Special to WorldTribune, November 2, 2020
By Mark S. Hunter
“I shall relate quite simply how things happened and without adding anything of my own, which is no small feat for an historian.” — Voltaire, Micromegas
A recent Daily Beast article by Max Burns, “Donald Trump Isn’t Julius Caesar. He’s Republic-Killer Tiberius Gracchus”, is essentially a hit piece on President Trump and illustrates perfectly what happens when a political operative plays fast and loose with history to impugn a political opponent.
It is a disingenuous perversion of history to truncate it, crop it and decontextualize it, and that’s what Burns does. And then, he cherry picks the historical snippets and tidbits he creates to make a crass political point. The result bears little, if any, resemblance to the actual causes and consequences of the historical forces at play.
Before reading Mr. Burns’ faux historical analysis about the fall of the Roman Republic, dear reader, please understand that he is a self-described “veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics,” whose self-declared mission is to “shine a spotlight on progressive candidates, causes, and organizations.” Please survey the tributary of the swamp in which Mr. Burns swims, which is easily charted by perusing the Millennial Politics website, where one finds, for example, a blog post by the group’s founder Nathan Rubin entitled, “Donald Trump Is An Illegitimate President. Period.” In this harangue, Rubin not only calls the president “illegitimate” but also accuses him of obstructing justice, an accusation that has been thoroughly discredited. Yes, it is true that one is known by the company he keeps but in Mr. Burns’ case, he is even better known by the words he writes. And in the aforementioned article, he writes some real doozies.
Let’s begin with Burns’ set-up headline – “Donald Trump Isn’t Julius Caesar. He’s Republic-Killer Tiberius Gracchus.” Burns subtly and economically implies that everything to follow about Gracchus applies to Trump. For his attack to hit home, he must distort, oversimplify and mischaracterize the historical events in question. Before he can falsely equate Tribune Gracchus with President Trump, he first must depict Gracchus as an evil, power-hungry tyrant hell-bent on destroying the republic to have himself crowned king. The problem is, Gracchus the man, and the motivations surrounding the drama in 133 bc did not unfold as Burns characterizes them. A more honest reading of history shows that Gracchus was not the fountainhead of the Republic’s decline. In fact, a careful, nuanced reading of history reveals that much of the blame for the decline of the Roman Republic lies with the entrenched, deeply corrupt Roman Senate that in Burns’ portrayal are noble, toga-clad victims of Gracchus’ mobs. This is simply not what history records.
The core of Burn’s argument is that what made Gracchus (and by implication Trump) so dangerous was his determined incitement of the worst and most violent tendencies of the populist masses, thus transforming them rhetorically into a “violent mob.” Then, Burns gratuitously accuses Gracchus of convincing Roman citizens to “hollow out their governing institutions.”
Rather than merely accepting these assertions as true premises, let’s examine the applicable historical facts to test their veracity.
Few historians would disagree with the characterization of Gracchus, or Trump for that matter, as a populist. But it is here Burns makes a disingenuous leap of logic by claiming populist movements and violent mobs are one in the same. This is done for the sole purpose to bamboozle the reader into believing a Gracchus mob undermined Roman institutions in its attempt to overthrow the Republic.
Burns’ true colors shine bright through the sophistry of his rhetoric. History shows no evidence that Gracchus used the masses violently against the state or sought to undermine the Republic. In fact, it was the Senate, itself, that presided over the “hollowing out” and became a violent cabal that incited a mob to cover its murder of Gracchus and 300 of his followers. Gracchus’ populism began right in line with how populist forces can function to benefit a republic. It also, unfortunately, illustrates what can go wrong when plebs seeking redress of long-simmering grievances come up against a corrupt and intransigent political elite.
In a healthy republic, populist movements act as an external force for change, pushing against the inertial rest of the republic, which is inherently conservative, tending to maintain stability by resisting structural change. Concerns or grievances once addressed, the populist forces subside; or in some cases, the republic absorbs the movement without radical structural change, accepting reforms the republic can accommodate without altering its essential republican form. Not all populist reforms prove to be good reforms but that doesn’t mean that all bad reforms necessarily are “republic killers.”
Additionally, populist movements have served as a counterbalance to the natural tendency, as Thomas Jefferson said, of “liberty to yield and government to gain ground” and for the political elites in whose hands that power is concentrated to become detached from the people over whom it exerts power and control. The failure was the Roman Senate’s decision to destroy the rising populist movement by force instead of addressing its legitimate grievances within the constitution and through the rule of law. Gracchus’ real offense to the Senate was his audacity in giving voice to a plebian class that the patricians had routinely exploited, gagged and contemptuously ignored.
Burns’ mischaracterization of history – the fallacious equivalence he imputes to populist movements and violent mobs; the false identity he draws between Gracchus and Trump without evidence; the unwarranted charges he brings against Gracchus, and by implication Trump, of being violent rabble rousers and “republic-killers” – all are spurious. In Burns’ rush to disparage Trump, he resorts to distorting and weaponizing history.
What exactly is this Trump-inspired violence he alludes to? What are the illegal and unconstitutional acts he accuses Trump of committing? Of course, none is cited. Like a Wagnerian leitmotiv recurring with mind-numbing regularity, Burns mimics his leftist comrades in perpetrating the image of right-wing mobs on the brink of violence, which never materializes. Time and again, peaceful gatherings of right-inclined groups – the Virginia Gun Rights Rally being the most recent – are characterized with a potential for violence that never occurs. All the while, leftist organizations – such as Antifa and BLM that operate at the behest of and under protection of leaders of the “progressive” party Burns and most liberals still defend – unleash unbridled violence against cities and citizens from whom they demand obeisance.
