He rode a wave of popular support to defeat an entrenched, well-financed establishment. No candidate has ever won the nomination for a major American party by so thoroughly bucking — and humiliating — the established political order. How can Donald Trump’s populist rise not be a triumph for democracy?
The man who predicted the fall of the Roman Republic might have the answer.
In the second century B.C., the Greek historian Polybius drew on the example of the first democracy — Athens — to create a theory on the progression of governments. He called it Anacylosis.
Anacylosis is not Simba and the Circle of Life; it’s a grim, never-ending cycle of chaos and corruption. If we take Anacylosis at face value, one day the people will push demagogues into power. As these rival demagogues compete in a bloody struggle for control, society will descend into mob rule and anarchy. Eventually, one man will emerge from the turmoil and secure total power.
Is this our destiny? Of course not, most Americans would say. The very nature of the cycle — its inevitability — is instinctively disagreeable to us. We are exceptionalists by nature—our society is always different. It can’t happen to us.
The Romans themselves likely believed as much — the Republic’s restrictions and carefully crafted checks and balances were designed as a safeguard against demagoguery. Yet only a few decades after Polybius invented the world’s most depressing merry-go-round, the Roman Republic degenerated into mob rule just as he predicted.
How did this happen? And will it happen to us?
At the outset of the Roman Republic, the patricians — noblemen — held almost complete control over the government. Over the centuries, the Roman plebeians — common people— managed to wrest power from their patrician betters. By the second century B.C., Rome had begun to morph into a direct democracy.
Around this time, the plebeians fell victim to globalization as free trade flourished across the Mediterranean. Rome began to import cheap grain from the North Africa in quantities previously unimagined in the ancient world. Grain prices plunged; domestic plebeian farmers were squeezed out of the market. Rich landowners snapped up land from struggling farmers, incorporating these plots into giant plantations worked by slaves from newly conquered territories. Faced with outside competition, internal wage competition, and a nascent form of corporatization, the plebeians were left adrift amidst Rome’s rising wealth.
With their newfound political power, the plebeians elected politicians to fight for their cause. These politicians were called Populares. While some Populares genuinely sought to uplift the plebeian class, other Populares harnessed the power of the people in a cynical ploy for power. Clodius Pulcher was one of the first of these opportunistic Populares — and his methods would ultimately help bring down the Republic.
After rising to fame in one of history’s first cross-dressing scandals, Clodius was dismissed by the conservative Roman elite as a tacky eccentric. In a society obsessed with respect, honor, and dignity, Clodius desperately wanted to prove himself. The new political power of the restless plebeian class could provide that opportunity. Formally renouncing his patrician status, he ran for office in the popular assembly. Like the Populares of the past, he tapped into the anger of the disaffected poor, demonizing the corrupt establishment and offering vague promises to expand the plebians’ libertas (liberty), gratia (grace), and dignitas (dignity, entitlement, and respect). He would make the plebeians great.
Yet while Clodius borrowed motifs from past Populares, he pursued a darker course to power. Through fiery rhetoric and bombast he fashioned himself as the manifestation of the people. As such, he encouraged his supporters to use violence to achieve his own political ends. At the height of his power, Clodius ruled the streets as a mobster with a popular mandate.
The violence that Clodius let loose ultimately consumed him; he was assassinated on the street by a rival politician. While short lived, his reign of terror would undermine the stability of the Republic, paving the way for another populist demagogue — Julius Caesar— to kick in the door of the Republic and install himself as dictator for life.
In retrospect, some reforms driven by the Populares demonstrate the power of a democracy to achieve justice for its citizens. But these reforms proved to be hollow victories. Soon after the people found a voice through direct democracy, the demagogues manipulated that voice into a violent frenzy against an establishment that had betrayed them. These demagogues leveraged their popular mandate to amass power through violence. As such, the republican system collapsed, anarchy reigned, and tyranny followed.
But the United States is different. Right?
Our system of government was modeled after Rome; in fact, our founders often name-dropped Polybius and Anacylosis in their arguments to limit direct democracy. With the Roman example in mind, our government began as a hybrid democracy-oligarchy; constitutional restrictions would act as safeguards against demagoguery.
Over the centuries, we have shed these anti-democratic constraints. The injustice of voting restrictions based on sex, race, or property status has been eliminated. The 17th Amendment allowed for the direct election of senators, while movements throughout the 20th century pushed nearly every state to adopt direct primaries. All told, we are witnessing a thoroughly democratic moment, and Donald Trump’s populist rise seems to mark a new height for the democratic movement. In spite of rumblings of a stolen convention or a third-party alternative, the Republican establishment failed to derail Trump. The candidate who received the most votes in the primary will serve as that party’s nominee. What could be wrong with that?
From the moment he declared for the presidency, Donald Trump’s campaign has been laughed off by the establishment as a frivolous, improvised sideshow. Yet Trump’s rise has been anything but improvisational. Over the past five years Trump slowly built up a political network within the Republican party. He painstakingly crafted a populist, tell-it-like-it-is message. And he carefully tested his inflammatory message in focus groups to ensure that he could hit just the right notes on the campaign trail.
It’s a message we know all too well. Washington’s immigration policy has been a disaster: he will deport 11 million illegals and a build a wall (that the Mexicans will pay for!) to keep out the Mexican rapists. Wall Street wreaked the economy: he is the only one who can control Wall Street because he does not rely on their dirty money. Free trade policies have led to wage stagnation and unemployment: he will limit free trade to ensure foreign industries cannot undermine hardworking Americans.
Trump’s working class base holds legitimate and well-founded concerns. Unfortunately, Trump’s rhetoric is neither legitimate nor well-founded. Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter checked 152 of his recent statements and found eighty-eight percent of them to be “half-true,” “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants-on-fire.” For the celebrity mogul, mischaracterization is marketing by another name.
“I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration and a very effective form of promotion”- Donald Trump, Art of the Deal.
To his followers, his mischaracterizations are truths that no one is willing to say — and these truths create a compelling argument for his election. Through these distortions and outright fabrications, Donald Trump has transformed simmering resentment into rage. This rage demands action—and Trump promises to serve as its instrument.
And what happens when someone stands in the way of the people’s instrument? Trump has encouraged his supporters to use violence against protestors at his rallies — and his supporters have followed suit.
What else will Trump get his supporters to do? Trump claims that his supporters will follow him even if he gunned down an innocent person on the street. Will Trump’s supporters riot if the establishment steals the Republican nomination? Will Trump’s supporters follow him as he uses the state to prosecute Hillary Clinton? Will Trump’s supporters will follow him as he water-boards terrorists and kills their families? Will Trump’s supporters will follow him as he puts the world on the brink of nuclear war?
Harnessing the power of direct democracy, Donald Trump has kindled something primal—and something familiar. As Trump walks in the shadows of the Roman demagogues, we can only hope that Polybius is wrong. But history might tell us otherwise.