The renowned filmmaker Ken Burns has a new project called UNUM, about the sources of connection rather than separation in American life.
His latest segment involves “Communication” in all its aspects, and it combines historical footage with current commentary. Some of the modern commenters are Yamiche Alcindor, Jane Mayer, Megan Twohey, Kara Swisher, and Will Sommer. You can see their clips here.
One more of these segments covers the revolution in political communication wrought by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio addresses known as “fireside chats.” It was drawn from Burns’s earlier documentary Empire of the Air, which was narrated by Jason Robards. You can see a clip from that documentary here.
As part of the UNUM series of contemporary response to historical footage, Burns’s team asked me to respond to the FDR segment. (Why me? In 1977—which was 44 years after FDR’s first fireside chat, and 44 years ago, as of now—the newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter gave his first fireside chat, which I helped write. It’s fascinating to watch, as a historical artifact; you can see the C-SPAN footage here.)
This is what I thought about FDR’s language, and how it connects to the spirit of our moment in political time:
For reference, here is the text version of what I said in the Burns video, about those FDR talks, as previously noted here:
The most important words in Franklin Roosevelt’s initial fireside chat, during the depths of Depression and banking crisis in 1933, were the two very first words after he was introduced.
They were: My friends.
Of course political leaders had used those words for centuries. But American presidents had been accustomed to formal rhetoric, from a rostrum, to a crowd, stentorian or shouted in the days before amplification. They were addressing the public as a group—not families, or individuals, in their kitchens or living rooms: My friends. A few previous presidents had dared broadcast over the radio—Harding, Coolidge, Hoover. But none of them had dared imagine the intimacy of this tone—of trying to create a national family or neighborhood gathering, on a Sunday evening, to grapple with a shared problem.
Roosevelt’s next most important words came in the next sentence, when he said “I want to talk for a few minutes” with his friends across the country about the mechanics of modern banking. Discussing, explaining, describing, talking—those were his goals, not blaming or declaiming or pronouncing. What I find most remarkable in the tone that followed was a president talking up to a whole national audience, confident that even obscure details of finance could be grasped if clearly explained, rather than talking down, to polarize and oversimplify.
Consciously or unconsciously, nearly every presidential communication since that time has had FDR’s model in mind. In 1977 the newly inaugurated 39th president Jimmy Carter gave a fireside chat about the nation’s energy crisis, a speech that, as it happens, I helped write. Nearly every president has followed Roosevelt’s example of the basic three part structure of a leader’s speech at time of tragedy or crisis: First, expressing empathy for the pain and fear of the moment; second, expressing confidence about success and recovery in the long run; and third, offering a specific plan, for the necessary next steps.
Some of these presentations have been more effective, some less. But all are operating against the background, and toward the standard of connection, set by the 32nd president, Franklin Roosevelt, starting in 1933. “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan,” he said in that first fireside chant. “Let us unite in banishing fear.”
The opening words of that talk had been “My friends.” His closing words were, “Together we cannot fail.”
I don’t know how many people in the reading public would recognize the name Dan Frank. Millions of them should. He was a gifted editor, mentor, leader, and friend, who within the publishing world was renowned. His untimely death of cancer yesterday, at age 67, is a terrible loss especially for his family and colleagues, but also to a vast community of writers and to the reading public.
Minute by minute, and page by page, writers gripe about editors. Year by year, and book by book, we become aware of how profoundly we rely on them. Over the decades I have had the good fortune of working with a series of this era’s most talented and supportive book editors. Some day I’ll write about the whole sequence, which led me 20 years ago to Dan Frank. For now, I want to say how much Dan Frank meant to public discourse in our times, and how much he will be missed.
Dan started working in publishing in his 20s, after college and graduate school. While in his 30s he became editorial director at Viking Books. Among the celebrated books he edited and published there was Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, which was a runaway bestseller and a critical success. It also represented the sort of literary nonfiction (and fiction) that Dan would aspire to: well-informed, elegantly written, presenting complex subjects accessibly, helping readers enter and understand realms they had not known about before. As it happened, Gleick worked with Dan on all of his subsequent books, including his biographies of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, as well as Faster and The Information.