At the end of the day, it was the political elites in the Roman Senate that used mob violence, not the Gracchi brothers. Trying to absolve the state’s use of violence and its culpability in the fall of the Republic is akin to a wife beater blaming his nagging wife for making him beat her!
But what of the charge that Gracchus, and Trump by association, are “republic killers?” Burns claims, “By the time Rome’s senators realized the full extent of their self-immolation, the Gracchi – and the Republic – were dead.” By his telling, the senators were helpless bystanders to the events unfolding around them. These poor corrupt, entrenched, filthy rich, senators who controlled the machine of Roman power, who had discernably garnered their riches and positions at the expense of the plebs, many of whom literally died for the State…these senators are the victim! The plebs on the other hand, who bore the brunt of senate wars and harmful economic policies, are portrayed as the cause of the republic’s collapse because they dared express grievances through the only peaceful means the rigged system left available to them.
The reader is then subjected to a moment where Mr. Burns uses his Tiberius stick figure as an excuse to attack Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law to a diplomatic post wherein, he instructs the reader via link to a Washington Post article on “Jared Kushner’s all or nothing mistake in the Middle East.” Is this a charge of nepotism or incompetence? Let’s begin with the latter.
Given the reality of unfolding current events, the accusation of incompetence hasn’t aged well. Far from the disaster hoped for by Trump’s political opponents, the Middle East overtures appear to be paying dividends as one-by-one, Arab nations are coming to the table to accept Israel into the Middle East political and economic realm.
To the former charge, that nepotism and family enrichment through influence peddling endangers the American republic, Burns’ would have a more compelling argument against the former vice president by directing the reader to the revelations of Hunter Biden’s former business partner and Hunter’s own laptop files, which show what real political graft and treasonous influence peddling looks like. Nothing like that has ever been suggested, much less proven about Kushner. So sloppy is Burns’ accusation that it proves the opposite of his intent – Joe Biden, the consummate political insider would fit right in the corrupt Roman Senate.
Isn’t it ironic that Burns, a self-proclaimed “progressive,” twists himself and history into a pretzel to defend the corrupt Roman monied class while disparaging the oppressed Roman plebs as an unwashed, violent mob?” Such is the craziness induced by the Trump Derangement Syndrome that has plagued liberals since he defeated Hillary Clinton, who like Biden, also would have found herself right at home among the patricians in the Roman Senate fending off the plebian deplorables and chumps, who Burns would have us believe should simply accept their betters and ignore their ongoing corruption.
Left out of Burns’ account altogether is the Senate’s own total and brazen disregard for the rule of law. When the consul was advised by the Senate to act and bring down Tiberius, the consul rejected the Senate’s advice outright, maintaining that “…he would resort to no violence and put no citizen to death without a trial.” It’s at this point the Senate itself becomes a mob, storming out of the proceedings brandishing clubs, which further incites a greater throng that overflows into a madness of murder.
The refusal of the consul to act upon the Senate’s advice is wildly important since the power and tradition of the Senate was so profound that rejection of its advice was a rarity that warrants recognition, if for no other reason than its rarity alone. But equally important, the consul’s rebelliousness threw up a warning that the Senate had placed itself in a pincer of defiance between tribune and consul, both of whom were showing an independence the Senate was unaccustomed to seeing. Consider – this whole episode began because a tribune dared to flout the Senate’s “advice” (i.e., disregard the Senate’s refusal to consent to his introducing his reform proposal) who then went forth defiantly to lay his legislative proposal before the plebian assembly anyway; and then, defiance of the Senate’s advice reared its head again, from another quarter when the Senate’s own consul – usually its obedient tool – dared to apply the rule of law over self-interest. Tyranny takes many forms, and by all accounts what is witnessed here is the workings of a corrupt oligarchical tyranny under great stress from all corners, unwilling to bend but willing to destroy anything and anyone that stood in its way…including the Republic itself.
History is filled with complex and often contradicting pieces of evidence that make superficial portrayals insufficient. Different conclusions can be reached, a spectrum of lessons learned, however, like history, they are normally filled with more gray than black or white. Without scrupulous discernment, history becomes a sophist’s propaganda tool, weaponized to mislead rather than enlighten. For all his pretense at serious historical analysis, Burns succeeds only in conjuring up another tired Orange-Man-Evil narrative.
Gracchus was no angel, and as my more in-depth treatment of America’s Gracchi Moment attempts to demonstrate, he resorted to his own extraconstitutional actions in dealing with an entrenched and corrupt Senate. The key to understanding the importance of this moment in history is the spiraling, tit-for-tat struggle between tribune and Senate where the Senate raised the stakes at every turn, up to and including wholesale slaughter in the streets. To portray Gracchus purely as the villain is a one-dimensional reductio ad absurdum that serves only as a club to beat Trump over the head. Manipulative rhetoric and baseless accusations play far less successfully in historical analysis than in social media, which is where Mr. Burns should return to ply his crudely veiled sleights of hand.
Mark Hunter is Professor of Humanities at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Florida