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The Right’s Ironic Fixation on Roman Virtues

The Trumpified right adores the manly and republican virtues of the Romans and the American Founders, but doesn’t live up to them.
August 25, 2022
The Right’s Ironic Fixation on Roman Virtues
Cato Uticensis, ca. 1795: Cato the Younger (95-46 B.C.) was a prominent statesman and orator of the late Roman Republic. A follower of the Stoic philosophy, he was a political rival of Julius Caesar. He was noted for his moral integrity, his immunity to bribery. (Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty)

Our nation, cries the American right, is losing the masculine spirit. It is in one sense an unremarkable claim. We see here the timeless and largely reflexive conservative urge to fret over waning honor and virtue. Frequently invoked, as the pattern of manhood against which we are found wanting, are the men of the Roman Republic. This too is unsurprising: The conservative worry that society is not living up to Roman ideals traces back to the conservatives of ancient Rome itself.

In another sense, though, the right’s renewed passion for masculinity in general, and the Romans’ manly virtue in particular, is thoroughly surprising. After all, the Trumpified right is at this point scarcely conservative. It is increasingly uninterested in virtue as it is actually practiced. And it is in no position to tell others what it means to be a man.

Cicero hailed Marcus Atilius Regulus, a general of the First Punic War, as the apex of Roman manliness. Regulus’ probity “seems remarkable to us nowadays,” Cicero wrote two centuries after the legendary hero’s death, “but in that era he could not have acted otherwise.” A decade and a half later, it was Livy’s turn to grieve the disappearance of the “men and qualities by which [Roman] dominion was won and extended.” The “might of a long paramount nation,” Livy lamented, “is wasting by internal decay.” In Gibbon’s view, it was the loss of “ancient principles and manners” that “impetuously urged the decline of the Roman greatness.”

Like it or not, the Roman Republic looms large in the conservative imagination today. The modern male is sad and weak, the thinking always runs, next to those proud men of early Rome. “Roman legionaries risked life and limb for 25 years for the chance of land they could farm as free citizens,” an editor of the American Conservative worded it the other day, while “you aspire to be a corporate drone paying condo fees in the most expensive part of the urban core.” Anyone acquainted with the alt-right has seen the following image:

(This has all the marks of a great meme: It is at once clever, catchy, mildly offensive, slightly true, and utterly preposterous.)

There is also the matter of politics. Hillsdale/Claremont writer Michael Anton submits that a generation ago, California resembled “the ‘golden times’ of Rome,” a condition destroyed, in his estimation, by a “long experiment” with “anti-masculinity.” Right-wing politicians and commentators report that we are in a “late republican period” full of “late republic nonsense.” The demise of our manhood is leading directly to the disintegration of our political structure. In a speech last year Senator Josh Hawley made this explicit. “The ancient Romans,” he observed at a conference on national conservatism, “identified the manly virtues as indispensable for political liberty.” We “need the kind of men,” he went on, who “make republics possible.”

The conservative proclivity for applauding the distant past as a means of scolding the present can be tedious. As the popular internet joke would have it, men will literally read Oswald Spengler instead of going to therapy.

Yet people keep returning to the Roman virtues for a reason. Like it or not, those virtues are virtues. “Rugged fortitude; frugality; a lack of attachment to material possessions; a religion wonderful in its devotion to the gods; upright dealing; care and attention to justice when dealing with other men.” This list of traditional Roman qualities had wide appeal when Posidonius offered it in the first century B.C., and it has wide appeal today.

The attention paid to the Roman past, too, is warranted, or at least warrantable. Those who hope to sustain the American republic would do well to study what happened to the Roman forerunner. Statesmen grew accustomed to discarding the Republic’s checks and balances when doing so served their immediate personal ends. Called upon to stand for the constitutional order, they refused. And so the Republic died. By the days of Nero, in the conventional telling, the ideals of the Republic were gone, the nobility was meek, and comfort and security were everywhere prized.

Our Founders took Roman history, and Roman virtue, seriously indeed. The death of republics was their guiding preoccupation, and they were entranced by what historian Forrest McDonald called “the classical cult of manliness.” Several of the Founders endorsed the idea that republics are built on public virtue, and that as virtue dissipates republics come apart. They believed that such virtue is a matter (in McDonald’s words) of “firmness, courage, endurance, industry, frugal living, strength, and above all, unremitting devotion to the weal of the public’s corporate self, the community of virtuous men.” In ways large and small, the Founders’ virtues are conservative, the conservative virtues Roman.

Like it or not, there is a close if complicated affinity between Roman manhood and American republicanism. The problem is not that the right is willing to point this out. It is that the right’s abiding interest in sacred honor should flare just as the right itself becomes a lesson in that decay of national character, that plunge into headlong ruin, examined in the pages of Livy or Gibbon.