In 1991, after a shakeup at Pantheon, Dan Frank went there as an editor, and from 1996 onward he was Pantheon’s editorial director and leading force. As Reagan Arthur, the current head of the Knopf, Pantheon, and Schocken imprints at Penguin Random House, wrote yesterday in a note announcing Dan’s death:
During his tenure, Dan established Pantheon as an industry-leading publisher of narrative science, world literature, contemporary fiction, and graphic novels. Authors published under Dan were awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, several National Book Awards, numerous NBCC awards, and multiple Eisners [for graphic novels] ….
For decades, Dan has been the public face of Pantheon, setting the tone for the house and overseeing the list. He had an insatiable curiosity about life and, indeed, that curiosity informed many of his acquisitions. As important as the books he published and the authors he edited, Dan served as a mentor to younger colleagues, endlessly generous with his time and expertise. Famously soft-spoken, a “writer’s editor,” and in possession of a heartfelt laugh that would echo around the thirteenth floor, he was so identified with the imprint that some of his writers took to calling the place Dantheon.
There are surprisingly few photos of Dan available online. I take that as an indication of his modesty; of the contrast between his high profile within the publishing world and his intentionally low profile outside it; and of his focus on the quiet, interior work of sitting down with manuscripts or talking with authors. The only YouTube segment I’ve found featuring him is this one from 2015, when Dan interviewed the author Thomas Mallon at the Center for Fiction in New York. (I am using this with the Center’s permission.)
Dan is seated at the right, with his trademark round glasses. The clip will give an idea of his demeanor, his gentle but probing curiosity, his intelligence and encouragement, his readiness to smile and give a supportive laugh. Watching him talk with Mallon reminds me of his bearing when we would talk in his office at Pantheon or at a nearby restaurant.
Everything that is frenzied and distracted in modern culture, Dan Frank was the opposite of. The surest way to get him to raise a skeptical eyebrow, when hearing a proposal for a new book, was to suggest some subject that was momentarily white-hot on the talk shows and breaking-news alerts. I know this firsthand. The book ideas he steered me away from, and kept me from wasting time on, represented guidance as crucial as what he offered on the four books I wrote for him, and the most recent one where he worked with me and my wife, Deb.
Dan knew that books have a long gestation time—research and reporting, thinking, writing, editing, unveiling them to the world. They required hard work from a lot of people, starting with the author and editor but extending to a much larger team. Therefore it seemed only fair to him that anything demanding this much effort should be written as if it had a chance to last. Very few books endure; hardly any get proper notice; but Dan wanted books that deserved to be read a year after they came out, or a decade, or longer, if people were to come across them.
The publisher’s long list of authors he worked with, which I’ll include at the bottom of this post, only begins to suggest his range. When I reached the final page of the new, gripping, epic-scale novel of modern China by Orville Schell, called My Old Home, it seemed inevitable that the author’s culminating word of thanks would be to his “wonderful, understated” editor, Dan Frank.
What, exactly, does an editor like this do to win such gratitude? Some part of it is “line editing”—cutting or moving a sentence, changing a word, flagging an awkward transition. Dan excelled at that, but it wasn’t his main editing gift. Like all good editors, he understood that the first response back to a writer, on seeing new material, must always and invariably be: “This will be great!” or “I think we’ve really got something here.” Then, like all good editors, Dan continued with the combination of questions, expansions, reductions, and encouragements that get writers to produce the best-feasible version of the idea they had in mind. Their role is like that of a football coach, with the pre-game plan and the halftime speech: They’re not playing the game themselves, but they’re helping the athletes do their best. Or like that of a parent or teacher, helping a young person avoid foreseeable mistakes.
