In the movie “Gladiator,” the Roman emperor Commodus storms back to his palace after paying a visit to the senate. In the senate, he bemoaned his father’s time spent at study and was quickly chided about his inexperience as other senators laughed. He angrily laments to his sister:
“Who would deign to lecture me?”
His sister tries to impress upon him the importance of the senate, but Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is not moved. He continues:
“I will give the people a vision of Rome, and they will love me for it, and they'll soon forget the tedious sermonizing of a few dry old men.”
Commodus realizes that the one thing standing between him and his authoritarian impulses is the senate, its rules and its traditions, and he is furious about its constraints on his power.
I have thought of this movie often since Donald Trump was elected, and this scene seems particularly relevant this week. The film is a work of fiction based on some historical figures, but it has some incredibly compelling parallels to what’s happening today in America.
First, Commodus was indeed a real person – cruel and slipping into insanity, self-indulgent and despised, impetuous and thinking he was greater than he was.
As historian Cassius Dio wrote, “This man was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.”
Sound like someone we know?
There has been no shortage of pieces written that use lessons from the ancient world to explain our current predicament.
In May, Andrew Sullivan summoned the teachings of Plato in a fascinating piece for New York magazine about how tyrants rise in “late-stage democracy”:
“He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time – given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by ‘taking over a particularly obedient mob' and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class – and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess – ‘too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery' – and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.”
Sound like someone we know?
My colleague Paul Krugman wrote in December about the fall of the Roman Empire under the headline “How Republics End,” explaining: “Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.”
But it is the film and not actual history that sprang to mind this week. In the same way that Commodus tussled with the senate in the film, Trump tussled with the U.S. Senate.
This week the filibuster rule in the Senate allowed the minority Democrats to truly flex their muscle, and the Senate approved a bipartisan budget deal that was a stunning rebuke of Trump’s agenda.
He was not pleased. As Carl Hulse wrote in The New York Times:
“Members of the House and Senate now have clear evidence they can successfully work together in certain cases and deliver a product they support even if it does not do all that the White House wants.”
Trump was unhappy. He began complaining about the filibuster rule, calling for its elimination or else threatening “a good ‘shutdown’” in September.
The Senate didn’t take this threat lightly. Hulse, again reporting for The Times, pointed out that Trump “single-handedly saved the Senate filibuster” by threatening it, as “Senators in both parties rushed on Tuesday to categorically embrace the filibuster and profess that it would remain untouched.”
And even if Republicans in the House of Representatives are able to squeak through their horrendous repeal of the Affordable Care Act, it is likely to die in the Senate.
The Senate may well be our rampart, as it is an institution that recognizes the severe threat Trump poses. It could be the Senate that saves America from this tyrant and his throngs of cheering supporters who have set this whole nightmare in motion.
One of the best lines in the film is delivered by one senator to another as he laments Commodus’ manipulation of the people:
“I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum. He'll bring them death – and they will love him for it.”
Sound like someone’s supporters we know?