Donald Trump, The Gracchi Brothers, and the Fall of the Roman Republic
The Gracchi brothers were famous Roman political figures who radically changed the face of politics in the Roman Republic starting around 133 BC. They discarded political norms, openly flouting tradition. They regularly circumvented the Senate to get their way and introduced the concept of mob rule as a higher source of authority than the letter of the law. The Gracchi brothers were populist, popular, and naturally alienated the political establishment of their time.
More importantly, the Gracchi brothers, with the precedents they set, are attributed with having paved the way for the fall of the Roman Republic and the birth of the age of the Emperors.
At the Adizes Institute, we study Organizational Lifecycles. Organizational Lifecycles are the predictable stages that organizations go through as they grow, age and die. The parallels between the lifecycle of an organization and the lifecycle of the Roman Republic (also an organization) are obvious. Starting with its founding in around 509BC (with the expulsion of its kings and the establishment of a Senate) to 27 BC (with the consolidation of power in the hands of Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor) we can clearly see how the Roman Republic was born, grew, peaked, and then fell into decline and died, returning to monarchy.
Is the American Republic (USA) also going through these same Lifecycle stages? Let us review some of the parallels.
The Roman Republic was founded with the overthrowing of its king. The early Roman Republic was fragile and barely able to defend itself from opportunistic sovereigns who did not believe that a city state could remain strong without a king.
The American Republic was founded with a war of independence from its King in 1776. The early Republic had a weak central body. In 1812, the fragile Republic would have to do battle again to assert its independence from another opportunistic king.
The Roman Republic gained control of much of southern Italy through military conquest. It was through these battles that the formidable Roman military was forged.
“From sea to shining sea,” the USA achieved its “manifest destiny,” with the blood of pioneers and the ingenuity that ushered in the railroad, the telegraph, the combustion engine and more. This ingenuity would be the foundation upon which the nation would grow.
The Roman Republic had a power struggle between the Plebeians and the higher classes which peaked with the Secession of the Plebeians and resulted with the 12 Tables. The 12 Tables established the rule of law as being separate from the whims of a few rich men.
The American Republic had a power struggle between State and Federal governments. This struggle, which included a Civil War, established the supremacy of Federal law over State law.
The Roman Republic hit its peak when it defeated its greatest rival, Carthage.
The American Republic hit its peak when it defeated the Nazis and the Soviet Union.
The Roman Republic entered the Aristocracy Stage when politicians began to put their own self interests ahead of the greater interests of the Republic. Conflicting interests of senators and between the ever more polarized social classes froze the gears of government.
The American Republic entered Aristocracy for similar reasons. The USA was in Aristocracy as late as 2007. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” could summarize George W. Bush’s approach to governance. This allowed problems to fester and turn into crisis.
The corrosion of the Roman governance system created the space where the Gracchi brothers and their populist rhetoric could emerge to overturn the political establishment.
The USA entered the Recrimination stage after the financial crisis of 2008. In the very next election cycle a high number of incumbents were unseated and new phenomena, like Super PACs and the Tea Party, emerged.
It was during that 2010 midterm election cycle that I started comparing Roman history with American history. I understood that the USA was entering Recrimination, but where were the Gracchi brothers of our times? Who was flouting political tradition? Who was using the mob to overcome the rule of law? Who was raising the ire of the political elite?
Today, with the emergence of Donald Trump…
It is important to note that by most accounts, the Gracchi brothers were righteous men. It was not their agenda that contributed to the fall of the Roman Republic but rather the precedents they set. The effects of these precedents did not destroy the Roman Republic overnight, or even in one generation. There were two Gracchi brothers. The second built upon the precedents of the first, and later leaders like Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and finally Caesar (106 years later) would only take the precedents set by the Gracchi to their natural conclusion.
What other factors contributed to the fall of the Roman Republic into monarchy? What signs should the USA watch for?
– Emergence of cult of personality political leaders;
– General deterioration in the level of trust and respect among political leaders;
– Super wealthy using own money to influence likely voters;
– Use of referendums to bypass the senate;
– Disregard for the sanctity or authority of a Governing Office;
– Flouting of political tradition, like term limits;
– Emergence of a privatized military;
– Emergence of mob rule as a greater political force then the rule of law;
– Use of violence to achieve political ends;
– Loss of the rule of law;
– Proscription and counter proscriptions,
It is also important to note that it is not about Donald Trump, but rather the Lifecycle stage. He is only a sign of the times. Had Donald Trump run in the 2000 Election cycle, with Bush and Gore, would he have had the same traction? Alternatively, had he not run for president in this election cycle, would some other candidate assume the mantle of the Gracchi?
About the Author:
Shoham Adizes is the Director of Training and Certification at the Adizes Institute and co-author of the book Empowering Meetings.