You can read more about Dan Frank’s own views of the roles of author, editor, publisher, and agent, in this interview in 2009, from Riverrun Books. It even has a photo of him! And you can think about the books he fostered, edited, and helped create, if you consider this part of Reagan Arthur’s note:
Dan worked with writers who were published by both Pantheon and Knopf. His authors include Charles Baxter, Madison Smartt Bell, Alain de Botton, David Eagleman, Gretel Ehrlich, Joseph J. Ellis, James Fallows, James Gleick, Jonathan Haidt, Richard Holmes, Susan Jacoby, Ben Katchor, Daniel Kehlmann, Jill Lepore, Alan Lightman, Tom Mallon, Joseph Mitchell, Maria Popova, Oliver Sacks, Art Spiegelman, and many, many others.
Deb and I will always be grateful to have known Dan Frank, and to have worked with him. We send our condolences to his wife, Patty, and their sons and family. The whole reading public has benefited, much more than most people know, from his life and work.
The U.S. Senate’s abdication of duty at the start of this Memorial Day weekend, when 11 senators (nine of them Republican) did not even show up to vote on authorizing an investigation of the January 6 insurrection, makes the item below particularly timely.
Fifty-four senators (including six Republicans) voted to approve the investigative commission. Only 35 opposed it.
But in the institutionalized rule-of-the-minority that is the contemporary Senate, the measure “failed.” The 54 who supported the measure represented states totaling more than 190 million people. The 35 who opposed represented fewer than 105 million. (How do I know this? You take the list of states by population; you match them to senators; you split the apportioned population when a state’s two senators voted in opposite ways; and you don’t count population for the 11 senators who didn’t show up.)
The Senate was, of course, not designed to operate on a pure head-count basis. But this is a contemporary, permanent imbalance beyond what the practical-minded drafters of the Constitution would have countenanced.
Why “contemporary”? Because the filibuster was not part of the constitutional balance-of-power scheme. As Adam Jentleson explains in his authoritative book Kill Switch, “real” filibusters, with senators orating for hours on end, rose to prominence as tools of 20th-century segregationists. Their 21st-century rebirth in the form of phony filibusters (where senators don’t even have to make a pretense of holding the floor) has been at the hands of Mitch McConnell, who made them routine as soon as the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006.
The essay below, by a long-time analyst and practitioner of governance named Eric Schnurer, was written before the Senate’s failure on May 28, 2021. But it could have been presented as a breaking-news analysis of the event.
Several days ago I wrote a setup for Schnurer’s essay, which I include in abbreviated form below. Then we come to his argument.
Back in 2019, I did an article for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome. Like many good headlines, the one for this story intentionally overstated its argument. The headline was, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” Of course it was bad! But the piece reviewed scholarship about what happened in the former Roman provinces “after the fall,” and how it prepared the way for European progress long after the last rulers of the Western Empire had disappeared.
Many people wrote in to agree and, naturally, to disagree. The online discussion begins here. One long response I quoted was from my friend Eric Schnurer. I had met him in the late 1970s when he was a college intern in the Carter-era White House speechwriting office, where I worked. Since then he has written extensively (including for The Atlantic) and consulted on governmental and political affairs.
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.
Now he is back, with a third and more cautionary extension of his argument. I think it’s very much worth reading, for its discourses on speechwriting in Latin, among other aspects. I’ve slightly condensed his message and used bold highlighting as a guide to his argument. But I turn the floor over to him. He starts with a precis of his case of two years ago:
I contrasted Donald Trump’s America then—mid-2019—with the Rome of the Gracchus brothers, a pair of liberal social reformers who were both assassinated. Of course, the successive murders of two progressive brothers at the top rung of national power would seem to suggest the Kennedys more than, say, Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren, to whom I compared them. But that’s to say that no historic parallels are perfect: One could just as fruitfully (or not) compare the present moment to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period we managed to make it through without ultimately descending into civil war.
Yet, historical events can be instructive, predictive—even prescriptive—when not fully de-scriptive of current times and customs.
What concerned me about the Roman comparison was, I noted at the time, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me.”
In the 1960s, such developments were in the future, although perhaps apparent then to the prescient …
The question that raised was the extent to which the tick-tock of republican decline in Rome could provide a chronometer something like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ famous “doomsday clock”:
If we could peg late summer 2019 to the Gracchi era—roughly up to 120 B.C.—with the fall of the Republic equated to Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and subsequent assumption of the dictatorship (roughly speaking, 50 B.C.), we could set our republican sundial at, more-or-less, “seventy years to midnight.” But time under our atomic-era clocks moves more quickly than in ancient Roman sundials, so how could we equate a seventy-year margin on a sundial to our own distance from a possible republican midnight? We’d need another contemporary comparison to understand not just where we stood, but also how fast we were moving.
