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The January 6 Capitol insurrection was a tumultuous moment in American democracy—but how unusual was it, really, in the course of world events? And did it mark the peak of violence and political instability, or just the beginning?
VICE News talked to Mike Duncan, the author and award-winning podcaster behind The History of Rome and Revolutions, about parallels between the United States' recent chaos and other historic societal upheavals.
Duncan has spent more than a decade unpacking the rise and fall of Rome, with a book specifically on the collapse of the Roman Republic. His long-running Revolutions podcast breaks down the causes and results of political revolutions from the English revolution through the rise of the USSR. His new book, Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, looks at the key role that the French nobleman played in both his own country’s revolution and the American revolution.
Here’s how he sees the current state of American democracy in the context of historical political upheavals—and why he thinks we should be worried about what comes next.
This conversation has been excerpted and edited for clarity.
VICE News: A lot of folks are acting like the January 6 insurrection is a past event—like, this horrible thing that happened, can never happen again, and probably won’t happen again. As a historian who has looked at a lot of these revolutions, do you think we’re through the worst of this?
Mike Duncan: I don't think we're through the worst of it at all. I'm well primed to be sort of pessimistic, and everywhere around me I see signs of decay and things falling apart. And when you just steep yourself in great historical revolutions, I can see all of these signs everywhere. It's sometimes hard to tell if I've just primed myself to see it or if it's actually really happening. So, with that caveat in mind, I do think that there is a lot breaking down. I absolutely do not think that January 6 is the highwater mark. Of course not.
Do I think something like this will happen again at some point in the next 10 years? Yeah, absolutely I do. Because the model is there. It's been demonstrated to get pretty close to its objectives. And even when it didn't work, most of the people who organized it and orchestrated it, and actually wanted it to happen—and I'm not just talking about like the Oath Keepers and sort of the rank-and-file soldiers on the ground; I'm talking about guys like [Texas Senator] Ted Cruz and [Missouri Senator Josh] Hawley and [former president Donald] Trump, and everybody who was cheering it on, whether it's on Newsmax or on Fox News or on right-wing media—none of those people were held accountable.
And all of those people saying, “Oh you're just hyperventilating here, you’re overreacting, I can't believe that you're making such a big deal out of this,” they're saying that because they want to get away with something. And once they figured out that they can, I don't see any reason why this happening again isn't something that we should all be looking forward to. This is why there should be far more serious repercussions for people who were involved in it than we have seen. Because if a political system does not come down hard on this kind of anti-constitutional, anti-democratic attempt to overturn the results of an election, what do you do with that? If you can get away with it, you’re just going to keep doing it.
VICE News: Having run through about a dozen Revolutions seasons as well as all of the History of Rome, what do you think this is closest to in terms of what you’ve studied?
Duncan: If we're talking about Roman history … there were a couple of moments, three or four at least, where you literally had an election that was held, [and it was] going to go against some candidate, that candidate has on retainer armed gangs, armed street gangs. And they said, “I'm probably going to lose this vote, so on the day of the election, I need you to come in with your gang and rough people up, beat them up.”
There were voting urns, literal physical voting urns that you would vote into. And they would knock them over to basically wreck the election itself. So all of that, everything that's happened from the election through January 6 reminded me of a lot of those.
I’m just finishing up the proofs of this biography of Lafayette that I'm writing. And after the [French] revolution of 1830, there is a moment when Lafayette has to go out and stop a mob of people who are going to try to swarm into the National Assembly Building, because they think that the people inside the building are writing a new constitution for France that's more conservative than they would have preferred. And so you did actually have like a mob coming in to stop the national legislature from doing what it was doing.
Really what January 6 was about was trying to disrupt the legal transfer of power from one party to another, from one candidate to another, from one person to another, and they're just trying to get in the middle of that and use force and intimidation to stop that process—which is a very different thing from the kinds of big mass uprisings, the more famous moments that you see in other revolutions or in other moments of history.
There are many parallels to this. This is unique for this moment in American history. It is not unique at all in terms of world history.
VICE News: You spent a lot of time looking at the pre-Roman Republic collapse and the conditions that created the problems that led to the collapse of the Republic. Do you see parallels between some of the societal inequities and the rise in populism, and what you've seen in Western societies, especially in the U.S., over the last 20-25 years?
Duncan: When people say “This is the end of the Roman Empire,” that's when I say, I don't think that's true. This is not a situation where we are entering total state collapse and there is going to be like a kingdom of California, a confederation of principalities. I don’t think we’re at that kind of state collapse. That would be overblown. The United States as an entity will continue on.
But when you're talking about its political system, what does American democracy look like, what does representative government look like, what does a participatory government look like? For 500 years the Romans had a fairly participatory system. It was an oligarchy run by rich senators, but there were assemblies ... Those guys did still have to troll for votes. They still needed to win elections in order to get ahead.
So I think there are things we can talk about in terms of the political system transitioning from representative democracy to an autocratic regime, which is something that is very possible in the United States of America. That is a very easy transition to make right now.
The Roman Republic, though? What happened there was it got down to a point where ambitious men (because it was all men) who wanted power stopped caring about the various rules, norms, laws that govern their behavior. What happens if you lose an election? What happens if you don't get command of a legion? How do you respond to that? And for 500 years they mostly just kind of did it in a round-robin rotational system where everybody was kind of happy. And then around the 50 or 60 years before Caesar, all that started breaking down, and they started escalating with each other. … I see that happening right now in the United States. I think we all saw something like that happen on January the 6th.
The United States of America, which is of course modeled on the Roman republican system, has institutions just like Rome did with the consulship and with the tribune where if you just start vesting power and authority in one part of that system, you can keep the window dressing of House of Representatives and a Senate and a Supreme Court. We see this in constitutional dictatorships, with the window dressing of the democracy, but actually it's just an autocracy. ... The institutional institutional framework is there for the White House to become something like a truly imperial presidency.
That will come when these ambitious people and these ambitious politicians really just throw elections out the window and it all just becomes a power grab free-for-all where power is all that matters and nothing else does. And you take that mentality, which I do see floating around out there, the only thing that matters is power and winning, and an institution like the presidency that is well primed to become an autocratic entity, you put those two things together and you've got an American dictatorship.
VICE News: Who do you think Trump is similar to historically? And if we start slipping into this autocracy you're talking about, do you think it'll be Trump or do you think that there's somebody else who could take the Trump playbook that he didn't run very well and do it better?
Duncan: When I have looked back through Revolutions and all through The History of Rome, the unique factor about Trump is not what he tried to do, or that he's a bad ruler. When people ask me, is he like Louis the 16th or is he like Tsar Nicholas, the answer is those guys were actually, in my opinion, better rulers and actually better politicians, frankly, than than Donald Trump was. And those are historically bad rulers. You kind of have to look at what was going on with some of the teenage emperors in Roman history in terms of just how kind of flippantly nonchalant they were with the power they had at their disposal.
What does the “American Caesar” look like, or the American Sulla, or the American Marius [Roman consuls who pushed the Republic toward autocracy], somebody who's going to come along and really push the system over and grab ahold of it? I don't know that we've seen exactly what that playbook looks like. But Donald Trump has shown us what people who smell that kind of power, and that kind of movement, whether they'd be willing to go along with it or not. Man, we have been shown plain as day how much people are absolutely going to be willing to go along with that, if and when it does come along.
Graphics by Hunter French. Edited by Ben Craw.