So long as our republic stands we’ll probably be considering when and how it will end, with the fall of Rome as our ever-present point of comparison, suggests Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.
It is, of course, Donald Trump, in his role as demagogue, that has led Gopnik to consider that question in his melancholic rumination. “What makes republics fragile are compacts of the very rich confiscating wealth in ways that makes injustice too palpable, and the demagogue who, usually rising as an opportunist among the oligarchs, can manipulate the incoherent discontent of the plebeians,” he writes.
What makes us strong, our core principles, can also make us fragile. Freedom of speech protects the impassioned, the banal, the righteous and the odious. The flip side is that hateful speech can swell, and demagogues can gain a platform larger than they deserve.
Gopnik’s conclusion is that we aren’t Rome. But that answer doesn’t apply as well to the question of our decline:
Our civilization bears little relation to the Roman one. A slave-based, pre-technological society—aqueducts are cool, but they are not jet travel nor the Internet nor neutrino nets—bears no relation to one built on the double Enlightenment gift of secure scientific knowledge and ever-increasing tolerance. But all republics and democracies in history do have something in common. They’re fragile. That’s why Lincoln could speak so solemnly at Gettysburg of government of the people, by the people, for the people perishing from the earth. For him, it wasn’t rhetoric; not at all. Mostly, they had. So themes persist, and the Forum walk instructs. Whether moved by rich men’s recklessness or poor people’s fearfulness—or a little of both—strong social arrangements do fall too easily apart. We hope that it’s our demagogue who’s doomed. But democracy remains more delicate than we imagine. The lesson of the Roman Forum is that everything is more delicate than we can imagine.