• Michael Vlahos

The Impending Election. Third Question: Can We Fight a Decades’ Long Slide Into Empire?

American is transforming from a republic into an empire. Talking about civil war is so urgent now because there is still enough of the nation aroused and ready to fight this process — and fight we must.

[From conversations with John Batchelor on America and Rome]

JB: Let’s go to the emperor that we suddenly entertain as the possible analogy to Mr. Biden in his Delaware basement, retiring from the campaign trail in the last week--an extraordinary decision by a major political candidate--for all the days and years of this republic. We go to Tiberius, born in the first century BC, becomes emperor in 14 AD, and rules for 23 years. What is important here is that Tiberius is the senior figure, yet he withdraws often from public life during the course of his life. In the final years he withdraws to the island of Capri, and leaves the ruling of Rome to his lieutenants, some of whom are jealous, some of whom plot against him. None of that is successful. If Tiberius is possibly the 46th president of the United States, what does it mean for this conflict which we have identified as a civil war. What does it mean for the Optimates of Wall Street and of Silicon Valley and for the Populares of the Red states of the Mississippi River basin: What does it mean?


MV: Essentially, the figure of Tiberius — or Biden — as a man already garbed in his funerary robes, whose face is an imago, a kind of frozen mask, is part and parcel of the Roman imperial experience, to the degree that it was necessary to create emotional and objective distance between the Emperor and the People.


The Emperor had to be pulled into a form of physical ascendency and to be made into a kind of living god. Of course, we know that Augustus Caesar became a god upon his death, but over time, the idea of the emperor as the actual embodiment of Roman authority--and his body itself being a kind of sacred vessel of Rome--was necessary because it concentrated and made manifest the legitimacy of empire itself, and thus legitimated also the hold of the senatorial class and the great landowners on all of Roman society.

If you look at how this process of metamorphosis, of the person of the emperor shape-shifting into something very clearly swathed with divinity, is well attested not just in Roman writing at the time but in much of the historiography we have of Late Rome. The increasing distance of the Emperor from any contact with the people became extraordinarily powerful.


You can see in the Hippodrome or Coliseum: The Emperor is this lofty, tiny figure almost reaching from the top of the Coliseum into the clouds. The passage therefore, from Augustus, who was known as the father of his country, the savior of the nation, three centuries later had become Constantine the Great, and you can see from the very imagery, and the statuary, how transformed the emperor is from a person — Rome’s “First Citizen” — into a figure of divine kingship.


This is where the American presidency has been evolving.


JB: So after Tiberius, for the centuries ahead, this empire could look forward to centuries where all were worshipping Rome, but at the same time there is no real center. There are these serial emperors who take care of themselves and their senatorial class, and if they do not, they are quickly removed. Is that a speculation on the fate of the American Republic: That we have become an empire? And we become not just two societies, but a society ruled by an elite that is impossibly removed from the rest of us, and we are satisfied.


MV: Some of the best commentators in America today, and I would count Mike Lind as one of them, have rallied, as “public intellectuals” — which is a lofty title — around the idea that America is moving toward a “managed” society that will be essentially finessed and controlled by a managerial class.


Mike has come to some reservations about that largely because of the popular rebellion of Red under Mr. Trump. But essentially he represents this conviction among American elite types that this is in fact not only where we are heading but where we should be heading, and how inevitable it is, and must be.


In this sense, Rome holds up a dark mirror in its own intellectual path to what it ultimately came to represent. Over time, our society will begin to depart more and more easily from its republican roots. Those republican roots are barely paid lip service to now among Blue. The everyday eagerness I see among the Senatorial Class — to alter the constitutional order and change all the rules and essentially empty that document of its original meaning — is not to be denied.


It is a process of transformation that is already well underway, and I think at this point, when they assume power, it can move quickly in the direction that we have been talking about — a frankly imperial direction — in which empire is not about foreign possessions or colonies, but all about the way in which our society is ruled.


The problem with that in the shorter term — and this is I think why our conversation about civil war is so urgent and relevant — is that there is still enough of the nation aroused and ready to fight this process. The problem: Can the last energies of the Old Republic still be harnessed against seemingly inevitable, imperial transformation?


My fear (which I might couch as “concern” if I did not want to seem too alarmed) is that we are simply in the mid-stage of a very Roman Revolution, and that we still have some decades to go — with the issue still wholly in the balance.

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