How Not to Save Democracy

Nicolas Guilhot

Last spring, the Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, a member of the January 6 Committee, was spotted with a copy of Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae. It was the new Princeton edition, translated by Josiah Osgood, which comes with a new title, How to Stop a Conspiracy: An Ancient Guide to Saving a Republic. ‘I’m getting ideas from wherever I can,’ Raskin said.

According to Sallust’s account, Lucius Sergius Catilina was a morally corrupt yet charismatic figure who refused to concede defeat at the ballot box. A member of the Roman oligarchy burdened with debt, he surrounded himself with a crew of louche characters; he fomented riots and assembled an armed mob to march on the Capitol and burn the Senate. The coup was thwarted in extremis but the republic was in danger.

Will the January 6 Committee’s report help save the American republic? In 63 BC the Roman senators took exceptional measures to ensure their enemies were politically (and militarily) defeated. Today, their counterparts seem less interested in political victory than in taking the (ostensibly) neutral stance of a historian. Their model isn’t even Cicero – who as consul led the efforts to suppress the Catiline conspiracy – so much as Sallust.

Sallust claimed to write with ‘a mind free of political partisanship’. The chairman of the select committee, the Democratic congressman Bennie Thompson, has repeatedly said that the investigation ‘is not about politics. It’s not about party. It’s about the facts, plain and simple.’ The committee’s Republican vice-chair, Liz Cheney, warned her audience not to be ‘distracted by politics’.

The expectations regarding the committee’s final report seem to be that history will succeed where politics has failed. Many people hope that the report – ‘an indispensable record of an attempted coup that failed but … threatens to recur’ – will help to neutralise Trump: if people can be made to see that the attack on the Capitol on 6 January 2021 was the culmination of a plan long in the making, they will rally in defence of the institutions in which they have lost trust. But is saving democracy a matter of setting the historical record straight – let alone of leaving politics behind in the name of ‘facts’?

The assumptions guiding the committee’s work are symptomatic of current thinking about the crisis of democracy. It is often assumed that what threatens democracy are wrong ideas. In this view, 6 January was not a consequence of decades of neoliberal policies, deindustrialisation, rising wealth inequality and white supremacy, but of fake news: to wrest victory from the jaws of electoral defeat, Trump ‘was willing to entertain and use conspiracy theories’, as Cheney put it. ‘We cannot let America become a nation of conspiracy theories and thug violence.’ Saving democracy then becomes a matter of establishing historical facts. If truth prevails, it will bridge political divides and unite people.

Yet the notion that conspiracy theories pose a unique threat to democracy rests on shaky foundations. Hannah Arendt once suggested they were the logic behind totalitarian movements: people who imagine they are the targets of a conspiracy tend to organise themselves as a real counter-conspiracy in response. But if authoritarian movements rely heavily on conspiracist rhetoric, it does not necessarily follow that such movements are brought into being by conspiracist beliefs. No serious historian has explained the rise of Nazism or Fascism as the result of conspiracy theories.

The January 6 Committee’s work is further complicated by the fact that, while it seeks to invalidate conspiracy theories, it is simultaneously trying to shore up the idea that Donald Trump sat at the centre of ‘a sprawling, multi-step conspiracy’.

Providing evidence of a conspiracy is notoriously difficult, especially of one that has failed: the task is not only to collect facts but to establish the intent that threads them together. A conspiracy, François Guizot once wrote, is by definition an ‘intellectual reality’. Unless it is consummated, it is never exhausted in facts.

This is not to deny the difference between real plots and paranoid fantasies, or to suggest that Trump and his cronies weren’t pursuing a real plot. But you cannot expect a painstaking exercise in separating wheat from chaff to have the persuasive power of an undisputable truth.

After conducting more than a thousand interviews and churning out millions of pages of documents, the committee is failing to convince. Historians with no sympathy for Trump have challenged the notion that 6 January was an attempted ‘coup’. Commentators are sceptical and some are suggesting it’s too little too late. The public at large seems largely indifferent. This doesn’t mean people don’t care about democracy – only that democracy has left them by the wayside.

If the January 6 Committee members are to take any idea from Roman history, it should be that what threatens democracy is not erroneous beliefs or fake news but a social and economic crisis that political elites are incapable or unwilling to address. In Sallust’s lifetime, imperial overreach had created a vast military proletariat, disenfranchised and burdened by debt, while the senatorial oligarchy was unwilling to question its own privileges: it is from this decaying soil that Catiline emerged.

This is also the reason Sallust may not be such a good model: his professed detachment as a historian concealed a conservative agenda. He had no sympathy for the corrupt oligarchy that ruled Rome but was unsettled by the populist reaction. A member of the propertied classes and a former politician suspected of embezzlement, he sided with the old elite and chose the defence of the status quo. His portrait of Catiline was meant to stigmatise the most radical social demands. He played loose with the facts and tinkered with chronology: we will never know for sure whether Catiline, before opting for insurrection, wasn’t merely a populist politician rather than a criminal bent on staging a coup. Writing a ‘non-partisan’ history of conspiratorial ‘facts’ was the ideological dressing for a programme to perpetuate the social and economic status quo.

