Let’s Look at the Record
As Trump leaves office we can begin to place his presidency in historical perspective. What made the conditions propitious for Trumpism’s appearance and rapid growth? How do we account for its precipitous decline? What are the historical parallels? Is there anything that can be done to soften the landing?
The fall of the Roman empire culminated in 476 CE after centuries of growing decadence. It finally fell to the germanic king, Odoacer, to defeat and depose the Emperor Romulus. This coincided with the Early Middle Ages, known also as the “Dark Ages,” when tribes from the north, whom the Romans considered barbarians, were taking over the Western Empire. It was a time, roughly from 500 to 1000 CE, of lawlessness and struggle marked by unending wars and the disruption of normal Roman life.
This sounds remotely familiar. A super power that dominates the known world falls into decadence at home and permanent wars abroad and finds itself taken over by primitive tribes that the ruling elite considers barbarians. In the current case the adversaries don’t come from the north, they come from within. The lords of today’s manor are not products of feudalism, but capitalism. In essence the situation is the same.
The Fall of the Roman Empire
What caused the ancient world’s greatest empire to wilt and disappear? Where did the Greek and Roman civilizations go? According to historians they were victims of an abrupt inversion of societal values. What had been the most advanced civilization in the known world reverted to a primitive agrarian society populated by peasant serfs and feudal lords whose rule was absolute, excepting the intrusions of the medieval church. Science and learning were derrogated, women were demonized and Christian orthodoxy became the imposed norm.
With Rome gone, a chain of unstoppable events was unleashed. Libraries fell into disrepair. With Rome no longer producing a safe environment for learning, philosophy, and science… The architecture and learning and thoughts of the Empire were completely forgotten in the wake of its fall from greatness, plunging the world into darkness.historythings.com
There were other factors that further complicated life in the early medieval world. Some modern climate researchers are convinced that the gigantic eruption of the Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa, in 535 CE, cast a veil of airborne ash that covered the world and partially veiled the sun for as much as a decade, bringing temperatures down significantly. This theory is supported by findings of dendochronology, the scientific method of dating ancient tree rings to the exact year they were formed.
Our Old Friends, Plague and Climate Change
Then there was the strain and disorder caused by the Justinian Plague (541–549 CE), the first Old World plague pandemic. This is not the Black Death which occurred 800 years later and killed a third to one half of Europe’s population, though both were likely due to the bacteria Yersinia pestis, bubonic plague.
Besides their existing woes, the Europeans of the early Middle Ages were suddenly afflicted by climate change and a virulent epidemic, with no clear ideas regarding what to do about either problem. This is the inflection point. If medieval Europeans could have devised ways of dealing with grave climate and health issues they might have slowed the deterioration of world civilization. But it was not to be. They lacked the necessary knowledge and the tools and the world descended into half a millenium of Dark Ages.
Modern science does have viable hypotheses and credible proposals for dealing with today’s pandemic, but it’s as if they didn’t, insofar as the world’s leading country has turned its back on the scientific method, in favor of the dark arts of crude capitalism and magical religion. They are paying a frightful price in human lives for this recalcitrance, but they insist. Meanwhile, countries with more scientific approaches, effectively a control group, are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic with rational methods and dramatically different results. According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center, the comparative statistics for Covid impact in the United States and China (as of Jan. 15, 2021) are eloquent:
These numbers tell an impartial observer that the US, with one quarter of the population of China, has more than 80 times de number of Covid deaths at a rate of 118.76 deaths per 100,000 population while China has 0.34. The factors contributing to this mega-disparity seem clear: China’s scientific approach is based on masks and social distancing, implemented in a society with notable civic awareness, as opposed to public-health anarchy in the United States, a country that, in its current political guise, shuns utterly science, order and the common good.
What possible explanation can there be for such an unenlightened response to a real existential crisis in a supposed first-world country? Are Americans accustomed to living midst such unconscionable levels of violence that they don’t notice that something is catastrophically wrong with their society? Are they victims of a gravely defective cultural and moral upbringing? Don’t they fervently desire normal human lives for their children and grandchildren? What is going on over there? Can’t they see it’s getting dark?
Another Historical Coincidence
At the same time that the world of the Western Empire was succumbing to the ills of the Dark Ages, on the other side of the world, China, reunified under the Sui and Tang dynasties was entering into the light, initiating a period of prosperity, trade relations, and far-reaching influence. Chang’an, the capital, was one of the largest and richest cities in the world. Art and literature were flourishing, reflecting influences from the different cultures with which China maintained diplomatic and trade relations. Ironically, it was a great American, Mark Twain who said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Just as the rejection of reason was the principal cause of the Dark Ages, with barbarians destroying written knowledge and the church outlawing reason in favor of revelation, it was the return to principles of reason that ended the Dark Ages: Aquinas’s rediscovery of Aristotle in the 13th century, the spread of books after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th and Luther’s disrupting the Church in the 16th. If history is a reliable predictor and great men can put a derailed world back on track, there is hope for America’s future. If they’re lucky their wait won’t last longer than five or six-hundred years.