By Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.*
“Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Freedom” –Thomas Jefferson
“And at the end they go crazy” –Giambattista Vico
John Adams, the second president of the United States, did a study on the life of Republics from their inception all the way to the 18th century. To his great surprise, he discovered that they all died, sooner or later. In other words, they were mortal. The ones who lasted longer were what he calls “republics of virtue.”
By republic of virtue Adams meant a polity based on the rule of law, concern for the common good of the whole polity, rationality, justice, personal virtues such as courage, honesty, sobriety, wisdom, harmony, enterprise, magnanimity. These were the virtues as enunciated by the ancient Greeks’ ethical treatises, considered essential components of personal as well as collective well-being.
Rome could also function as an example of that stance toward republicanism, at least at the beginning. That may explain why it lasted so long, some 500 years as a Republic based on democratic principles of people’s representation via the Senate. It was built on a solid political foundation.
But as that other great observer of republicanism in Roman history, Giambattista Vico, well observed, it too eventually succumbed to the process of an historical law wherein republican polities begin with a basis in necessity and a need to survive (the poetical era of the gods), continue with a basis in utility based on prosperity (the era of the heroes), and finally, as he puts it, they become corrupt with abundance and luxury and “they go mad” (the era of men) The process of “madness” comes in the third and final cycle. Then the process repeats itself and from extreme rationalism there is a gradual return to the poetical.
That is to say, at the end republics manage to destroy themselves. The destruction happens interiorly, with the corruption of the essential moral core of the republic based on virtue. And this was the second great surprise to Adams: they did not succumb to external invasions by fierce enemies; they committed suicide.
The best example of that sad situation is to be found in Roman history in the reign of Caligula which was the culmination of imperial corruption. Prominent on stage, at that time, there was a deranged emperor sitting on top of a pyramid of power which had lost even the memory of its virtuous republican heritage.
He was a vindictive sort of fellow and thought of himself as a magnificent god before whom his subjects had to kneel in adoration, even when he presented himself naked in every respect, especially the moral sense. Few dared shout that the emperor is naked. In effect, the Romans had become sychophantic narcissistic idolaters worshipping themselves. Caligula was the supreme representation of that narcissistic idolatry. Rome worshipped itself as a goddess. It was nothing less than the beginning of the end.
Enter Thomas Jefferson: he agreed with Adams that virtue was essential but added that it was also important to keep up one’s guard and not sleep on one’s laurels, so to speak, and not take the democratic system, as brilliant as it might be, too much for granted. That too can be corrupted. Hence he coined the famous dictum: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
When Jefferson counseled “eternal vigilance” he did not mean the installment of a powerful invincible army buttressed by state-of-the-arts weapons that would keep the peace world-wide (the pax Americana, similar to the pax Romana), but the preservation of the virtues on which the republic had been built: its democracy, its checks and balances, its freedom of speech, its Constitutional guarantees, its bill of rights, its freedom of religion. Unless those were preserved, Democracy would eventually turn into a shamble of sorts. Democracy can be powerful in a military sense, but to remain a democracy, its foundations cannot be based on sheer power, in a Machiavellian mode, so familiar to European nationalism, but on virtue as the Greeks and early Romans understood it.
Let’s now briefly look at the present situation. The parallels between Trump and Caligula are uncanny. Undoubtedly we still have all the trappings of democracy in America: three branches of government, elections, congress, executive, judicial, constitutional guarantees of human and political rights, free unfettered debates.
All this in theory. In practice we have an electorate of which 50% and more does not bother to vote; of the other 50% approximately 25% have opted to vote for a madman who has somehow managed to become a president by the subversion of democracy even if never won the popular vote (which he lost by 3 million votes). He won mostly by electoral college count and, most importantly, by harnessing the help of an undemocratic foreign power run by authoritarian oligarchs, Putin at the forefront. That remains to be investigated.
To be perfectly truthful and frank, the whole process was rigged and fraudulent. Had Congress insisted on the revelation of Trump’s tax returns, as all other modern presidents had done, his financial connections with Russia, going back 30 years, would have come to the surface and would have revealed malfeasance and corruption. He has no intention of doing so, and the Republican controlled Congress has no intention, so far, to demand the disclosure; which in effect means that they are in on the malfeasance.
This illegitimate president reigning like Caligula and demanding constant adulation, has so far fooled some 40% of the electorate by making it look like populism: he feigns to be for the people and by the people. In reality he has surrounded himself with “fat cats” who are beginning to show their bias for tax cuts for the rich and diminishment of social benefits for the poor and middle class, not excluding their health insurance. This is in process as we speak.
Behind the scene, pulling the strings, there is his strategist Steve Bannon, who is in possessions an historical theory of clash of civilizations and white supremacy. His allies are those who believe that there is an alternate government at work (consisting mostly of Intelligence agencies) which they call “deep alternate government.”
It stand to reason that the enemy would be perceived to be intelligence agencies, globalization in any shape or form, the liberal media, and, by default, genuine democracy itself. And that is exactly what we have been witnessing for the last few weeks. Few pundits and media experts have shouted “the Emperor is naked.”
The allies, on the other hand, are perceived to be “white supremacist” authoritarian fascist-leaning nations like Russia or Hungary who have little use for democracy and social justice. It’s all “grab what you can” for yourself, at the personal and collective level and to hell with democracy.
We have now reached the sorry stage when some 30% of Americans have more sympathy for Russia than for our traditional allies in the European Union. The same people continue deluding themselves that they live in a thriving democracy. I suppose derangement is like a disease: it spreads exponentially.
So the urgent question resurfaces: are we witnessing the beginning of the end of American and Western democracy as we know it? Will Jefferson’s dictum come back to haunt us when America and the EU will have destroyed themselves by destroying their own principles and ideals? Indeed, Jefferson had in on target: “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
Let me end with a modest proposal. The Romans had in place a system of emergency in case of a political disaster. It was the equivalent of desperate measures to confront desperate situations, like a Hannibal, for example. We should install such a measure, democratically installed and approved, of course: when the republic is in mortal danger, and it is discovered that a national election was rigged and fraudulent, it should be declare null and void and the citizens be invited to return to the urns and vote again, this time in a legal and fair mode. Any takers? Let those who have ears, let them hear.
About the author:
*Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.
This article was published at Modern Diplomacy.