The contemporary obsession with fake news and conspiracy theories serves a similar purpose, deflecting attention from the social ills that allow such theories to gain traction and politicians like Trump to use them.

As important as it may be to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the 6 January insurrection, the future of democracy ultimately depends on the availability of a transformative political vision that people can support. It may well be that Trump ends up being defeated. Yet, just as Catiline’s defeat didn’t prevent Caesar’s declaring himself dictator for life twenty years later, nothing guarantees that Trump’s end would be enough to save American democracy.


  • 25 December 2022 at 11:25pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Yes. In a normal democracy, Trump would have been convicted months ago, but American law is not just verbose and grandisose, it is a racket.

  • 26 December 2022 at 11:41pm
    Colin Gordon says:
    Foolish, frivolous, cynical and wrong.

  • 27 December 2022 at 5:58am
    James Mccall says:
    The American President is effectively an elected king, who can break any law with impunity if he or she has enough votes in the US Senate to thwart a conviction on impeachment charges. As Richard Nixon famously said, "...when the President does it, that means it's not illegal." Unfortunately, for Nixon, but fortunately for the United States, in 1974 Republican Senators decided to put the interests of their country above those of their party and themselves and persuaded Nixon to resign rather than be convicted. By contrast, Republican Senators in 2019 and 2021 took the opposite decision, fearing the wrath of Trump supporters in future elections, and twice refused to convict Trump even after the Jan. 6, 2021 incitement to insurrection. Moreover, while Republicans were flirting with fascist fringe elements as far back the McCarthy period in the 1950's, it was Trump who began more openly embracing neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, 3 Percenters and other militias. And now, of course, anti-Semites and Holocaust-deniers with very little protest from Republican politicians. Finally, despite all the pending investigations against Trump, it is still not likely that he will ever be convicted, much less see the inside of a jail cell.

  • 27 December 2022 at 10:34am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    For members of the political class, belief in the demonic power of conspiracy theories plays the same role that the theories themselves play for those who believe them: it offers an easy, all-encompassing means to explain away anything they happen to dislike. If people insist on believing the wrong things or voting for the wrong leaders even after we've told them repeatedly not to, it can't possibly be that they might have any good reason to be dissatisfied with the way things are (or even, in current parlance, to "feel ignored"). They must have simply been deceived by conspiracy theories. Therefore all we need to do is nudge them out of their false beliefs and back into a proper state of happy subjection. There will probably be an algorithm to do it soon.

    Like all good political myths, there is some truth to this; just as there is some truth in Trump's presentation of himself as an underdog battling an arrogant and bullying liberal establishment. Not much, but enough to hold the myth together.

    About five years ago, in the aftermath of three major shocks to the established order – Trump's victory in the US, and Brexit and Corbyn's near-victory in the UK – things briefly seemed to open up. The elite realised how insular they had become, jabbering away amongst themselves on social media, and there was much talk about how "we" needed to listen to the "concerns" of ordinary people. If they did, they clearly didn't like what they heard, because everything rapidly shut down again. To actually listen to people, after all, might require us to question the very basis of contemporary Western society, and that is unthinkable. We know what society should look like; i.e. much like it does now, only more so. Our task is to persuade everyone else to think the same, or at least not be sufficiently aggrieved to get in our way again.

    The line will hold until the next major shock – likely to be a post-Trump Republican president in the US , who might even, unlike Trump, actually believe the crazy things he says – blows things apart again.

  • 28 December 2022 at 6:16pm
    eeffock says:
    The crux of the question, in America as elsewhere, is: who counts as the demos? The USA was not constituted as a democracy of all its inhabitants. It is a rule of elites for themselves - just examine the most recent federal budget to say nothing of its jurisprudence. Trump appealed to a section of a petit bourgeoisie whose expectations of entitlement is undermined by the the failure of neoliberal capitalism. The US Congress cannot save elite self-rule (or postpone its collapse) without beguiling that middling population, but they cannot save it simply by doing so, either.

  • 28 December 2022 at 7:14pm
    Patrick Farrelly says:
    This is the best analysis I've read of the January 6th Report and indeed the entire liberal fixation with Trump.
    The January 6th alliance between the Democrats and the nightmarish Liz Cheney delights the establishment media but it exactly mirrors and intensifies the political roots of this crisis. As Democrats abandoned their social democratic program and hollowed out the lives of working class people they created the opening for the populist right. As Mr. Guilhot points out that's the real problem that needs to be addressed.

  • 28 December 2022 at 7:54pm
    Thom Lawrence says:
    I think we have the parallels wrong here. There was only one person ranting for personal gain about a fantasy of deep state paedophiles trying to destroy the country in 63BC, and that was Cicero.

  • 30 December 2022 at 12:30am
    Brian Milton says:
    It may be true that “nothing guarantees that Trump’s end would be enough to save American democracy” but it sure would help!

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