Washington Offers Up Bread and Circuses, but the U.S. Is Remarkably Resilient

President Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One, November 14, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The economy is improving, and our political and economic institutions, though stressed, remain sound.  

Liberals are truly obsessed with what they think is the menace of President Trump. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claims that Trump “is systematically undermining American institutions and norms that underlie democratic government: courts, law enforcement, journalism, the intelligence community, truth.” He darkly warns: “Epic battles will follow.”

Watching television this weekend, I could understand how liberals can fill their brain bandwidth with nothing but Trump Thoughts. In the space of a few minutes, Trump launched fresh attacks against Special Counsel Robert Mueller and contradicted his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani’s statement that the president had known about a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. For his part, Giuliani had this bizarre exchange on ABC’s This Week:

Rudy Giuliani: Those don’t amount to anything — what is said to the press. That’s political.

George Stephanopoulos: It’s okay to lie to the press?

Giuliani: Gee, I don’t know.

Watching Donald Trump and his minions confront their media tormentors is like having a ringside seat at a never-ending Barnum & Bailey circus.

But at the same time that Trump and Giuliani were contradicting each other, news came that the nation’s unemployment rate had fallen to 3.9 percent, a level not seen since the pre-9/11 days of 2000. The stock market remains at near-historic highs, and economic growth over the last four quarters has been touching 3 percent.

In other words, we seem to be living through a version of the bread-and-circuses metaphor that the Roman historian Juvenal used to describe how the public in first-century Rome could be distracted from the weightier business of politics and society. When Roman citizens were well fed and entertained, he said, they were more likely to settle for the status quo.

Critics of President Trump say he is creating a modern-day version of “bread and circuses” in hopes that the people will be too contented or too lazy to protest against his corruption of government.

I have a different take. Yes, our politics have become saturated with the silliness of reality-TV themes and prevaricating political players. It’s also true that our economic prosperity conceals a great many looming problems. But overall, our political and economic institutions are proving that they can handle a great deal of stress. After all, Juvenal failed to mention that for at least a century, the Roman era of “bread and circuses” didn’t undermine the republic. “If there’s a hero in the story of first-century Rome, it’s Roman institutions and traditional expectations,” noted Emma Dench, a Harvard scholar of the Roman era. “However battered or modified, they kept the empire alive for future greatness.”

Indeed, the country is doing surprisingly well in spite of the negative news coming out of Washington, D.C., and broadcast 24/7 in the mainstream media

People continue to come up with innovative approaches to local problems, and many families remain surprisingly optimistic about their futures.

In Our Towns, their new book, Atlantic magazine writers James and Deborah Fallows describe the 100,000-mile journey they took to small cities and towns “in the heart of America.” Many of the places they visited faced economic challenges, but they also met civic leaders and business owners who were revitalizing places with creative plans and new job opportunities. “People are crafting solutions, with a practical-minded determination at dramatic odds with the bitter paralysis of national politics,” they write.

The country is as polarized politically as it’s been in many years, and bipartisan compromise seems to be going the way of the dodo bird, but the country moves on in spite of those obstacles. President Trump’s tax and regulatory moves have indeed unleashed businesses to invest in new ventures and take some risks. Despite the apparent managerial chaos of the White House, our government continues to function, people continue to come up with innovative approaches to local problems, and many families remain surprisingly optimistic about their futures.

None of this is meant to deny that our national leaders often play ostrich, hiding their heads in the sand when it comes to our long-term future. Interest rates are set to rise, and as columnist George Will points out, this will have catastrophic effects on our debt payments. He notes: “The Congressional Budget Office projects that new federal borrowing over the next 10 years will total $12.4 trillion and that at the end of 2028, the debt will be $28.7 trillion — 96 percent of gross domestic product, up from 39 percent in 2008.”

If there is a lesson from our current version of bread and circuses, it is this: We will survive Trump, and we will survive the Captain Ahab media that are both relentlessly pursuing him and simplifying everything into a black-and-white conflict.

But we cannot follow our present course indefinitely before the lack of seriousness catches up with us. Adam Smith, the 18th-century father of modern economics, once reassured a friend that there was a “great deal of ruin in a nation,” by which he meant that it takes an awful lot to bring down a powerful and prosperous state. So while we should be pleased our country appears to be handling its current stress tests, we shouldn’t ignore the earthquakes that could come if we don’t pursue permanent reforms.

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