A year later I wrote about the developments of 2020 that seemed to move us closer to midnight. I compared last year’s Trump to Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix: Despite common descriptions of Trump as a would-be Caesar, Sulla is, in terms of temperament and background, a closer match to The Donald: “Sulla, a patrician who indulged a fairly libertine, sometimes vulgar, lifestyle even throughout his several marriages, was nonetheless the champion of the economic, social and political conservatives.”
Of perhaps greater similarity—and great concern, in my view—was the increasing hollowing out of the Roman state from a “common good” into simply another form of private corporation benefiting the already-wealthy and powerful who could grab hold of its levers and hive off its components … After a tumultuous reign, Sulla retreated to his villa at Mar-a-Lago, er, Puteoli, and Rome fell into a period of relative quiescence.
That took us from the 120’s B.C. in July 2019 to roughly 80 B.C. by August 2020: By that measure, our republican doomsday clock had lurched forward about 40 Roman years—a little more than halfway to midnight—in roughly a year …
But as U.S. politics fell into a period of relative quiescence lately, with Trump ensconced quietly at Puteoli—er, Mar-a-Lago—and a relatively calming, moderate and institutionalist Everyman (if no Cicero …) installed in the White House, I didn’t think much further about the Roman comparison.
That is, until last week, when I made an off-hand comment about a young family member’s misbehavior, jokingly complaining, “O tempora, O mores!”: “O the times, O the customs”—the most famous line from the most famous speech by Rome’s greatest lawyer, politician and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero. I was suddenly struck by the similarity between the circumstances of Cicero’s famed oration and those we face now in the wake—and denial—of the assault on the Capitol of January 6.
I have a personal fondness for what have become known as Cicero’s “Catilinarian Orations”—a series of speeches he delivered at the height of a failed conspiracy to assault the citadels of republican governance and seize power. I read them in the original in my high school Latin class, at a time when my major focus was on school politics and, as the immediate past student body president, I was leading a similar (in my mind) effort to beat back a coup attempt by the would-be conspirator who had been defeated electorally by my chosen successor.
As a result, I found reading Cicero’s words uncovering, indicting, and overcoming Lucius Sergius Catilina (known to us as Catiline) and his co-conspirators, and thereby preserving democracy, rather thrilling. These orations—especially the first—have become famous as among the greatest speeches in history, not least because of the self-promoting Cicero’s promoting them as such. But to read them in the original is to recognize them as deservedly so.
Latin is an extremely complicated but flexible language. Its elaborate system of agreements between nouns, adjectives and verbs allows for words to be ordered in sometimes almost-random-seeming patterns requiring extensive detective skills to puzzle out the actual meaning of a sentence. At the peak of my Latin studies, for example, I could probably translate an average sentence in the great Latin epic, The Aeneid, at the rate of about one per hour. Reading Cicero in Latin, however, is like spreading warm butter over a piping-hot piece of bread: It simply flows.
Cicero could reach unequaled heights of high dudgeon with the simplest of sentences. He reached for his greatest in the opening lines of his first Catalinarian Oration to the Roman Senate. The immediacy of the language fairly leaps off the dead pages as if alive itself, overpowering the reader with the desperation of Cicero’s fight for democracy, his courage in the face of danger, his importuning his at-first-impassive audience seated in their clean white togas amidst the marble walls and red-cushioned banquettes, slowly distancing themselves from the censored Catiline as Cicero’s oratory builds in mighty waves.
Catiline was yet another aristocratic yet amoral politician who had aimed at absolute power by appealing cynically to the reactionary foot soldiers of Sulla’s former army and their “blue-collar” supporters. But he nonetheless was headed to a loss in the consular election of 63 B.C., which would have ended his political ambitions, so he conspired to overthrow the Roman state, intending literally to decapitate the official vote count on election day by killing the consul overseeing it—Cicero—and seizing violent control of the government.
