Postmodern Conservative

American Crassus

Running across several books about Andrew Jackson in my futile efforts to reorganize after yet another move, I thought to myself, “Those are the books to be studying now, since it looks like the many predictions (including our Peter’s and Pete’s) that Trump will inevitably fade are proving false.  Everyone is going to want to talk about the meaning of Trump’s popularity, and for scholarly types that’s going to mean talking about which politicians from our past seem most useful to compare him to.  Andrew Jackson is obviously the man!”

But then, I read something a couple of days ago that convinced me that the historical figure the times really call us to study-up on is the Roman politician Marcus Licinius Crassus.  Unfortunately, ours are times in which the late Roman republic often has more to teach us about ourselves than the early American one.

Crassus (115-53 B.C.)  is usually remembered as one of Rome’s top commander/politicians, who along with Pompey, was best-positioned to beat out Julius Caesar in the contest to establish despotic rule over the crumbling republic.  He was significant enough to merit a biography in Plutarch’s Lives, and you might recall his character from the Stanley Kubrick Spartacus film, where he is the general who crushes the slave revolt, as well as the film’s personified symbol of Roman arrogance and decadence. 

The key to understanding Crassus’s lasting relevance as a political example is not to narrowly focus upon his insatiable pursuit of wealth—his reputation for that is epitomized by the legend told that after his death in battle against the Parthians, their king dishonored Crassus’s severed head by pouring molten gold into its mouth (Tell us, Crassus, since you know, what is the taste of gold?  –Dante, Purgatorio XX).  Rather, one must grasp that he did not really lust after the gold itself, but always for how it could be transmuted into power.  Political power.

Here’s Tom Holland’s account in his excellent Rubicon:

Principles, to Crassus, were merely gambits in a vast and complex game, to be adopted and then sacrificed as strategy required.  Rather than risk leaving his fingerprints on anything, he employed proxies to test the limits on his behalf.  Of such willing dependents he had an endless supply.  Crassus was assiduous at cultivating men on the make.  Whether he wished to promote them to high office or merely have them serve him as patsies or ciphers, he would treat them all with the same menacing geniality, keeping open house, avoiding airs, remembering the name of anyone he ever met.  In the law courts he would tirelessly plead for defendants who might later provide him with a return. 

Plutarch’s account says he was one of the best speakers of his era, which reflected his careful study of rhetoric; he also studied at least some Aristotelian philosophy.  But he became most known for his wealth, to continue with Holland:

…Not for nothing did he operate as the Senate’s banker.  Crassus had deeper funds than anyone else in Rome.  Slaves, mines, and real estate remained his principal investments, but he regarded no scam as too low if it would add to his coffers.  Whenever a house went up in flames, Crassus would have his private fire brigade rush to the scene, then refuse to extinguish the fire until the owner had sold him the property cheap.  Prosecuted for sleeping with a Vestal Virgin—a particularly sacrilegious crime—he could protest that he had only seduced the woman in order to snap up her property, and be believed.  Despite his reputation for avarice, however, Crassus lived simply, and when his interests were not at stake he could prove notoriously mean.  A philosopher, Alexander, to whom Crassus had provided grudging hospitality, would be lent a cloak for journeys then required to give it back.  Alexander, a Greek, did not have the vote.  Had he been a citizen, he would have been encouraged to borrow far more than a cloak.  The more eminent his status, the more spectacularly he would have been encouraged to fall into debt.  Money was easily Crassus’s favorite instrument of power.  The threads of gold he spun entangled the whole Republic.  Little could happen in Rome of which Crassus was not immediately aware, sensitive as he was to every tremor, every fluttering of every fly caught in his web.

Trump has always been proudly crass about his wealth, but he is no Crassus.  Not even close.  For despite the way Crassus brazenly flouted common morality (see above), he scrupulously avoided offending his fellow citizens’ sense of social propriety as he cultivated his networks of inside connections and owed favors.  It was a method very unlike Trump’s working-class swagger about his wealth, as another quote from Holland demonstrates:

More clearly than anyone else in Rome, [Crassus] had penetrated to the heart of the lesson of the civil wars:  that the outward trappings of glory were nothing compared to preeminence among people in the know.  In a society such as the Republic, where envy and malice always followed fast on greatness, supremacy was a perilous status.  Only if it inspired fear without undue resentment could it hope to endure.  In the art of preserving such a balance Crassus ruled supreme.

So Crassus’s political art aimed at cultivating a sense of fear never spoken about aloud, and a (related) hidden network of owed or expected favors, and all without stirring up too much resentment.  Very cautious, very methodical, while still being at bottom shameless.  Now who in our politics today does that sound like?  Well, what I noticed from this recent Kevin Williamson piece is that it sounds an awful lot like George Soros, Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama, and perhaps most of all, like Hillary Clinton.

