Richards: Looking for Brutus
Political decency requires action; we are failing the test.
To Dante Alighieri, Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger was counted as one of the three most accursed men to have lived. A member of the conservative republican faction in the Roman Senate, he is best remembered for his assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar, and for that act he is vilified as a traitor, an assassin, a “regicidenik.” But what is so often dismissed as base treachery can also be seen as an honor of the highest level, an anti-authoritarian act that put principle before person and country before self.
Today, the American republic seems not dissimilar to the late Roman Republic. It is, of course, a cheap comparison made ad infinitum. The decline of dignity among elected officials, the rise of the so-called imperial presidency and a resurgent decadent culture are all easy parallels between the two states. Still, we find ourselves in a period of decline, with a wannabe strongman at the helm of our country. We now need people with Brutus’ commitment to liberty.
In Rome, there was a statue of Brutus’ ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, who overthrew the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, and established the Republic. In his “Life of Brutus,” Plutarch writes that there were exhortations to the senator written upon the statue: “Thou art not really Brutus,” read one, and another, “Brutus, art thou asleep?” As Caesar assumed greater power and assumed the title of dictator perpetuo, the role of the long-dead Brutus came to the fore. Would the senator whose ancestor overthrew a king stand idle while a military officer attempted to seize regal power and hold imperium in perpetuity?
According to Plutarch, Brutus was goaded into action by both his fellows in the Senate and the wishes of the people. With Caesar’s followers seeking ever more powers for their leader, Brutus and his allies in the Senate arranged to kill the dictator, hoping to restore the Republic in its former splendor. Of the accumulation of power unto Caesar, Brutus said, “It would at once be my duty not to hold my peace, but to defend my country and die in behalf of liberty.”
In America today, there are few who dare to speak out against President Donald Trump and his ilk, rabid followers who see in alleged child molesters ideal senators and in their opponents corruption without basis in fact. This is not to suggest that legislators ought to take knives to Trump; no, simply that the moral thing to do is to prioritize country and principle, and to stand up to those who seek to take power unto themselves at the expense of American democracy. What Brutus contributed was principle and decency. In assassinating Caesar, the Liberators — that is, the assassins — may have weakened their cause, prompting civil war and foregoing debate. That is not the answer. Political violence is never acceptable, and the assassination of Caesar should not be seen as a literal analogue to opposition to Trump, but rather as a metaphor for principled opposition that places loyalty to liberty above loyalty to person or party.
Many who once opposed Trump, such as Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, have become obedient lapdogs, the latter notably willing to massage Trump’s ego for a seat at the table. Others have been more robust in their criticisms of the president. Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake have lambasted Trump in the media, though they have seemingly done little besides offering harsh words. “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified,” Flake said of Trump. “And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.” Corker said he believes Trump will be remembered for “the debasement of our nation.”
But Corker and Flake — along with moderate Republicans in the House like Charlie Dent and Dave Reichert — have opted for electoral capitulation. They have chosen not to stand for re-election, surrendering their bully pulpits, many, likely, to pro-Trump candidates. The choice to abandon elected office may be convenient for their own criticisms of Trump, but it risks abandoning the Republican Party to Trump acolytes. While Trump’s opponents might have been well advised to simply ditch the Republican Party and create their own, that option seems to have passed.
The United States will likely be without a credible conservative force, a daunting prospect even for those of us who disagree with most or all conservative aims. Functional democracies require political parties that represent a wide spectrum of (democratic) views, and with one party willing to embrace a strongman wholeheartedly, that party will cease to credibly function within a democratic system. Politicians across the ideological spectrum can learn from each other and grow as leaders and legislators when there are redoubtable intellectual forces backing numerous political causes, and when thoughtful, decorous legislators who disagree passionately with each other can debate. Any liberal or social-democrat should want a strong conservative force, and any conservative should want strong liberal and social-democratic forces.
It is when a political movement ceases to exist within the context of a democracy and becomes authoritarian that decent disagreement becomes impossible. Brutus understood that fact. It may seem absurd to use the man who quite literally knifed his opponent on the Senate floor as a paragon of legislative decency, yet Brutus was just that. He upheld, not just in word but in action, the principles of a deliberative body and of a republican institution, unwilling to accept dictatorship. Populist strongmen existed 2,000 years ago, as they exist today, and while those who seek to combat them may earn ignominy in the eyes of many, their achievements in protecting democratic decency are nonetheless worthwhile.
Of course, Brutus and his allies failed. The republic fell, and the establishment of an empire went forward under Caesar’s adopted heir Octavian. But Brutus’ attempt nonetheless showed that the republic would not yield quietly to tyranny, and in that, it was laudable nonetheless. Brutus earned, in Dante’s eyes, eternal damnation. To many, he was the poster-child for betrayal. But all of that derision serves as a mask for the reality of his moral standing and his opposition to authoritarianism.
So we remember the words of Brutus’ contemporary, Marcus Tullius Cicero, when he spoke against the anti-republican politician Lucius Sergius Catiline, who would later make war against the Senate: “I have always been of the opinion that infamy earned by doing what is right is not infamy at all, but glory.”