Will the U.S. Pass a Point of No Return?

People bike past the remains of the ancient Colosseum in Rome
Andrew Medichini / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This is the latest installment in a series that began back in 2019, with an article I did for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome.

Many people wrote in to agree, disagree, or otherwise react. The online discussion begins here. But the most sustained line of response has been from my friend Eric Schnurer, a writer and long-time advisor to state and local governments.

In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way. In a third and more cautionary extension of his argument this summer, he concentrated on the U.S. Senate.

Now, chapter four: crossing the Rubicon. Schnurer argues that this is more than just a familiar phrase. And he says that a U.S. Rubicon moment is in view—which would be triggered by a possible indictment of Donald Trump. Over to Eric Schnurer:

Crossing the Rubicon:
If the United States, in recent years, has been tracking the decline and fall of Republican Rome, when do we pass the point of no return?

By Eric B. Schnurer

As James Fallows has observed, Americans long have been fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and frequently fret whether a similar fate awaits our own. But the more pressing comparison is the collapse of the Roman Republic: How did a wealthy, powerful, and successfully self-governing people—proud of their frontier origins, piety and traditional values, and above all their origin story in throwing off monarchical rule—essentially commit democratic suicide and settle, more-or-less willingly, for a half-millennium of dictatorship?

Over the last two years I’ve been charting how our politics today increasingly resemble those of ancient Rome. From rising economic inequality, political violence, and governmental dysfunction on through the generally lackadaisical reaction of the Senate to a losing chief-executive candidate’s conspiracy to murder many of them, overthrow the government, and thereby block certifying his defeat, events in ancient Rome have remarkably paralleled some you might recognize more recently.

History isn’t destiny, of course; the demise of the Roman Republic is a point of comparison—not prediction. But the accelerating comparisons nonetheless beg the question: If one were to make a prediction, what comes next? What might signal the end of democracy as we know it?  There is, it turns out, an easy answer at hand.

While there is no precise end date to the Republic, there was a bright-line occurrence generally recognized as the irreversible beginning of the end for participatory government. In fact, it is such a bright line that the event itself has become universally synonymous with “point-of-no-return”: Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon.

And there is indeed an event looming—probably before the end of this year— that poses almost precisely the same situation as what provoked Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon: the possible indictment of former president Donald J. Trump.

Not long after empanelment of the special grand jury investigating the former president and the Trump Organization, Maggie Haberman, who has covered Trump for the past half-dozen years for The New York Times, tweeted that he is obsessed with the idea that he will soon be returned to office by the various, multiplying efforts to recount and overturn state-level results from the 2020 election. As Haberman reported, the impetus behind Trump’s restoration fever-dream is the realization that he needs the immunity afforded by the presidency to avoid prosecution for the career that got him there. Just last month, Michael Wolff recounted his conversations with Trump for his new book in a Times opinion essay and concluded that Trump believes that “[r]unning for president is the best way to directly challenge the prosecutors.”

Now the month prophesied in Trumpian circles for his restoration to the White House has arrived—and with it, the intelligence services are reporting increased online traffic on the subject, including calls for violence, not unlike the uptick in advance of January 6th. It is no coincidence that insurrectionists that day carried banners urging Trump to “Cross the Rubicon” and declaring “The Die Is Cast”— Caesar’s words upon alighting on the Italian side of the river—or that they will be with him to storm the forces of the Republic and ignite a civil war over Trump’s potential indictment: Avoiding criminal prosecution is precisely why Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and ignited a civil war 21 centuries ago.

The ancient Roman Republic diverged from our notions of republican government in several respects. Although the word “republic” itself derives from a Latin phrase meaning “a thing of the people,” it was more like a closely-held corporation than anything we think of today as a public enterprise—more-or-less “owned” by those who operated it. Elected officials were expected to spend their own money on state functions like erecting public structures or organizing public events (such as the famous gladiatorial games), and in return they could expect to reap sizeable “profits” when they attained higher office. Today, we would think of basic Roman government as institutionalized graft.

Yet even the Romans had their limits. Officials who pushed the envelope too far could be criminally prosecuted. But the Romans also had a concept very similar to ours, and crucial to what motivated Caesar’s actions and is now animating Trump’s:  As long as an official held “imperium”—essentially, the authority of the state itself— he was shielded from prosecution. As soon as he left office, however—boom!, he could be subjected to criminal charges.