Williamson’s piece, jumping off of the recent Rahm Emanuel revelations, is about the patronage society that our Crassus-imitators are steadily building today:

Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Al Gore…aren’t trying to get rich — they’re already rich, some of them wildly rich. They are building a patronage society. And building a patronage society costs a lot of money — more even than Goldman Sachs and Al Gore put together have at their disposal. The horrifying fact is that Barack Obama can make you a rich man — if you’re the right kind of man. If you operate a politically connected business, the government can direct the better part of $1 billion straight into your coffers ricky-tick…  At the other end of the spectrum, a federal tormenter can be the end of your enterprise…

Private wealth is child’s play. Bill Gates is the world’s richest man, but his net worth doesn’t even amount to two-tenths of a percent of the household wealth of the United States. The Clintons’ game isn’t enjoying the $100 million in their checking account — it’s making use of the $44 trillion in American-owned assets as if they owned them themselves. Barack Obama doesn’t want a garage full of Rolls Royces — he wants a world in which Rolls Royce has to ask his permission before building a car or selling one.

Williamson forgets to add that Clinton and Obama want this power for the sake of their cause—they are unlike Crassus, I suppose, in having one–but it increasingly seems that that caveat is has become irrelevant, given the minimal gains for the cause used to justify this sort of power-mongering. 

I recently watched Primary Colors, the film version of the novel essentially about Bill Clinton’s securing the Democratic nomination in 1992, and what I found most striking was the way the main characters all felt so sorry for themselves about being, they felt, forced by circumstances to abandon certain scruples to play an unethical political game, and the sense they all shared with one another–and the assumed viewer also–that the cause of boomer liberalism circa 1992 was so unambiguously the high moral ground, that it posed this big dilemma about whether it is right to use questionable-at-best campaign trickery, cover-ups, and dirt-digging against opponents, in order to bring the nation to that higher place.

There’s a scene that’s supposed to move us where, at low-point in the campaign due to the Jack Stanton (i.e., Bill Clinton) character’s dalliances with women, the main consultant character Henry finds Stanton in a doughnut shop, talking with the night-shift worker, an uncomplaining minimum-wage worker who’s suffering from a leg-injury that healed incorrectly due to poor health-care.  It’s clear that Henry comes to believe that the only way to help people like that is to get his man, the only candidate who really cares for the working poor and can connect with them, elected.  Elected no matter what it takes. 

But from a 2015 perspective, after Clinton, after Obama, after decades of polarizing “war-room” style politics, and after the obvious wonderfulness of Democratic Party Health Care and all the “Racial Healing” also, in a situation where the plight of people like that doughnut-shop night-shift worker has not improved and in many ways looks worse, the Big Ethical Dilemma the film poses its idealistic liberal boomers and their Gen-X counterparts no longer works dramatically.  It could only elicit from this viewer an appalled “For what!?!?”  To sully your ethics nearly all down the line for the mere sake of a Clinton winning, and then, to extend the dilemma, for an Obama?  How costly such pitifully meager gains, when so much more was promised, must seem to any Democrat still capable of being honest with herself! 

Watching a film about ethical compromises made by 60s Civil Rights movement activists or New Deal allies of FDR for the sake of their causes, I think most anyone might at least sympathize with such characters’ conscience-wrestling—but in 2015, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the characters of Primary Colors.  For it seems that the cause has simply become that of the House of Clinton (or that of Obama), and the interests allied with it at any particular moment.  There is of course a similar phenomenon on the Republican side, with obscene amounts of campaign money being spent and impenetrable levels of arrogance being evinced by an entire class of big donors and the industry of consultants who serve them, and particularly at this moment by those connected to the House of Bush.  Our political dynamics with respect to campaign finance have long encouraged certain Crassus-like behaviors by top politicians in both parties.  However, if Williamson is right about the client-patron pattern emerging particularly on the Democratic side, in which the key clients are government agencies, and the corporations doing work with or otherwise dependent upon them, one is forced to confront a growing style of corruption that goes very deep into the basic character of the Democratic Party itself, and into the entire socio-economic structure of the nation.  

Yes, the “Trumpist Revolt of 2015-16” will still matter for the Republican Party of the future regardless of who’s elected president, and might be better understood by studying the recurrent Jacksonian impulse in American politics.  But make no mistake:  Trump cannot win the presidency in 2016.  The voters he could bring into the Republican column if he’s the nominee would be more than off-set by the many other Republicans, probably including myself, who would stay at home, and by the negative passions he would generate for the Democrats, whose voters will otherwise have precious little to get excited about.  Yes, I am aware that some smart people are starting to think Trump could go all the way, but there are always some smart people falling for wishful thinking somewhere….

