Political power in the Capitol moves in ever-narrowing channels, squeezed between money and family connection; the citizenry immerses itself in mass entertainments, less concerned with the state of the Republic than the love life of the latest popular thespian; foreign misadventures are undertaken out of greed and pride, leading to prolonged occupations and military disasters…
So went Rome, so goes America. And if the stakes weren’t so high, it would be kind of fun to illustrate the parallels between the two empires (we all know what befell Europe when things went bad for the Romans: blonde, fur-clad men wiping their mead-soaked mouths with the collected Euripides). But, in honor of our annual Decadence Issue, we’ll try to have a good time anyway.
The decline of the Roman Empire begins with the downfall of the Roman Republic, the transition from a consensus-seeking governing body to an authoritarian power based in one man (under the advisement of a few highly trusted “experts”). The Republic tanked around 46 B.C. with the rise of the first emperor, Julius Caesar, beginning a tale of power, intrigue and depravity, much of which was recorded in Suetonius’ famous history Lives of the Twelve Caesars. And though the fate of the American empire has yet to be written, the parallels between the first emperors of Rome and the men who’ve led the neo-conservative revolution over the last 30 years, are disturbing.
THE STORY SO FAR
1968-1974 Richard Nixon (Julius Caesar)
The original Caesar was a larger-than-life figure of Shakespearean proportions, so for our purposes, we’re going to have to cheat right off the bat by creating a triumvirate of proto-conservative power brokers. Backstage types Milton Friedman and Leo Strauss provided the economic and ideological basis for the neo-con empire — but it was Richard Nixon, the unlucky, power-mad figurehead, who got stabbed and bloodied on the steps of the Capitol. Unlike the exsanguinated Julius, though, Tricky Dicky was able to get away in a helicopter.
1980-88 Ronald Reagan (Augustus)
The golden boy(s). Reagan brought the Moral Majority into the mainstream political fold, initiating a marriage between heartland values and Washington realpolitik that has lasted to this day; Augustus legislated serious moral reform on the citizens of Rome (more marriages, more children, less fun). He also played up an avuncular, non-threatening public persona, using his senescence to his advantage at the end of his reign — not unlike Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Gipper gave the performance of his life. Both also probably kept chimps as pets.
1988-92 George Bush I (Tiberius)
Following in the footsteps of a much-loved predecessor ain’t easy, especially if you’re a sour misanthrope with a mean streak. But perhaps we can forgive these two, who really just wanted to be loved by their calculating, power-mad moms, Livia and Barbara (though technically his wife, Babs was always a mother to Georgie). Both also won foreign victories! (that didn’t really last…)
1994-98 Newt Gingrich (Caligula)
A meteoric rise to their respective positions saw them wielding godlike power in the houses of influence. The two were prone to ill-advised attacks (Caligula famously tried to invade and subjugate the ocean; Newt once tried to shut down parts of the Federal government by blocking the President’s budget — both strategies failed). Though he stopped short of appointing his beloved horse to Congress, Newt’s power-hungry megalomania led to a leadership coup by House Republicans. But at least he wasn’t stabbed to death in a passageway beneath the Coliseum.
1992-2000 Bill Clinton (Claudius)
Yes, yes, Clinton is not a conservative, but his aggressive centrism effectively wiped out the possibility of a legitimate left in America, setting the table for the full neo-con ascendancy that followed his term. So too was Claudius the relative calm before the storm. As did Clinton, Claudius oversaw a period of sustained prosperity, marshaled the smooth expansion of empire, and enjoyed the indifference of a well-fed populous. And he even had his very own sex scandal! It was widely rumored that Claudius’ fourth wife Messalina used the royal palace as an arena for sexual wagering, with herself as the main competitor. 2000-2008 George Bush II (Nero)
Nero, famously, fiddled as Rome burned — it is uncertain, at the time of this writing, what instrument Dubya will soon turn to. As with young party boy Bush, no one really expected Nero, the dilettante playboy nephew of Claudius, to amount to anything politically. But once he got in the emperor’s seat, the fun really began. Like our own beloved Dubya, Nero was a fanatical patron of the arts who loved to perform, often appearing publicly in full theatrical costume; also like Bush, Nero had a profound distaste for a weird death-worshipping cult known as Christianity, and was into the idea of two men getting married. But hold on, the similarities don’t end there: Nero invaded and eventually subjugated the Parthian Empire (Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan). Don’t worry Dubya, two out of three ain’t bad!
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT...
2008-2012 McCain, Frist, DeLay (Otho, Galba, Aulus)
Nero’s death led to chaos. The period that followed, the so-called Year of the Four Emperors, was one of internecine conflict and political bloodletting. With Bush saying goodbye to the White House, the Republican committee finds itself in turmoil, with no single power group able to wrest control of the party’s destiny. Out of all the madness and political carnage (a defenseless Senator Clinton is forced to fall on her own sword after it is revealed she abused crystal meth for a brief period during Monicagate), rises President McCain, the ultimate bulldog survivor — until he suffers a heart attack in the second year of his term. Vice President Frist seems to be fine in office… until he’s assassinated by a religious zealot, unhappy with the good doctor’s position on stem cell research. That leaves… Speaker of the House DeLay! How did he get out of prison? Easy: on leaving office, the benevolent George II pardoned his redistricting sins. On becoming president DeLay immediately tries to redraw the “district” of Maine by invading a newly independent country of Quebec. He’s impeached just in time for election season. And thus ends the Term of the Three Presidents.
2012-2020 Al Gore (Vespasian)
After the unprecedented turmoil of the preceding three and a half years, the country is thirsting for stability, common sense, and above all, prudence. And no man sums up those virtues more than failed TV magnate and inventor of the Internet, Albert Gore Jr. Gore rolls up his sleeves, cleans up corruption on the Hill, and like Vespasian did in his time, raises taxes on the rich to restore equilibrium to a nation bankrupted by war and croneyism. Though it’s a stabilizing period, the slow decline to second-class statehood has begun. China and India grow bolder, as their economies continue to hum; Gore, wisely accepting this, aligns American interests accordingly.
2020-2024 Karenna Gore-Schiff (Titus)
“Sometime in my life, I might want to run for elective office... Right now my kids are so little, and I have more work to do in building a separate professional identity.” And with those few words, spoken as a young woman, the seeds of another American political family dynasty were sown. But it didn’t really work out. More than ready for a woman president, Americans aren’t quite ready for someone actually less charismatic than Gore senior. To compensate for her lack of inherent political presence, she resorts to the same kind of bread-and-circuses tactics employed by Titus (Vespasian’s son) to curry favor — free WiFi for toddlers, a pizza lottery... it doesn’t work. And so the phrase “Gore More Years!” is retired forever from the political lexicon.
2024-2028 George P. Bush (Domitian)
Ah, little Jorge, grandson of George H. W. Bush, nephew of Dubya, and the direct benefactor of 12 straight years of a Gore in the White House — as many wags will claim, the “country was Gored to death.” And so the Bush dynasty returns to power with this grandson (on his mother’s side) of a migrant Mexican worker. Like Domitian, his micro-managerial obsessions will alienate his inner circle, leading to a confused foreign policy (Bay of Pigs II anyone?) that solidifies America’s descent into second-class nation status. Oh well.