Cicero could be considered something of a moderate, an institutionalist who revered the Republic as he rose to power in its capital despite being what the Romans called a “new man,” one who had made his own way from an undistinguished upbringing in the hinterlands (“Cicero” means “chickpea,” a literal and uncomplimentary nod to the family’s roots).
Upon uncovering the conspiracy, Cicero called an emergency meeting of the Senate to denounce this attempt to short-circuit the election and end republican government through violence. Cicero was surprised that Catiline dared pompously to show himself at the day’s proceedings, as if his efforts to undermine the state were perfectly proper, and to deny he was doing what everyone knew he was doing: “When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?”
But what is most notable about the famed opening of this first and greatest oration is Cicero’s clear astonishment at the blasé reaction of much of the Senate to this open assault on republican values. “O the times, O the customs,” he responds, and then continues:
“The Senate understands these things, the Consul sees them; yet this man still lives. He lives? Indeed, he even comes into the Senate, he takes part in public debate, he notes and marks out with his eyes each one of us for slaughter!”
Despite the fact that, at this point, Catiline’s intent to murder Cicero and various other members of the Senate, to stop the vote count and overturn the foregone election results, and unlawfully to seize the levers of government through violence is well known to all of them, a good number of these very same legislators and leaders shrug the whole thing off. Some sympathized with his political program; others were implicated in the plot; still others were basically in the same boat as Catiline, having committed similar crimes and sexual debaucheries that limited their political futures; and still others were perfectly fine with ending the trappings of republicanism if it meant they retained their power and Senate seats. And some simply couldn’t be roused to care.
The conspiracy ultimately collapsed and was defeated, but not without further militant uprisings aided by Rome’s enemies abroad. Catiline, a demagogue but in the end not the best of politicians or insurrectionists, was killed. Democracy, and the old order of things, seemed to have survived, and matters returned to a more-or-less normal state under Cicero’s stable hand.
But it turned out to be a brief reprieve. The rot had already set in. What mattered most in the long-term was not the immediate threat of the insurrectionists, but rather the complacency, if not sympathy, of the other ostensibly-republican leaders. It revealed the hollowness of not just their own souls but also the nation’s.
Another 10 months in America, another 15 years forward on the Roman sundial. At this rate, we’re about a year before midnight.
Over the weekend, this space held the third installment in the “Lessons of Rome” chronicles by my friend Eric Schnurer. This one went into the comparison between the Roman Senate, in the era of Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy, and the current one in Washington.
If you haven’t read it yet, please give it a try—among other reasons, for the speechwriter’s view of classic Latin rhetoric. This third piece also updated the “doomsday sundial”—a Roman Empire twist on the famous “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—and set its time to “a year before midnight.”
Now, some reader reactions. First, from a reader with extensive experience in national government:
Thank you for conveying the very thoughtful observations of Eric Schnurer comparing our situation to that of late republican Rome.
One striking element is the complacency highlighted by Schnurer at the time of Cicero, and so evident now in the mistaken belief that “it” can’t happen here because we’re “exceptional.”
As political scientist David Faris observed in a recent interview on “Vox,” we could not be more wrong. Republicans are working to deprive the majority of its ability to control the agenda or to change the leadership. If they succeed, the result will be undramatic but definitive: “People are going to wake up the next day and go to work, and take care of their kids, and live their lives, and democracy will be gone.”
For all their failures (which have become ever more obvious), the Founders did not have this outlook. They had a lively fear that “it” could indeed happen here, and they constructed the government they made to preclude that outcome.
Our misfortune is that, partly because of the deficiencies of that design (owing largely to several forced compromises) and partly because of later developments (such as the emergence of parties and of the filibuster), we face the reverse of one of their fears: a dictatorship not of the mob but of an entrenched minority. And we don't seem to be coping with that danger any better than did Ciceronian Rome. So we come to where Faris placed himself in his interview: “My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024.”
He did not quite despair, nor evidently does Schnurer. But the hour is indeed late, and time by our “atomic clock” is swiftly passing.
