For most people, the name “Brutus” brings to mind the Roman politician, who took a leading role in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Because the winners write the history books, he is also remembered as a villain, the guy who murdered the great man and sent the Roman Republic careening toward authoritarian rule. That’s probably not fair to Brutus or the other members of the Optimate faction. Julius Caesar was no friend of the Republic, despite being the leader of the Populis faction, but that’s how it goes with history.
There is another Brutus, one who is relevant to our age. Lucius Junius Brutus is remembered as the founder of the Roman Republic. Until the fifth century BC, Rome was ruled by a series of kings. According to Livy, The son of Tarquinius Superbus raped a noblewoman named Lucretia, who was a relation to Brutus. There was already great discontent with the behavior of the king and Brutus had many other grievances, but this was the tipping point. Brutus led the revolt against the king and established the Republic.
The story itself is worth relating. After she had been raped, Lucretia summoned Brutus, her father, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Publius Valerius Poplicola, whose name the Founders would use when promoting the Constitution. After she told them what had happened and how she had been dishonored, she committed suicide by stabbing herself with a dagger. Brutus pulled the dagger from her chest, held it up and immediately shouted for the overthrow of the Tarquins. The revolution started at that moment.
Hidden in that story, which is most likely apocryphal, is the logic of republican virtue and republican morality. Free men fight and die for their honor, for their liberty and for their posterity. It is a form of rule based on a set of ideals, rather than a practical arrangement among men. A king is a pragmatic compromise that works now. A dictatorial committee is just the best way to establish order in the moment. A republic assumes men are not angels, but it assumes each generation will generate enough virtuous men to maintain it.
Our first Brutus is remember as an example of that republican virtue, not because he established it, but because he sacrificed for it. Brutus became the first consul of Rome. During his consulship the royal family tried to subvert the republic in order to regain the throne. This is remembered as the Tarquinian conspiracy. Among the conspirators were two of Brutus’ sons, who were sentenced to death. Brutus gained great respect among his peers for stoically watching as the sentence was carried out.
We are a long way from those times, but we have similar challenges. The emerging conspiracy among career political appointees and intelligence officials, a conspiracy to overthrow the orderly functioning of the republic, is not a lot different from what the Romans faced 25 centuries ago. It’s not very different from what faced them five centuries after the founding of the Republic. In the former case, a Brutus was able to rise to the challenge. In the latter, another Brutus was not able to answer the call.
In the current crisis, there are some similarities to both events. Those plotting against republican order are doing so claiming Trump is an authoritarian. They see his very existence as proof of some hidden conspiracy to overthrow democracy and install Trump as the 12th invisible Hitler, returned to usher in the Fourth Reich. That sounds ridiculous, but not unlike the plotters against Caesar, the people scheming to get Trump, justify their actions, not on merit, but against what they imagine Trump is secretly plotting.
Those defending the plotters believe it too. Like the conspirators, they have no choice but to believe it. They are calling the release of the memo a constitutional crisis, implying a grab for power by Trump. They have to go down this path, turning everything on its head, otherwise they are the villains. They need to see themselves as the white hats and they need the public to see them as that too. The men who assassinated Julius Caesar justified murder, by imagining themselves as the defenders of Rome for the same reason.
On the other hand, we have Trump, maybe the last man in the Imperial Capital, who still believes in the old ideal of America. Trump is a true civic nationalist. He is the first president in many generations to truly sacrifice in order to serve in office. He’s a man of old weird America. He even sounds like where he comes from, which is no longer typical of a member of the political class. He came into office believing that his victory would be enough to convince the political class to go along with his reform program.
On the other other hand, Trump is the guy tasked by history to impose order on a chaotic American political world. Much in the same way Julius Caesar was faced with a choice between obeying the rules and permitting chaos, Trump is faced with the choice of letting things go on as usual or imposing the rule of law. If he yields to the will of the Senate, so to speak, he risks undermining the constitutional order. If he goes against the political class and business as usual, he risks war with the old guard and all that comes with it.
Trump is both the tribune of the people and the defender of the prevailing order. He is in a strange position, in that he is pushing for the sorts of reforms popular with the Populis faction and tasked with defending the order that makes it possible for the Optimate faction to exist. He is Lucius Junius Brutus, overthrowing the current order, but he is also Marcus Junius Brutus, motivated by a desire to defend the old order. It’s like the confluence of two rivers of Western history. Time will tell if we have the Brutus to save the republic.