of Caligula, an erratic and vengeful emperor, one of whose wives was named Milonia.
Ever since Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the prospect of a Rome-inflected apocalypse has cast its chilling spell. Britain’s former American colonies, which declared their independence the year Gibbon’s first volume was published, have been especially troubled by the parallels they discerned. The Founders feared the stealthy creep of tyranny. Half a century later, the narrative progression of The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole’s allegorical series of paintings, depicted the consequences of overweening ambition and national hubris. Today, as ever, observers are on the alert for portents of the Last Days, and have been quick, like Cato, to hurl warnings. And of course there are some Americans—including the January 6 attackers—who would find national collapse momentarily satisfying. “Sack Rome?” a barbarian wife says to her husband in an old New Yorker cartoon. “That’s your answer to everything.”
... If i were writing Are We Rome? today, one new theme I’d emphasize emerges from a phrase we heard over and over during the Trump administration: “adults in the room.” The basic idea—a delusion with a long history—was that an unfit and childish chief executive could be kept in check by the seasoned advisers around him, and if not by them, then by the competent career professionals throughout the government. The administration official who anonymously published a famous op-ed in The New York Times in 2018 offered explicit reassurance: “Americans should know that there are adults in the room.” Various individuals were given adult-in-the-room designation, including the White House counsel Don McGahn and Chief of Staff John Kelly. I sometimes imagined these adults, who included distinguished military veterans, wearing special ribbons. The obvious flaw in the arrangement was that the child could summarily dismiss the adults with an intemperate tweet. ...
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