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Machiavelli’s Lessons for America’s Jan. 6 Tumult

Political chaos can spur failing republics, not just destroy them.

By , a political theorist and research fellow with the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy.
Protesters supporting U.S. President Donald Trump break into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Protesters supporting U.S. President Donald Trump break into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Protesters supporting U.S. President Donald Trump break into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images

A year on, the United States is still grappling with the meaning of the riots and looting at the Capitol building that took place on Jan. 6, 2021. As a glance at social media and op-ed pages makes clear, there is still little agreement on just what it was that took place. After pundits ransacked their dictionaries for terms like “coup d’état,” but also the less common “autogolpe” and “putsch,” most media seem to have settled on the more common, if vague, “insurrection.”

But there’s a more apt word both for what occurred in Washington and for the spates of violence and destruction across the country in 2020 and early 2021: “tumult”—a humble word with a classical pedigree, once used to describe the public disturbances that were a recurring feature of political life in ancient Rome.

Neither pandemics nor uprisings were foreign to the ancient Roman Republic. Granted, Roman thinkers were not themselves particularly happy about it—figures from Cicero to Augustine frequently decried the divisions by which it was riven. It took a later Italian author—Niccolò Machiavelli—to make the case for Rome’s tumultuous politics. Though he remains most famous for The Prince, his shocking treatise on politics, Machiavelli was also a political historian (albeit a unique one), who authored major works on the histories of medieval Florence and ancient Rome.

A year on, the United States is still grappling with the meaning of the riots and looting at the Capitol building that took place on Jan. 6, 2021. As a glance at social media and op-ed pages makes clear, there is still little agreement on just what it was that took place. After pundits ransacked their dictionaries for terms like “coup d’état,” but also the less common “autogolpe” and “putsch,” most media seem to have settled on the more common, if vague, “insurrection.”

But there’s a more apt word both for what occurred in Washington and for the spates of violence and destruction across the country in 2020 and early 2021: “tumult”—a humble word with a classical pedigree, once used to describe the public disturbances that were a recurring feature of political life in ancient Rome.

Neither pandemics nor uprisings were foreign to the ancient Roman Republic. Granted, Roman thinkers were not themselves particularly happy about it—figures from Cicero to Augustine frequently decried the divisions by which it was riven. It took a later Italian author—Niccolò Machiavelli—to make the case for Rome’s tumultuous politics. Though he remains most famous for The Prince, his shocking treatise on politics, Machiavelli was also a political historian (albeit a unique one), who authored major works on the histories of medieval Florence and ancient Rome.

As he wrote, and as Gabriele Pedullà elucidated more recently in a brilliant book on the subject, less tumultuous cities—such as ancient Sparta or medieval Venice—may have been more pacific, more content, yet they failed to match Rome’s grand achievements. As Machiavelli put it: “good examples derive from good education, good education from good laws, and good laws from those tumults that many people condemn thoughtlessly.”

Machiavelli’s greater acceptance of the rough-and-tumble nature of political life also means he has lessons about managing tumult—ones that American political leaders, struggling to adapt to a stormy new political reality, would do well to heed.

Machiavelli attributes the frequency of tumult in Rome to the separation of the Senate and the people, arguing that it was its “disunion” which “made that republic free and powerful”—a kind of fragmentation that the American republic shares geographically, economically, and constitutionally. This disunion was the source of mutual hostility that produced unruly expressions of popular discontent, from uprisings against the nobility following the expulsions of the Tarquins to the seizure of the Roman Capitol by Appius Herdonius to the proposal of the Terentillan law.

Uncontrolled tumults contributed mightily to the rise of civil warfare and the ultimate collapse of the Roman Republic. As Machiavelli also notes, “many times the people desires its own ruin, deceived by a false appearance of good”—an epitaph that applies too well to Jan. 6. Beginning with the failure of the Gracchan reforms after 133 B.C. and up until the fall of the republic, tumults turned increasingly violent and destructive.

But Machiavelli also treats tumult as a useful outlet for the people to vent their displeasure against their political and economic superiors. Provided that they do not turn violent, they can be healthy ways for the people to press their interests and let off steam where normal institutional channels no longer work. It was, for example, the tumults that arose in the earliest days of the Roman Republic that led to the creation of the tribunes—officials selected by the plebs and charged with representing their interests.

Americans don’t have tribunes. They have former President Donald Trump, who has not hesitated to express his contempt for the same people whose support he courted as he sought to contest the 2020 general election results. Meanwhile, the ensuing protest in Washington, despite many farcical elements (the grinning Floridian carrying the speaker’s podium like a flea market find comes to mind), quickly turned violent, resulting in one direct death.

Machiavelli identifies two checks on the destructive excesses of political tumults. One is the authority of a particular leader who can quell the excitement of a mob. It is unclear whether such a figure is waiting to emerge at present. Democrats and Republicans like Liz Cheney condemned the chaos in Washington and the former president who emboldened it. But there is no individual among them with the authority or the will to overawe the multitude—President Joe Biden’s recent address on the anniversary of that day notwithstanding.

The other check is the overriding fear of foreign enemies. In such cases, the anger of the people is focused abroad, rather than upon oppressive elites; the elites, meanwhile, are obliged to make material concessions to the people who fight in their wars. Though Americans have near-continuously engaged in war and military occupation since the end of the Cold War, they have not faced a mortal threat during that time (though the 9/11 terrorist attacks appeared briefly to offer one), and the presence of a professional military has obviated the need to draw heavily upon the larger body of citizens to serve in America’s armed conflicts.

Machiavelli would say this is a dangerous time; the United States lacks a serious enemy, and it cannot use imperial expansion as a safety valve for domestic disputes as Rome did. That said, he also counsels that in corrupt republics—like the United States—one may prevent the rise of an unscrupulous leader and simultaneously mitigate tumults by satisfying certain grievances of the people and depriving potential demagogues of the means to gain political power.

Trump may have left office for now, but he will not be the last of his kind. The underlying antipathy and distrust millions of Americans bear toward their political, financial, and media elites remains very much available for leverage by ambitious future politicians, whether that’s Trump or others. Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley sought to do this with their objections to the electoral vote, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene did so with the farcical impeachment articles against Biden—articles that a future Republican Congress is also likely to bring.

Can future violence be prevented, or is this just the beginning? In American case, the solution might simply prove a matter of generating more freely flowing $2,000 payments—the 21st-century version of the grain dole that propped up the imperial Roman order at home. The people are, after all, fickle. But it will more likely entail a more comprehensive reconciliation of the material interests of ruler and ruled in the United States—on trade, foreign policy, taxation, and the prevailing structure of the domestic political economy. The kind of response we’re seeing instead, such as the expansion of Capitol Police powers and jurisdiction, carries its own dangers. Tumult, whether in the Roman or the American republic, isn’t just a danger. It’s also a useful warning.

David Polansky is a political theorist who writes on geopolitics and the history of political thought. He is currently a research fellow with the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy.

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