“The Storm Before the Storm” and parallels to modern American history

The Storm Before the Storm is a history of ancient Rome, and it’s explicit about its purpose: to draw parallels between then and contemporary American history. For obvious reasons, “how democracies die” is a salient question right now. The book is successful in its task and, beyond being good in itself, it makes a nice companion to Helen Dale’s Kingdom of the Wicked.

Still, I’m going to do the opposite and look at ways the current United States is not like ancient Rome. For one thing, ancient Rome was a largely agrarian society and we’re not agrarian today and haven’t been for a long time. For another, passages like this are common: “Norbanus instigated a riot that physically drove the rival tribunes out of the Assembly. Caepio was duly prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to exile. Violence once again proved to be the last word in Roman politics.” In recent decades political violence has been mostly absent from American life, and that’s good. Political violence was very bad in ancient Rome and is very bad in many circumstances; consider, for example, “Rule by Fear: A new one-volume book offers an updated history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich:”

Childers is absolutely clear that this tactic was combined at all times with intense and pervasive violence on the streets, particularly from the brown-shirted stormtroopers, the strong-arm wing of the movement.

Right now there are many bad things happening in American politics, with widespread efforts at voter suppression of particular and underappreciated importance, but violence in the streets and private goon squads aren’t yet among them—and, one hopes, they never will be. But so many things have happened that I never thought would happen that I’m reluctant to say this one never will.

Ancient Rome was also relentlessly at war; after Hannibal invaded Italy, “the great hero of the war, Scipio Africanus, led an invasion of the Carthaginian homeland in North Africa.” The last time the U.S. all-out invaded a country, it did not go well, and American military leaders are notably absent in politics or political power. The current president is notable mostly for draft dodging, not effective command.

The U.S. is also not currently seeing problems based on slaves; “the continuous run of successful foreign wars brought slaves flooding into Italy by the hundreds of thousands.” Many were then made to work “growing estates.” If anything, the biggest problem the U.S. faces is too few people, not too many. Bryan Caplan may write books like Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, but most people do not take his advice. Articles like, “The historically low birthrate, explained in 3 charts.”

There are others, but the absence of violence in American politics is likely the most significant. I’m not writing this piece to argue for complacency—the Roman Republican saw a long period of declining democratic norms, and the U.S. is also seeing just that—but it’s tempting to follow Duncan’s narrative and think the abyss is near. Whenever one looks at a metaphor or other comparison, however, it’s useful to ask, “How are these things alike, and how are they not alike?” Many forget to ask the latter questions, including me.

We have no or very few political murders; the article on the history of the Third Reich notes that “Childers’s view of the ill-fated liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic is correspondingly gloomy, stressing the continuity of political murders (376 from 1918 to 1922 alone).” We have many problems, but, again, it’s worth stressing the problems we don’t have—and why it’s important to oppose violent rhetoric when it is used. Violence, once unleashed, becomes practice by precedent, and even those who would think to use it for temporary advantage do not have the foresight necessary to understand where it will go.

It is notable, too, that the Third Reich seized the machinery of the state and then deployed it to terrorize the rest of the population, which was too cowed, disorganized, or simply inattentive to do anything. Is there any doubt that, today, the many ground-level aspects of the security and police apparatus wouldn’t resist decrees to do horrible things in the United States? Watching the response to some of the awful decrees coming out of the capitol now makes the answer clearer than I once believed.

Duncan writes that, “If history is to have any active meaning there must be a place for identifying those interwoven elements, studying the recurring agencies, and learning from those who come before us.” I agree, but it appears many voters do not. In 2016, “about a quarter of people said they read zero books, in any format.” One out of four. Contemplate that as you go about your day. The same survey finds the median “American has read 4 books in the last 12 months.” Can history have much active meaning in our situation?

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