Caesar, like most politicians, had committed his share of excesses and gained his share of enemies in his rise to the highest office in Rome, the consulship. After his consular year, he had secured the governorship of one of the more lucrative provinces—Transalpine Gaul—and, partially for self-advancement and partially to postpone prosecution, got his governorship extended to an unprecedented five years. Officials historically had been limited to serving only a single one-year term in most offices, in order to keep one man from accruing too much power, but constitutional norms had begun to fray under ambitious men like Caesar, who had his eyes on a second, and then hopefully permanent, consulship.

But he faced three obstacles. First, his governorship was scheduled to end six months before the beginning of the next consular term, so he would have to keep his army in the field until then to maintain his imperium and immunity to prosecution.  Second, his political enemies had enacted a requirement that candidates had to campaign for consul in-person in Rome—which, thirdly, since it was illegal for a general to lead armed men into Italy or Rome itself, meant that Caesar had to choose: return to the city to campaign without legal immunity, almost certainly to face prosecution; forego the consulship, and thus forfeit any further hope of future immunity; or cross the Rubicon that formally separated Italy proper from the provinces at the head of his army—by definition an act of insurrection not only stripping his immunity but criminal in itself.

Caesar’s ultimate rise had begun with the Cataline conspiracy a decade or so earlier, which, as noted, bears a familial resemblance to Trump’s attempts to overturn the recent election and, both literally and figuratively, decapitate the government.  Caesar emerged as Catiline’s most prominent defender against Cicero’s attempt to bring him to justice, while most of the Senate vacillated:  Senate conservatives, known as the optimates (i.e., “the Best People”),  chose largely to shrug off both the immediate assault on the state and the long-term threat Caesar in particular posed to republicanism.  They soon lived to regret it.

For over a century Roman politics had been split between two parties, the optimates and the populares, who pushed for redistributionist policies to benefit the working class. The most famous of the latter were the Gracchi brothers, who both were assassinated for their liberal views (and thus often compared to the Kennedys). The patricians who ruled Rome, however, had long resisted fundamental economic reforms to benefit the great mass of the population, making only such concessions as necessary when times grew tense. This simply increased the internal tensions within society as the economy globalized, making those with the means richer and richer, hollowing out the middle class, and leaving more and more Romans at the edge of desperation.

By Caesar’s time, however, the populares were no longer so much true “Tribunes of the People” like the Gracchi, as ambitious patricians with an authoritarian bent who recognized anti-elite appeals to the disaffected mob as their pathway to power.  Soon, three of these—Caesar, of course, plus Marcus Licinius Crassus, known as “the richest man in Rome,” and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great), the undisputedly dominant figure of the era—formed a Triumvirate and became, between them, the sole possessors of real power. The only real question was which one would prevail as the sole autocrat, and once Crassus was killed in a foreign war the inevitable final contest between Caesar and Pompey erupted in earnest.

The remaining defenders of the decaying old order allied by necessity with Pompey, the lesser evil. Caesar thus hoped to temporize, reach some sort of cohabitation arrangement with Pompey, and eventually prevail in the long term. But his enemies forced his hand with the threat of imminent criminal prosecution.

Caesar paused with his army on the Gaul side of the Rubicon. He knew he would be taking a dramatic risk by leading his army across the river—but his back was against the wall on the Rubicon’s far shore.  His only path was forward. As he crossed, he uttered the famous phrase, “Alea iacta est”: “The die is cast.” The phrase has taken on the meaning of an inevitability, but Caesar meant quite the opposite: that, while he was committed and could not turn back, the outcome was far from inevitable but, rather, a tremendous gamble. At least for him.

The outcome for the Republic itself, however, was indeed at that point already cast as if in iron rather than in tumbling dice. Whatever the outcome of the ensuing war, whether Caesar or Pompey prevailed as dictator, the Republic—a system of self-government in which disputes were settled by politics rather than force, where power was dispersed rather than concentrated—was dead.

The defenders of the Republic folded more quickly than the French Army in World War II and left Rome open to Caesar. Pompey was driven out of Italy and eventually defeated and killed. But, as we know, opposition remained and Caesar was eventually assassinated, leading to another series of wars between the Caesarite party and a pseudo-republican party that more resembled a vigilante movement. The Caeserites prevailed in the form of Caesar’s trusted lieutenant, Marc Antony, and Caesar’s great-nephew, adopted son and designated heir, Octavian—known to history as Caesar Augustus.  Antony and Octavian initially divided the empire between them, but inexorably came the war to settle sole rule over the Roman world. Octavian prevailed. Rome was now—and ever would remain—a dictatorship.