So it’s Crassus who ’s the most relevant historical figure of the hour.  Because despite their stark loses in Congress and state governments, and the diminishing odds of reversing these, it is the Democratic Party elites, which include their types who control academia, mainstream media/entertainment, a majority of the corporations, and nearly all the federal regulatory agencies, which make up the class of the hour; unless Hillary somehow manages to lose, that class will remain in the driver’s seat, albeit with some shifting of chairs to accommodate Obama-camp v. Clinton-camp allegiances.  And this is the class that, in addition to having blessed since at least the mid-aughties the employment of a style of mendacity, demonization, and personal destruction unparalleled in our history, now gives its top leaders its blessing to each seek to be a Crassus for the cause.  

How quaint it now seems, when in the Primary Colors movie, the Libby character experiences a moral crisis about how the Stantons are asking she and the consultants like Henry to graduate from dirty-tricks war-room politics employed to defend Jack’s (i.e., Bill’s) reputation, to employing such in an offensive capacity to destroy the reputation of an opponent.  Libby’s progressive successors have moved miles and miles beyond such small ethical potatoes.

What was it the Hillary Clinton character says at one point?  That’s right:  We were so young.  We didn’t know how it works.  Now, we know.

We can see that progressive elites have gone all in for Hillary Clinton, and suspect that by their shadowy moves over the last few years they have essentially robbed the ordinary Democratic voters of an open and candid contest for the nomination.  Bernie Sanders’ belated, fairly preposterous, and obviously deferential-to-Clinton run is no evidence to the contrary.  He is a mere fig-leaf for preserving minimal grass-roots Democratic dignity, although I suppose we should be glad our fellow citizens who vote D at least have that.

So no matter how embarrassing to the honor of American democracy you think Trump’s present popularity is, and I think it is a pretty deep embarrassment despite the joy I take at the way it is shaking up the GOP donor and consultant classes, the Democratic voters’ zombie-like resignation to the candidacy/presidency of Hillary Clinton, despite their knowing for years in advance about its inevitable banality, corruption, and pledged Constitution-violation, but in essence commanded by their betters that she is the only choice they have, is a far more shameful thing. 

I am not saying that Hillary or her ilk have, as Crassus almost certainly did, any plan or desire to overthrow the Republic.  We are a ways yet from having leaders capable of entertaining such designs, and the corruption of our institutions and polarization of our populace is not yet pervasive enough to make the odds of acting upon such designs attractive.  And again, none of our political figures can afford to brazenly offend the everyday morality the way Crassus did with his fire-brigade hustle and his seduction of that Vestal Virgin.  Our leaders’ sins have to occur in murkier realms where the eyes glaze over.  But I do think we’d often understand them better by comparing them to Crassus as opposed to Caesar.

If there is a shortcoming to my Crassus-analogy, it is that even more than Crassus’s corruption did for Rome, the corruption seen in Obama, Hillary, Sheldon Silver, Bob Filner, etc., symbolizes that of an entire class:

Faisal Khan — who was hired by the Chicago City Council to investigate municipal corruption…was flabbergasted by what he saw: “Thirty aldermen over 40 years have gone to jail,” he said in an interview with Politico. “…I will be honest with you — I could never have envisioned a city like Chicago being so devoid of ethical morals and values when it came to our elected officials. I could not believe how backwards the city was when it came to ethics. It needs to be blown up and started all over again.” Faced with an indictment like that, the Chicago City Council did the only thing it could do when Khan’s term came to a close: It declined to replace him. 

That’s from Williamson again.  Way to go, Chicagoans!  Not that you will remain distinguished in this way for long… I suppose it’s worth noting that it is a type of corruption that goes well beyond the cozy arrangements of the Republican big donors, the Republican consultant class, and the types of politicians they back.  But that can only give so much comfort, for it most of all brings to mind what Montesquieu said about Rome.  It wasn’t so much the luxury, the sexual decadence, the empire, or even the inequality, that destroyed Roman republicanism.  It was most of all the lies, the lawlessness, the corruption, and the novel acceptance of these as politics per usual:

I believe the sect of Epicurus, which was introduced at Rome toward the end of the republic, contributed much toward tainting the heart and mind of the Romans.  The Greeks had been infatuated with this sect earlier and thus were corrupted sooner.  Polybius tells us that in his time a Greek’s oaths inspired no confidence, whereas a Roman was, so to speak, enchained by his. 

Montesquieu then recounts a particularly corrupt Roman political transaction from less than a century after Polybius’ time and exclaims, “How many dishonest men in a single contract!” 

Who is Crassus today?  Well, I’m not saying that recent books like David Bernstein’s Lawless: The Obama Administration’s Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law or Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich won’t give you a more concrete sense of who the worst offenders are, and perhaps even a notion of why it is that their names are so often followed by a (D), but the best answer to the question turns out to be that mouthed by a certain demon-possessed man in the New Testament: “My name is Legion.” 

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