Reading your précis of Schnurer’s articles (thanks for bringing this to a wider audience), and the lead in of O Tempora! O Mores! my mind did a sort of leap to the smart Alec translation as Oh Times, Oh Daily Mirror ! [JF note: this was from the fabulous mid-20th century British comedy duo Flanders and Swann, whose records I loved listening to as a boy.]...
Schnurer is bang on, about the corruption (I think it’s way beyond cynicism) at the heart of the not-so-grand old party.
I sometimes find it ironic that ‘conservatives,’ who should be conserving our institutions, so often slide into radicals’ intent on destroying those institutions. Their focus on ends by any means would make Machiavelli blush. [JF note: compare the different approaches to considering a Supreme Court nominee in an election year applied by Mitch McConnell in 2016, when the nominee was Merrick Garland, and 2020, when it was Amy Coney Barrett.]
It is a race against time in my view. Will they succeed in subverting American democracy before people wake up to the con trick. I suspect they will.
“Storm Before the Storm”—a reading tip:
I read with interest the excellent article comparing Rome with today’s political situation. It immediately brought to mind a book called The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, written in 2017 about Rome between 146-78 BC, starting with the Gracchi brothers. He reached a similar conclusion to Eric Schnurer at the end of the book. You might know Duncan from his history podcast “The History of Rome,” the granddaddy of history podcasts on the net.
In the book he wrote about,“rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct” as well as “a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” The parallel between that and what you wrote caught my attention.
Looking Across the Atlantic (Ocean), from a reader in Texas:
This article is very well-taken. Reading Gibbon even 20 years ago felt like reading the news … now we can even go back to ancient Greek experience of demagogues.
I wonder if you would ask conservative Republicans you know, not whether they agree with those of us who fear a reprise of 1933 Germany, but if they could say at what point in German political history it would NOT have been wildly premature and hyperbolically alarmist to raise a cry that would bring developments to a halt. (Were that possible.)
Ecocide—the most sobering of the responses:
In these last four years of our own personal Catiline, I did read up on ancient Rome, and read Gibbon. I also wondered about the validity of democracy in this country, and now, with this article, the validity of democracy in Rome before Caesar.
It would seem to me that if there is a decline and fall of an American Empire, I agree that it would happen more quickly than the centuries it took Rome to splinter and disappear.
But I think the outside forces that will eliminate us will be natural in origin, and not a sleepy Chuck Grassley, Visigoths or Sandinistas pouring across the border at Brownsville. Argument by analogy may be the only tool historians have to predict the future, but it is still invalid.
It isn’t hard to see that our highly interconnected world is dependent on resources that are nearly magically acquired and brought to life, and that have a limited abundance and existence. Yet our lives are
increasingly dependent on them. So, just soothsayer-wise, I would
predict that industry will be chewing holes in the Congo in search of the latest element needed for the most advanced iPhone in 2050, when the world population will hit 10 billion and the oil will run out.
That while Bangladesh is awash with the Bengal Sea, the Musk Ox, Polar Bear and Caribou go extinct, Mar-al-Lago builds a wall around itself and starts pumping, and LA burns back into the desert it once was.
Those natural phenomena are actually predictable and I think, regardless of what surprises democracy has in store for us, will be the end of us.
Because we still solve problems like the Romans did, after all is said and done. By killing them. Yet we are far more destructive, given our machines, than they ever were. Rome never had the ability to kill the biosphere. Everyone in America, and indeed, on planet Earth, is participating in that execution right now.
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.
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.
As we peer around the corner of the pandemic, let’s talk about what we want to do—and not do—with the rest of our lives.
At the bleakest moment in the pandemic, when you felt your most stressed, most scared, least centered, you probably heard some variation of the phrase This is really hard. Maybe you read it; maybe your manager said it to you; maybe you said it to yourself. But that’s the truth: Our nearly two years of living through a pandemic have been hard. And like everything else in the United States, that difficulty has not been evenly distributed. It has been hardest for those on the front lines, those afraid of how customers will react to their requests to put on a mask, those out of work or in constant fear of the way COVID variants are whipping through their community. It has been hard, in different ways, for those attempting to work and supervise school from home, for those in complete isolation, for those terrified of being around other people. It is fucking hard, in so many intersecting and unfair ways.