When Trump’s supporters urge him to cross the Rubicon and cast the die—events that become highly likely if he, like Caesar, faces indictment—that is what they contemplate.

What did all this mean for Rome?  And what might it mean for us?

Augustus essentially achieved the settlement of unreconcilable political, social, and economic strains within Republican Rome that even his uncle Julius could not attain. The Augustinian settlement was essentially to substitute peace and prosperity for politics, and to impose the veneer of traditional piety and moral values over the reality of an increasingly heterodox and heterogenous society.

The Augustinian Settlement had something for everyone. Augustus, ultimately the canniest politician, was himself outwardly pious, dutiful, traditional, and respectful of republican forms—thus appealing to conservatives—while he presided over a cultural efflorescence fueled by a liberality in everything except political expression.  The concentration of power in the Emperor allowed Rome to mobilize its economic and military resources in a way that the Republic had not, leading to five centuries of expanding geopolitical power and economic opulence the likes of which the world had never seen before. As Augustus boasted, he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Politics essentially ended for half a millennium—all government was the will of one man—and so did freedom of political speech and thought. But Romans, at least if they were lucky, were free, safe and wealthy beyond imagination in every other way. It was a trade-off they were more than happy to accept.

Will the Trumpist party similarly ultimately prevail once they cross the Rubicon? I have been predicting for years that something resembling a civil war will arise and something like Trumpists likely will carry the day in the short-term. But a reactionary philosophy that rejects fact in favor of fantasy, is economically retrograde and socially repugnant to the majority of Americans, can impose its rule for only so long.

Some politician someday—one we don’t yet know, whose thinking isn’t locked in to the current paradigm—will devise our own equivalent of the Augustinain settlement, a new consensus that both sides, today’s red and blue Americas, can grudgingly accept because it purports to give them both what they want. We can suppose that, like Augustus, this new leader will need to satisfy conservatives by paying obeisance to traditionalist values and forms.  But he or she will recognize the new economic realities shaping the future of wealth and power: Thus, perhaps, underneath the public façade of conservative rectitude will flourish with tacit official approval a liberal urban society of tremendous innovation and wealth—in science, technology, culture, art, thought and belief generally.

In governance, however, any new regime will need to recognize the technological realities of which I have written frequently, in which people will be able to choose the social and political systems they prefer to express themselves individually and create “public goods” collectively. Governments as we know them today will be left to fill the role solely of the traditionalist “night watchman state”—maintaining physical order and extracting a “protection” fee in return—much like the ancient Roman state. The demise of liberal democracy, the end of virtually all politics, and perhaps a little performative traditionalism and a destructive civil war, may all be coming, anyway. But, in return, Blue America, like Rome, will be able to carry on pretty much as it wishes, rising to new heights of wealth and global power.

Will highly-educated Americans really be willing to settle for physical security and financial success beyond anything now imaginable, in return for abandoning the American Republic for an enlightened dictatorship? The Roman experience isn’t very encouraging on that score—but neither are contemporary Democrats.

When the crisis came, it was the optimates (i.e., “the Best People”) who were the last defenders of the Republic.

Why? Because the status quo worked for them, whereas the plebeians had long-since lost faith in “the system.” The supporters of the Republic were the cream of Roman society, those who, as the saying went, “had Greek” (world-class educations), married amongst themselves, and passed these advantages on to their children. The republican structures they defended—elections, limited and dispersed powers, rule of law—in turn supported the rest of their existing order: an increasingly globalized economy exacerbating distributional divides but benefiting their own class.

The optimates were tone deaf to the needs of those struggling to make a living, while the insurrectionists played to the working class in order to destroy what passed for democracy and impose their personal rule. Rich, out-of-touch, socially liberal democrats versus rich, demagogic authoritarians masquerading as the party of the working class—not far off from today. The difference is that progressives don’t recognize that they’re the new optimates.

As in Rome, life is good for those who live on the hills and could save the Republic. But the communities of the hinterlands, stretching off to the seemingly-faraway Rubicon, are increasingly devastated. Virtually all economic growth in the past decade has occurred in three coastal metros. Inequality has intensified. The opioid crisis has decimated countless communities of the interior. Increasingly-illiberal “progressives” are slowly losing not just the white working class but also Black and Latino workers, those for whom they think they speak.

Meanwhile, time grows short. As aggrieved souls are forced from their dying communities and traditional social structures, into a metropolitan economy that has no place for them, the army on the Rubicon draws closer every day to the city’s walls.