In the name of heaven, Donald Trump, how long do you propose to exploit our patience? Do you really suppose that your lunatic activities are going to escape our retaliation for evermore? Are there to be no limits to this audacious, uncontrollable swaggering?
These words were written, albeit with one alteration, by one of the greatest statesmen of the Western world: Marcus Tullius Cicero, in 63BC.
The target of Cicero’s denunciation was not Donald Trump but a man called Lucius Catilina, who today is a mere footnote in ancient Roman history.
Parallels can be deceptive, especially when spanning millennia, but they can also be informative, and in a strange way even reassuring. Pompey ‘The Great’, a contemporary of Cicero, was a successful military and political kingpin known for his quiff as much as for his leadership. This is why Cicero’s words are still relevant today.
Throughout his long career, Cicero made the best use of his only power, the gift of eloquence and oratory, exploiting to the maximum the freedom of speech enjoyed by all citizens of Rome. With his words, Cicero defied a number of individuals who, motivated by a toxic combination of hubris and egotism, threatened to bring the Roman Republic to its knees: Catilina, Clodius, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony.
All these men had something in common; they harboured personal glory to the detriment of the commonwealth, they held political tradition and procedures contempt, and they were convinced that their greater military or economic means would be sufficient to crush any opposition.
Cicero’s obstinate opposition and annoying irreverence for these men eventually resulted in his violent, premature death. This did not come as a surprise to anyone in Rome at the time, least of all to Cicero, yet he never ceased to fight for what he believed and held dearest: The simple principle that life is worthless without freedom, and that freedom is meaningless without the rule of law.
The creed that freedom and the rule of law are inextricable has formed the backbone of democratic theory at least since the time of Cicero; writing in the 17th century the English philosopher John Locke reasoned that where there is no law there is no freedom, since the aim of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. And, more recently contemporary, Irish political theorist Iseult Honohan reminds us that freedom is inherently fragile, and requires not only a strong legal framework, but also the civic engagement of citizens.
In facing the predicament of an uncertain political landscape where the alleged most powerful man in the world has a tendency to be as arbitrary in his actions as he is unpredictable, perhaps there are important lessons that we can still learn from Cicero. It took just over 100 days for the current president of the US to strain democracy to its limit.
Notwithstanding the regrettable nature of his political agenda, this is not a reference to his urge to undo former US president Barack Obama’s greatest legacy, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, or his intent to enforce policies that will have disastrous effects on any hope of curbing climate change and limit environmental pollution. Nor am I referring to his testosterone-induced face-off with North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, who we are told is a “smart cookie”; one wonders whether had Trump lived in a different time, he would have dubbed Hitler a sharp strudel or Stalin a peevish pavlova.
The real issue is his contempt for freedom of information. From the day he became president, Trump challenged the authority of the free press, muddying the waters between legitimate information and prejudiced misinformation. An educated and informed citizenry is a vital requisite for a modern democracy, and one cannot help feeling that the timing and style of the abrupt termination of James Comey as FBI director has something to do with his agency’s ongoing investigation into the Trump camp’s links with Moscow, and the desire to undermine the FBI’s statutory super partes independence.
We don’t live in ancient Rome, which is a blessing. It means that political assassination is unlikely to be the cause of our death, as it was for Cicero. But some things never change. People in power will always consider independent checks and balances annoying and unnecessary, and they will always identify authority with capricious decision-making. Yet as Cicero knew only too well, to allow the rule of law to be circumvented and channels of information to be stifled, is to give up on our freedom.
American democracy was resilient enough to deal with Richard Nixon — one can only hope that it can do the same again.