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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hamilton's prophecy

Perhaps we have just enough time, before tonight's bombshells hit, for a post about history and ideas.

In 1792, Alexander Hamilton offered a prophecy of sorts -- one which seems to describe the times in which we live. A truncated version of this prophecy has been making the rounds on the internet. I'd like to offer a fuller, more contextualized version of his words, which you may find at the National Archives website.

His paper was written to answer various objections to the system of government outlined in the Constitution. Much of his essay addresses issues which are no longer germane. We are interested in the fourteenth objection, which appears far down on the list.

Hamilton says that the ultimate objection to a democratic system is that such a system carries the seeds of its own end, that democracy will inevitably decay into authoritarianism.
The idea of introducing a monarchy or aristocracy into this Country, by employing the influence and force of a Government continually changing hands, towards it, is one of those visionary things, that none but madmen could meditate and that no wise men will believe.
The old-fashioned syntax makes this passage a bit difficult to comprehend at first. Here, I think, is what Hamilton is saying: "Some people argue that the system of democracy can be used to destroy democracy itself. I disagree."
If it could be done at all, which is utterly incredible, it would require a long series of time, certainly beyond the life of any individual to effect it. Who then would enter into such plot? For what purpose of interest or ambition?
The plot -- and I'm not afraid to use that word -- has indeed been the work of decades. As for the question of "purpose": Once we move beyond such obvious motives as money and power, we must never discount the insidious nature of ideology. Dominionism, Ayn Randism, Fascism: Spectres of that sort did not haunt the home in which Alexander Hamilton lived -- except, perhaps for Dominionism, which he would have recognized as his old enemy theocracy. He probably could not have conceived of an ism that would keep a political conspiracy going for more than half a century.
To hope that the people may be cajoled into giving their sanctions to such institutions is still more chimerical. A people so enlightened and so diversified as the people of this Country can surely never be brought to it, but from convulsions and disorders, in consequence of the acts of popular demagogues.
Hamilton may have been trying to flatter his countrymen by calling them enlightened and diversified. I need hardly point out that the un-enlightened rules then in place prevented true diversity by disenfranchising women, non-whites, and those without property. Still, the basic point holds: Monarchy -- or, as we would now say, authoritarianism -- can take root only after a popular demagogue creates "convulsions and disorders."
The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.
This is an eerily accurate forecast of the Alt Right -- and the Alt Left. The term "psychological warfare" did not exist in Hamilton's day, but he understood the basic idea.
Those then, who resist a confirmation of public order, are the true Artificers of monarchy—not that this is the intention of the generality of them. Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected.
In a psychological warfare campaign, most of the foot soldiers can't see what's really going on. But standing above the warriors are the generals: They see the entire battlefield, and they will do whatever it takes to attain the ultimate goal.

Here is the passage which strikes many as a prophecy of Trump:
When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits -- despotic in his ordinary demeanour -- known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty -- when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity -- to join in the cry of danger to liberty -- to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government and bringing it under suspicion -- to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day -- It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
Oaf he may be, but Trump is also a man of considerable talent. Shamelessness is a talent. Ruthlessness is a talent. Manipulating the media is a talent.

The next part is not particularly applicable to Trump, but is still worth noting.
It has aptly been observed that Cato was the Tory, Cæsar the whig of his day. The former frequently resisted, the latter always flattered the follies of the people. Yet the former perished with the Republic; the latter destroyed it.

No popular Government was ever without its Catalines and its Cæsars. These are its true enemies.
Cato the Younger (Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis) was Caesar's great opponent in the waning days of the Roman Republic. A Stoic and a small-R republican to the core, Cato helped Cicero crush the Catiline conspiracy, a plot to overthrow the Republic. This scheme was headed by an aristocrat named Lucius Sergius Catilina, whom English-speaking writers usually call Catiline.

After winning over the plebians with false promises of debt relief, Catiline and his fellow conspirators -- mostly patricians holding various grudges against the Senate -- raised an army against Rome. The conspiracy was crushed when Cicero read to the Senate some intercepted letters which proved the plot's existence. Julius Caesar made an eloquent oration in which he begged for merciful treatment of the conspirators. Cato demanded the death penalty.

Catiline was an aristocrat who thought he could purchase the allegiance of the common people. Caesar was a populist who knew how to further his ambitions by appealing to the lower classes. Cato -- stoic, abstemious, learned and thoroughly republican -- stood against both.

Cato killed himself when the Roman Republic ended. He refused to live in a world ruled by Julius Caesar.

Here, I think, we may see the problem with Hamilton's faith that his newborn American republic would hold. The history of Rome proves that democracy's end is not "incredible." Cato died. Caesar became a dictator and a "deity."
I come not to damn Caesar, but to praise him. Forged in the fires of the Optimates' hatred for the Roman people he only ever worked for the good of the people of Rome. Ultimately he was killed not to protect the Republic, for he was the greatest of Republicans, but to defend the injustices which doomed the Republic. Killed by the very men he had spared when a tyrant would have quite wisely disposed of them as the filth they were. The only thing he has in common with Trump is a well known fondness for Jews.

Cataline was just a normal reformer who tried to do things without an army at his back and ended up fleeing for his life to the only people who might be able to help him, an army of dissatisfied veterans who were demanding what they government had promised them.

Cato was just a hypocrite who was happy to abandon his Republican virtues as soon as a denarius was at stake. He's the Trump here.

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