A pivotal element of public virtue, in the eyes of Roman and American patriots alike, lay in refusing ever to let one man wield too much power. With that in mind, consider the cascade of ironies behind the charge of “Trump derangement syndrome.” It is a term that reliably springs from the lips of people who are themselves obsessed with politics, brimming with sectarian animosity, and deeply influenced by Donald Trump and our country’s struggle to deal with him. Whatever overreactions to Trump there have been on the left, it is the right that has let the interests and whims of a single man derange its agenda. It is the right that has let that man’s vices derange its behavior. And it is the right that will bear final culpability for the damage the man inflicts on our system of government (a system he disdains), not least because it is the right that wants, more than ever, to pass the man unconfined authority.

Meanwhile, there could hardly be a more farcical spokesman for Roman-style manliness than Josh Hawley. He salutes the rectitude of the long-dead Roman Republic while questioning, through his support of the 2020 election lie, the peaceful transfer of power in the republic we have here and now. He extols the “masculine virtues” (book on sale, May 2023!) despite having riled up, and then ingloriously fled from, a mob at the U.S. Capitol. He lectures us about civics even though he is himself an inveterate partisan and opportunist. He stumps for the public good while supporting a leader, Donald J. Trump, whose political career has been a relentless exercise in putting himself first.

Then, of course, there is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy knows that Trump lost the 2020 election, and he knows that Trump’s conduct has been vile. But McCarthy is a poltroon. After the January 6th insurrection, he urged Trump to resign—then denied having done so. Next he sought to derail the work of the January 6th Committee, and to purge the few members of his party willing to denounce Trump’s deceits and provocations. He will mouth any absurdity, bear any indignity, to maintain his position. “Of all the elements of cowardice that have afflicted the Republican Party,” notes journalist Mark Leibovich, “a particularly pathetic one is the terror” that McCarthy and his ilk have “about losing their jobs.”

If only the trouble ended there. Hawley is not without a sense of what his constituents wish to hear. Many Republicans indeed try to impart to their children something like the Roman ethic. Work hard. Be steadfast. Be reliable. Serve your country. And most of all, speak up for the truth: call things what they are. Yet Trumpism, regrettably, painfully, tragically, is driving a moral collapse at the level of the family. Parents who once promoted honesty and decency—who would strenuously deny having discarded them—have been undone by our political moment. Fathers and mothers who once said, “If Johnny jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” now say, “But the Democrats are just as bad.” “But Obama started it.” “But absentee ballots are a concern.” “But Antifa rioted outside a courthouse.” “But Pelosi wouldn’t let Jim Jordan on the January 6th Committee.” “But Hillary’s emails!” This is now the talk of the dinner table. Projection. Deflection. False equivalence. Special pleading. A deep-seated aversion to saying what is true. These are becoming the habits of the Republican household.

Thus the party of manly virtue. Timid leaders; voters cold to displays of civic piety. The threads meet in the fate of Rep. Liz Cheney. Defying what is now indisputably the Republican establishment, Cheney has called things what they are: Trump violated his oath of office. He dupes his voters. He cannot be trusted to hold power again. In speaking some simple truths, Cheney put her republic and its Constitution ahead of her party and herself. In response, McCarthy denounced her, helped oust her from party leadership, and endorsed her GOP primary opponent, Harriet Hageman. That primary hinged on one issue: Hageman was willing to lie, while Cheney was not. And so Cheney lost.

“I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible,” Cheney declared during a January 6th Committee hearing. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” Perhaps Cheney is no Regulus, but she is a proven authority on the subject of honor. Unlike most Republican politicians, in fact, she dares do all that may become a man.

A citizen of the Roman Republic was expected to keep faith with the Roman polity. This meant continuing to believe, even in the teeth of repeated disaster, that the Republic would always triumph. In similar fashion, faith in the American republic and its principles was once a core plank of the GOP platform. It is bizarre, therefore, to watch Republicans (as it were) lose faith in the republic itself.

In purporting to espouse the values of the Roman Republic, Senator Hawley is arguably a step behind. The vanguard of the GOP is ready to discard those values altogether. As already noted, they have been contending, for some time now, that we are in a late republican period. The FBI’s recent search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence has pushed the rhetoric to new extremes. “We either have a Republic or we don’t,” J.D. Vance intoned the day of the event. The word “post-constitutional” is being swung about. Roger Kimball made clear that he hopes the “raid” is a “line in the sand”—the “Rubicon we’ve been waiting for.” To welcome the notion that the other side is starting a civil war, as Caesar did when he crossed the river in 49 B.C., is to excuse your side’s acting as though it’s in a civil war. It is to license the instigation of a civil war.

Cicero forcefully criticized the self-conscious purity of Cato the Younger. “The opinions he delivers belong in the Republic of Plato,” Cicero objected, “rather than amidst the filth of Romulus.” There is something to this brand of complaint, as Trump’s apologists are not slow to point out. Politics is rarely tame, polite, or fair. Even at the height of the Republic, Roman politics could be extraordinarily vicious. Yet now would be a marvelous moment for the American right to regain some unfeigned affection for republican principles.

Corbin Barthold

Corbin Barthold is internet policy counsel at TechFreedom. Twitter: @corbinkbarthold.