I don’t suppose I have to give anyone here any background on the current state of the presidency, and where the squalid leadership of Donald J. Trump, billionaire, has led us.
Or rather, has led the commentariat. I don’t for a moment doubt that Trump is incurious, incompetent, self-centered, and utterly unfit to be president. He is more gangster than politician, more thug than real estate magnate. He has also run rings around his political opponents ever since he set foot in the presidential race, which says something about the quality of our political leadership and its alleged fitness to lead — that it cannot deal with, much less less defeat, Trump is as clear a sign of elite incompetence and failure as there can be.
We have earned Trump. And whether the is clever or simply really lucky, for the moment, he remains about three-and-a-half steps ahead of just about everyone else.
Rod Dreher, quoting a text from a friend, referred to our current crisis as “Our Caligula Moment,” though this is surely hyperbole. We’re nowhere near there yet.
But it suggests something terrible that few, in their fantasies of indictments, impeachment, and the invocation of the 25th amendment, are ignoring — there is no legal, gentle, proper, constitutional way to deal with a Caligula. Our constitutional system, such as it is, is not set up to deal with such things. No constitutional system is. If things get as bad as many fear they will, then men and women will have to act outside the constitutional and even legal arrangements to solve the problem. Trump is unlikely to go quietly, or quickly, or even all that voluntarily.
Suetonius, in his history The Twelve Caesars, writes of Caligula this way:
Everything that Caligula said and did was marked with equal cruelty, even during his hours of rest and amusement and banquetry. He frequently held trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate prisoners brought in from gaol. (Caligula, ¶32, translation by Robert Graves)
The constant fear and cruelty by which Caligula lived and governed — Suetonius reports that he drew up lists of senators he wanted to murder in books labeled The Dagger and The Sword denoting how those listed in each group would die — eventually prompted a conspiracy by two senior officers in the Imperial Guard, Cassius Chaerea (whom Caligula would torment “for his supposed effeminacy” because of his age, according to Suetonius) and Gaius Sabinus, who ambushed him and stabbed him to death as he was walking from his seat in the theater.
Caligula’s uncle Claudius would later have the assassins executed.
The genius of Augustus was that he was able to institute a hereditary monarchy while carefully keeping everything within the constitutional forms of the Roman Republic, and thus acceptable to a roman elite desperately wanting stability after nearly a century of conflict. And even those constitutional niceties fell apart once bits and pieces of the army found themselves needing to deal with an emperor who’s character was nowhere near that of Augustus. This isn’t a flaw in a constitutional system. One of the great conceits of liberal thinking is the belief that mere machinery and process can handle or contain the human condition. And they can’t. Character will always matter. There will always be the ambitious, the incompetent, and the downright evil, who will find their way to power in any political system, no matter how it is constructed.
Which means a couple of things.
First, Donald J. Trump will not be the last utterly unfit person to occupy the presidency. Gaius Caligula was not the last cruel, capricious, and monstrous Caesar. No matter how an office is structured in law, it is only as good as character of the person occupying it, and the commitment of all involved to adhere to custom and culture and not step outside those informal but highly important bounds. Not all emperors can be good, or thoughtful, or self-restrained. And even the good ones eventually produce a Commodus or two. Or five.
But there’s also this point noted by Peter Van Buren:
The very tools that made it possible to take down a bad emperor — Caligula — now make it possible to take down a good one, or even stake a claim to leadership based on sheer ambition alone. (Which would be Rome’s condition during the Crisis of the Third Century.) The series of military uprisings that led to the collapse of senatorial support for Nero, and the chaos that was rule in Rome, prompted the commander of the legions besieging Jerusalem, Vespasian, to return to Rome and seize power for himself. the Flavians and the Antonines would restore order, but like all things, it was not permanent.
If Van Buren is right, and the intelligence services are engaging in a slows-motion coup against President Trump, that should be a cause for concern. The intelligence community has become our Praetorian Guard, with the ability to make and unmake presidents. It has not been used yet, but there are an awful lot of people cheering for just that to happen. And once that weapon is unsheathed, for good and ill, and it will only be a matter of time before some ambitious soul realizes you can get and keep the presidency that way, instead of actually having to get elected.
I don’t know if Van Buren is right. Part of me still isn’t sure Trump isn’t playing all of us for fools. But if things are as bad as some say or report they are, then at some point, some people will act. If only, in their minds, to save the republic. And perhaps, in acting, the will save the republic.
But they will also be crossing a Rubicon we’ve not yet crossed. And there is no coming back from that.