Does the United States risk a collapse like a Roman republic? This historian says yes.
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The Jan. 6 Capitol uprising was a tumultuous moment in American democracy, but how unusual was it really during world events? And did this mark the peak of violence and political instability, or just the beginning?
VICE News spoke to Mike Duncan, the award-winning author and podcaster behind The history of Rome and Revolutions, on the parallels between the recent chaos in the United States and other historic societal upheavals.
Duncan spent over a decade unboxing the rise and fall of Rome, with a book specifically on the collapse of the Roman Republic. Its long term Revolutions podcast breaks down the causes and results of political revolutions from the English revolution to the rise of the USSR. His new book, Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette at the time of the Revolution, examines the key role that the French nobleman played both in the revolution of his own country and in the American revolution.
Here’s how he sees the current state of American democracy against the backdrop of historic political upheaval, and why he thinks we should be concerned about the rest.
This conversation has been extracted and edited for clarity.
VICE news: A lot of people act like the January 6 insurgency is a past event, like this horrific thing that happened can never happen again and probably will never happen again. As a historian who has studied many of these revolutions, do you think we went through the worst of this situation?
Mike Duncan: I don’t think we’ve been through the worst at all. I’m well prepared to be kind of pessimistic, and all around me I see signs of decay and things falling apart. And when you immerse yourself in great historical revolutions, I can see all these signs everywhere. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if I’ve just prepared to see it or if it’s actually happening. So with that caveat in mind, I think there are a lot of outages. I absolutely don’t think January 6th is the highlight. Of course not.
Do I think something like this will happen again at some point in the next 10 years? Yes, absolutely I do. Because the model is there. He has been shown to come close enough to his goals. And even when it didn’t work, most of the people who organized and orchestrated it, and actually wanted it to happen – and I’m not just talking about the Oath Keepers and the basic sort of soldiers on the ground. ; I’m talking about guys like [Texas Senator] Ted Cruz and [Missouri Senator Josh] Hawley and [former president Donald] Trump, and anyone who cheered him on, whether on Newsmax or Fox News or right-wing media, none of those people have been held accountable.
And all these people that say, “Oh, you’re just hyperventilating here, you’re overreacting, I can’t believe you’re making such a big deal out of it,” they say that because they want to get it. away with something. And once they figure out they can, I see no reason why it wouldn’t happen again is not something we should all look forward to. This is why there should be far more serious repercussions for the people who were involved in it than what we have seen. Because if a political system doesn’t go after that kind of unconstitutional, undemocratic attempt to overturn the results of an election, what do you do with it? If you can get away with it, you’re just going to keep doing it.
VICE news: After walking a dozen Revolutions seasons as well as all History of rome, what do you think this most closely resembles what you have studied?
Duncan: If we’re talking about Roman history … there were a few times, three or four at least, where you literally had an election that took place, [and it was] is going to go against a candidate, this candidate has armed gangs, armed street gangs on mandate. And they said, “I’m probably going to lose this vote, so on election day I need you to come with your gang and brutalize people, beat them.”
There were ballot boxes, literal physical ballot boxes that you would vote in. And they would overthrow them to derail the election itself. So all of this, everything that happened from the election until January 6 reminded me of a lot of things.
I am in the process of completing the proofs of this biography of Lafayette that I am writing. And after the [French] revolution of 1830, there is a point where Lafayette has to go out and stop a crowd of people who are going to try to rush into the building of the National Assembly, because they think that the people inside the building are writing a new constitution for France which is more conservative than they would have liked. And so you had some kind of crowd come to stop the national legislature from doing what it was doing.
In reality, January 6 was about trying to disrupt the legal transfer of power from party to party, candidate to candidate, person to person, and they’re just trying to get in the middle of that and use force and intimidation to stop this process – which is very different from the types of great mass uprisings, the most famous moments you see in other revolutions or in d other moments in history.
There are many parallels to this. It is unique for this moment in American history. It is not at all unique in terms of world history.
VICE news: You spent a lot of time looking at the collapse of the pre-Roman Republic and the conditions that created the problems that led to the collapse of the Republic. Do you see any parallels between some of the societal inequalities and the rise of populism, and what you have seen in Western societies, especially the United States, over the past 20 to 25 years?
Duncan: When people say “This is the end of the Roman Empire”, that’s where I say, I don’t think it’s true. This is not a situation where we go into total state collapse and there is going to be like a kingdom of California, a confederation of principalities. I don’t think we’re on that kind of state collapse. It would be overkill. The United States as a whole will continue.
But when you talk about its political system, what does American democracy look like, what does representative government look like, what does participatory government look like? For 500 years, the Romans had a fairly participatory system. It was an oligarchy ruled by wealthy senators, but there were assemblies … These guys still had to troll for the votes. They still had to win the election to move forward.
So I think there are things we can talk about in terms of transitioning the political system from a representative democracy to an autocratic regime, which is quite possible in the United States of America. It’s a very easy transition to make right now.
But the Roman Republic? What happened there was that the ambitious men (because they were all men) who wanted power stopped caring about the various rules, norms, laws that govern their behavior. What happens if you lose an election? What if you don’t get command of a legion? How do you respond to that? And for 500 years, most of the time, they did it in a rotating system where everyone was pretty happy. And then about 50 or 60 years before Caesar, it all started to fall apart, and they started to escalate with each other. … I see this happening in the United States right now. I think we’ve all seen something like this happen on January 6th.
The United States of America, which of course is modeled after the Roman republican system, has institutions just like Rome did with the consulate and the tribune where if you just start to confer power and authority on one part of this system, you can keep the showcase of the House of Representatives and a Senate and a Supreme Court. We see it in constitutional dictatorships, with the clothing of democracy, but in fact it’s just an autocracy. … The institutional institutional framework is there for the White House to become a kind of true imperial presidency.
It will come when these ambitious people and ambitious politicians just throw the elections out the window and it all becomes a free takeover for all, where power is all that matters and nothing else does. And you take this mentality, that I see floating there, the only thing that matters is power and victory, and an institution like the presidency that is well prepared to become an autocratic entity, you put those two things. together and you’ve got an American dictatorship.
VICE news: Who do you think Trump is historically similar to? And if we start slipping into this autocracy you’re talking about, do you think it’s going to be Trump or do you think there’s someone else out there who could take the Trump playbook that they don’t have? not very well managed and do it better?
Duncan: When I looked back Revolutions and all along The history of Rome, the unique factor about Trump isn’t what he tried to do, or that he’s a bad leader. When people ask me if he looks like Louis XVI or is he like Tsar Nicholas, the answer is that these guys were actually, in my opinion, better leaders and better politicians, frankly, than they were. Donald Trump. And they are historically bad leaders. You kind of have to look at what was going on with some of the teenage emperors in Roman history in terms of their casual nonchalance with the power they had.
What does the “American Caesar”, or the American Sylla, or the American Marius look like [Roman consuls who pushed the Republic toward autocracy], someone who is really going to push the system and grab it? I don’t know if we’ve seen exactly what this playbook looks like. But Donald Trump has shown us what people are feeling that kind of power and that kind of movement, whether they’re willing to accept it or not. . Dude, we’ve been shown clearly how many people are absolutely going to be willing to accept this, if and when it happens.
Graphics by Hunter French. Edited by Ben Craw.