An episode chock-full of emotional violence may have ended with real tragedy.
This article contains spoilers through the eighth episode of Succession Season 3.
What’s clear by now is that the Roys need to stay away from water. Every late-in-the-season tragedy and act of bloodshed, whether real or intangible, has been tied to the element that classically represents femininity, emotion, and intuition. These are not, of course, qualities that you’d associate with the Roys, and yet balance will have its way in the end.
Tonight’s episode, “Chiantishire,” named for the unfortunate moniker upper-class Brits give the region of Tuscany, ended with Kendall Roy (played by Jeremy Strong) lying facedown in an infinity pool in the Italian countryside. It was a climactic and devastating end to an episode chock-full of emotional violence, but also one that seems fated to be an installment on the upcoming podcast being made about the “curse of the Roys.” The news of that show, delivered casually by Kendall’s PR flack Comfrey (Dasha Nekrasova), added yet more anguish to Kendall’s buffet of psychological slights. First, his mother, Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter), made fun of his buzz cut. Then she asked him to back out of certain events at her wedding so his more powerful father could attend. Finally, Logan (Brian Cox) taunted Kendall over an uneaten dinner, refusing to agree to buy him out of Waystar Royco, and reminding him that his addictions had led to a young man’s death at the wedding of his sister, Shiv (Sarah Snook). “Whenever you fucked up, I cleaned up your shit,” Logan said. “And I’m a bad person? Fuck off, kiddo.”
The film’s lead is reprehensible and self-aggrandizing––and mesmerizing to watch.
Mikey Saber, the preening, confident chump who’s the ostensible hero of Sean Baker’s new film, Red Rocket, enters on-screen to a loud and familiar tune: “Bye Bye Bye,” by *NSync. The song is a piece of mainstream pop from yesteryear (it’s a shiver-inducing 21 years old), and its usage in this arty indie film seems laced with irony. Baker knows, though, that for all its non-subtlety, “Bye Bye Bye” is still as catchy as it was the day of its release, and he uses it to suggest the same of Mikey (played by Simon Rex): He’s his own kind of relic, rolling back into his hometown after a failed career in Los Angeles, but he’s still got a glint of charm to him.
Baker has always told small-scale stories set on the margins of America—2015’s Tangerinewas a bittersweet Christmas tale about trans sex workers, and 2017’s The Florida Project was about “hidden homeless” families living in a motel. Both of those films were empathetic works about people enduring incredibly challenging circumstances—Baker, who often casts first-time actors in his work, is a master of displaying unvarnished truth on-screen. Red Rocket is far more sour than sweet, but that’s part of the point; Mikey is a reprehensible fellow, but he’s clawed his way through life by sheer force of will, and as such, the camera simply can’t look away.
The film is a face-off between two visions of the American West—one of promise and the other of hostility.
The banjo may seem like an innocent instrument, but in The Power of the Dog, it’s downright menacing. The swaggering rancher Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) at the center of Jane Campion’s new film is introduced as a thin-skinned bully who’s quick to insult those around him. But I didn’t realize what a frightening character he was going to be until Phil retired to his bed, pulled out a banjo, and started angrily plucking at it; that humble string instrument hasn’t been played so malevolently on-screen since the notorious “dueling banjos” of Deliverance.
Campion’s first feature film in 12 years, based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, is set on a 1925 Montana ranch that’s surrounded by spiky mountains and acres of barren landscape filled with both promise and hostility. There, Phil has proudly carved out a lonely existence for himself as a cattle herder, while his full-hearted brother, George (Jesse Plemons), is dissatisfied with their spartan life and seeking companionship. Into this dynamic wanders local widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George marries Rose, seeing the newcomers as the beginning of a real family, but Phil derides them as too weak for life on the range.
Like it or not, the way we work has already evolved.
