Brad DeLong has a few words of warning for the rich plutocrats who support Trump and are enjoying the ill-gotten gains of their gigantic tax cut. Pay attention to history, because it really sucks to be rich under a tyranny. You’ve created a machine that sucks wealth upward, and when you’ve got all the money, you become the target.
To be blunt: a social democratic middle-class society is much better society in which to have a large stock of entrepreneurial, inherited, or rent-derived wealth than is a communist society. But it is also a much friendlier society to the wealthy than is a fascist society. And social democracy and fascism—hard or, if you are lucky, soft—are the only options the future will allow: tertium non datur.
The political descendants of the politicians today you support who lead chants of “lock her up“ will be the greatest threat to the liberty, the wealth, and perhaps even the lives of those of your grandchildren and great grandchildren who are plutocrats. Look ahead into the future a little bit. Do not focus on the pile of moolah under your nose.
It did not take long for the breakdown of elite political norms provoked by the desire of the political military plutocrats of the Roman Republic to aggrandize the benefits of the post Hannibal creation of the empire to lead the vultures home to roost. In Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica led a mob of senators into the street, shouting “Now that the consul has betrayed the state, let every man who wishes to uphold the laws follow me!” to murder the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and annul the Lex Sempronia Agraria as too great a distribution of the profits of empire away from the oligarchy. Ten years later Lucius Opimius armed himself with the legal figleaf of the Senatus Consultum Ultimum before murdering Tiberius’s brother Gaius and 3000 of Gaius’s affinity. Thus was the Roman Republic set on to the “why speak of laws? we carry swords” road of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, and Octavian—and that road ended at a place where the wealthy found themselves attainted and executed at the pleasure of the princeps in order to fund bribes to praetorians.
Under the Roman Empire, the way to become the subject of a treason trial wasn’t necessarily to have committed treason — it was to have a big pot of wealth that the Emperor wanted. Look up the law of maiestas. Look up delatores. If we go down that path,the rich are going to have to hide, or face death, disgrace, and most intolerable to you greedy motherfuckers, confiscation of all of your properties by the Top Dog, whoever that is.
We aren’t going to last as long as the Roman Empire, though. One thing about an imperial tyranny where a few authoritarians can lay down an iron law is that it can last quite a long time — 1500 years of bloody imperial Roman history was quite impressive. We’ve added something novel to the mix here in the United States of America: we’ve given all the citizens a megaphone, and every lunatic fringe element is babbling away. The likes of Alex Jones gibbering away incessantly in the background, the transparent propaganda of Fox News hypnotizing the foolish, militias popping up everywhere with ludicrous interpretations of the Constitution, megachurches peddling death cult Christianity — in addition to undermining democracy, the right-wing authoritarians have normalized crazy. Destabilizing the country is what they want, but they’re going to reap what they sow.
You know, I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb, where there was fear of a looming apocalypse everywhere. We thought that what was going to kill us was our dangerous technological brilliance — we were just too dang smart for our own good. We were wrong. It’s our ignorance that is going to destroy us, our contempt for the social sciences and humanities, our dismissal of the importance of history, sociology, and psychology in maintaining a healthy, stable society that people would want to live in. A complex society requires a framework of cooperation and interdependence to survive, and without people who care about how it works and monitors its functioning, it’s susceptible to parasites and exploiters and random wreckers. Ignorance and malice allow a Brexit to happen, or a Trump to get elected, or a Sulla to march on Rome to ‘save the Republic’.