Sulla: Battle of Vercellae (101bc)
Decius at JAG wrote, about the recent piece by Andrew Sullivan about democracy and tyranny. There were many all a twitter over it at Facebook when it came out. We are not as tireless as the fine team at JAG, and hence, yes, we are behind the times in terms of the 24/7 cycle that is foisted upon us by the web and our democratic political commentary.
When we first read the Sullivan essay, we were less impressed, though he is a talented and bright writer. JAG may have had sunk cost in reading his essay, but time is money for us and we are looking for gainful employment so we limited in our web reading. We had already answered the baseless charge about Trump and tyranny, Caesar a long time ago. Decius did the same. Yet seemingly bright people assert with firm assuredness that Trump is a tyrant, or that he is just like Caesar, or, even more confusing, and sometimes in the same sentence, he is a Nazi, Mussolini, and just like Hitler. Soothsayers who have no sooth.
Sullivan is no less confused in that he makes equivalent the tyrant and the demagogue. Machiavelli taught us that the tyrant has to have a lot of drive and ambition. Most of what Sullivan imparts does not necessarily = tyrant. It could describe someone less ambitious. His falls short of the Machiavel.
History is a marvelous discipline, but we have asserted here–before we reassumed the rights of R&R–that Ancient history in particular (that of Greece and Rome) demonstrate with a perspicacious clarity the moral failings of humanity, and human greatness, the divide between evil and good, the idea of statesman versus leader. The entirety of humanity in all its iterations under the constraints of Nature are there for us to consume and learn. Through ancient history we can learn that human nature does not change, and that there are some who walk this life according to nature, while others do not. It is a reminder that some things never change, and the human condition is one of the great realities that does not.
We are quite impressed with JAG and its many writers who are blessing us with the best commentary on Trump and Trumpism we can find–hell the best commentary period. The old chattering classes have failed to bring a well reasoned articulate catalog to us in light of the real changing realities. NR is quickly becoming the tome for schtick, with the exception of the thoughtful VDH article. Memo to the Weekly Standard too: it’s over. Only JAG seems to understand the changes afoot, and has commentary helping us to understand its deeper currents.
While we assent to the commentary on Polybius and Plato–absolutely correct–we take issue with the Sulla (Cornelius Sulla), reference, and find that a more appropriate comparison could have been made in that of the Federalist Papers, to counter the allegation Trump is just like (fill in the blank here). For one, it should be obvious, that America is not Rome, or Greece, or Germany, or China, or…goodness name one despotism. There are particular circumstances in the present that do not fit the past as it pertains to the Union.
Sulla: The rise of Sulla should be put into some context. His spat with Marius comes after the civil disturbance of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. These two demagogues literally sought to divide the polis with land reforms, legal reforms, tax reforms, voting reforms, etc. Many believe that this period is the beginning of the fall of the Republic. They tried to influence the Comitia to no avail as the aristocracy still had some sway. To quickly get to the point, Gaius was elected to the tribunate and used his oratory to rouse the public, and intimidate the senate to pass agrarian acts, corn laws, and a whole host of bread and circuses to bribe the electorate. Eventually, they were overwhelmed and died in a civil battle on the Aventine, thus ushering in Marius & Sulla.
Their rivalry begins in the Italian Wars of 91-83BC and both, as generals, were successful against Rome’s enemies. Yet jealousy marked their opposition to each other, as the Senate would tap Sulla for Consul, and then Marius would fume, demanding a command in the east, etc., etc., etc. It was at this point that Sulla and Cinna marched on Rome and outlawed the Marians. Now we should note that the cause of this rift was not a vote of the people (per se), but the Senate stripping Marius of command, and placing Sulla in as consul (the history of consular elections is much more complicated but this suffices to make a point). Yet, as M. Cary writes, “but where his ambitions were concerned constitutional principles weighed upon him even less than upon Marius” (227). Yet, the Mithridadic War necessitated the temporary dictatorship of Sulla, not a vote of the people (especially after Cinna’s men killed their general somewhere across the Adriatic). Sulla then went on a rampage against the Marians and then came the proscriptions. Marius had already died, after proclaiming he and Cinna consuls without an election.
Sulla on the other hand, despite all the death, murder, and destruction to the fabric of the Republic, resigned his position in the end, returned power to the senate, increased its size, limited the tribunate with term limits, etc. All of these were meant to secure his own position. However, he resigned. He left power on his own, and then left Rome. After this, come the wars of Lecullus, Pompey, and Crassus on the way to Caesar. They would not be passible if not for the terrible hard years of Marius and Sulla.
So, is this even remotely “like” Trump? I would think by now we would know the answer is definitively no. He does not resemble in any way the Ambition of Marius or Sulla, much less Cinna. Does even this cursory gloss of Roman history mirror our own at this present time? Not even close. The Union is far far away from the conditions that brought down Rome or Greece (Athens).
There is a perhaps better measure with which to judge Trump, or any other politician, against the charge of Tyrant or Caesar. Yet, JAG is absolutely correct that Caesar and Tyranny are two different things. We add, who would not prefer a Marcus Aurelius, or Antoninus Pius to any tyrant? As Strauss writes, “Caesars can take care of themselves” (180). Strauss would rather have us leave the distinction to subtlety as the “potential Caesar” may be a potential tyrant and to separate the two can be confusing. True enough, but as implied, not always. This is partly the reason we scoffed at the allegations that Trump as a tyrant, much less a Caesar. It devalues the words and the idea of the phenomenon. The left refuses to use the word tyrant or tyranny, and the right uses it way too much of late. It’s almost as if no one has read Xenophon’s Hiero. To know something of Trump as would be tyrant, one would have to know something of the man. Most don’t, in part because he has not wielded political power. Machiavelli, as Strauss notes, is helpful in determining that since he dispenses with the premodern notions of tyranny, and creates a new horizon that makes no distinction in the modern varietal (23-25).
A more appropriate answer might be found in the Federalist Papers where Publius speaks of tyrants, tyranny, and how they come about. A surface view of the matter in Federalist #1 might give the anti-Trump crowd some evidence to bolster their claims. It may be that would be tyrants hide behind the rights of the people to gain position. Demagogues do the same thing, Publius asserts. Greece and Italy seemed to always fluctuate between tyranny and anarchy, he adds in #9. The Union is not fluctuating between those two poles. Indeed, in #26, Publius contends that a tyranny would be difficult, and would have to be assumed only after a very lengthy “progressive” march. The states would stand in the way of such a progression. Of course, that would only be the case if the original design stood, and it hasn’t. Still, Trump does not have the “time” for such a subversion to occur.
At this point, what the chattering classes are saying is not that Trump is a tyrant, it is that they no longer have affection for the Union and its government. They seem to imply, it’s all dead. They would have to in order to assert Trump is going to be a successful tyrant.
The answer we are looking for comes in #49; it is enough to put an end to any serious consideration of Trump as tyrant. Publius states that the accumulation of the powers in the same hands is the very definition of tyranny. As Publius suggests in #53, elections would have to end as well for a tyranny to be put into effect. The conditions that lead to tyranny, though, come out of a calling for power and its assumption more often than not, writes Publius in #20.
We have none of that in the Trump phenomenon. Since this post is lengthy, we would be best to examine how the administrative state has actually been the driving force setting into place the modern conditions for the attack on our freedom and liberty. However, as far as the state of the Union, and the state of Trump in it, there is no evidence that he is a tyrant, or a would be Caesar. He may hold in his heart designs of such things, but as Strauss reminds us through Xenophon, and as the Bible also notes too, those things are only known to the person in their own heart, and to God.
Humans are not God.