For the last 49 years of the Roman Republic, the fate of the citizenry was determined not by laws and institutions, but by the decisions and actions of competing, ambitious men. First Julius Caesar challenged the authority of the Senate by leading his army across the Rubicon River and onto the Italian peninsula, which inaugurated twenty years of civil war. This period of strife ended when Octavian—the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar—defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 30 BC. Three years later, the Senate gave Octavian the titles Augustus and Princeps, along with greatly augmented powers, thereby ending the Republic and inaugurating rule by Emperors with direct authority over the army (the final instrument of power over unruly human beings).
Since President George W. Bush invaded Iraq under false pretenses in 2003, the United States of America has increasingly resembled the last twenty years of the Roman Republic. We, the People, seem increasingly at the whim of competing oligarchs and their friends in the Administrative State. The Bushes, Clintons, Trumps, and Bidens resemble the powerful Roman families of the 1st Century BC—sometimes quarreling, sometimes uniting, always primarily serving their own interests and those of their friends. In recent years, the FBI has increasingly come to resemble the Roman Praetorian Guard during the waning days of the Republic, whose loyalty to a particular man was more a matter of preference and perceived promise of gain than law.
The success of America’s baleful, competing oligarchs increasingly depends on how well they co-opt financial, industrial, media, institutional actors. Their relationship with the citizenry is mostly a matter of propaganda, manipulation, virtue signaling, and flattery by pretending to endorse the (faddish) ideological preferences of their constituencies.
Thankfully there is one enormous difference between the United States now and the final decades of the Roman Republic—namely, the use of U.S. military units on American soil still seems to be off limits. To be sure, the Department of Defense has played a strong role in developing, manufacturing, and distributing the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. We are now seeing increasing evidence that the DOD holds final authority over the entire program.
The above reflections have been percolating through my mind for some time, causing me to wonder if we are no longer a Republic in which all of us—including our august billionaires, political dynasties, and federal police and intelligence agencies—are governed by our United States Constitution. This morning I saw that Victor Davis Hanson—Senior Fellow in Classics at the Hoover Institution—has been having similar thoughts.
His essay, The Coup We Never Knew, is well worth reading.