In 2019, Steven Spielbergcalled for a ban on Oscar eligibility for streaming films, claiming that “movie theaters need to be around forever” and that audiences had to be given “the motion picture theatrical experience” for a movie to be a movie. Spielberg’s fury was about not only the threat that streaming posed to the in-person viewing experience but the ways in which the streaming giant Netflix reported theatrical grosses and budgets, despite these not being the ways in which one evaluates whether a movie is good or not. Netflix held firm, saying that it stood for “everyone, everywhere [enjoying] releases at the same time,” and for “giving filmmakers more ways to share art.” Ultimately, Spielberg balked, and last month his company even signed a deal with Netflix, likely because he now sees the writing on the wall: Modern audiences enjoy watching movies at home.
A perfect confluence of events created a stealth killer.
It was 1996, Bill Clinton was president, and endangered bald eagles were dying in his home state of Arkansas.
Twenty-nine were found dead at a man-made reservoir called DeGray Lake, before deaths spread to two other lakes. But what really puzzled scientists was how the eagles acted before they died. The stately birds were suddenly flying straight into cliff faces. They hit trees. Their wings drooped. Even on solid ground, they stumbled around as if drunk.
“We weren’t in the political limelight that often,” says Carol Meteyer, who was then a pathologist for the National Wildlife Health Center, a usually obscure federal agency that investigates animal deaths. But as the toll rose, to more than 70 eagles in total, the mass die-off of America’s national bird in the president’s home state took on outsize symbolic importance. Scientists around the country were detailed to the case, but they kept coming up empty: It wasn’t botulism. It wasn’t heavy metals. It wasn’t pesticides. It didn’t seem to be anything known to man. “About the only thing that hasn’t been tested for is second-hand cigarette smoke,” an official told The New York Times in 1998. “We’ve even had people calling in suggesting that it’s radiation from outer space.”
I spent a lifetime counseling others before my diagnosis. Will I be able to take my own advice?
I have spent a good part of my life talking with people about the role of faith in the face of imminent death. Since I became an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1975, I have sat at countless bedsides, and occasionally even watched someone take their final breath. I recently wrote a small book, On Death, relating a lot of what I say to people in such times. But when, a little more than a month after that book was published, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was still caught unprepared.
On the way home from a conference of Asian Christians in Kuala Lumpur in February 2020, I developed an intestinal infection. A scan at the hospital showed what looked like enlarged lymph nodes in my abdomen: No cause for concern, but come back in three months just to check. My book was published. And then, while all of us in New York City were trying to protect ourselves from COVID-19, I learned that I already had an agent of death growing inside me.
Straight, married couples in the U.S. still almost always give kids the father’s last name. Why?
About a year before Christine Mallinson gave birth to her first child, she and her husband agreed that all of their children would take her last name. The decision came down to family cohesion: The couple wanted their children—they eventually had two—to share a last name with the only cousin near their kids in age, who was Mallinson’s niece.
Mallinson knew that their choice was not a popular one for heterosexual American couples—she’s a professor of sociolinguistics and gender and women’s studies at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, and wrote a 2017 paper that, in part, analyzes patrilineal surname conventions. In 2002, researchers found that about 97 percent of married couples passed down only the father’s last name to their first kid. That proportion seems to have remained remarkably consistent: A 2017 paper studying adoptive heterosexual parents found that they gave a patrilineal surname to their child 96 percent of the time. Though few studies on the topic have been conducted, evidence suggests that in almost every American family with a mom and a dad, children receive their father’s last name.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Everyone—even the most privileged among us—has circumstances they would like to change in their life. As the early sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius put it, “One has abundant riches, but is shamed by his ignoble birth. Another is conspicuous for his nobility, but through the embarrassments of poverty would prefer to be obscure. A third, richly endowed with both, laments the loneliness of an unwedded life.”
Think about your own life and something causing you stress, anxiety, or sadness. For example, maybe you are struggling to find your job or career interesting and fulfilling. Or maybe you aren’t getting much out of your friendships, and feel lonely. How might you improve the situation? Your answer might be, “I should move, get a new job, and meet new people.” In other words, you should change the outside world to make it better for you.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?