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Welcome Back to History, America!

Preview of Welcome Back to History America

Matthew Yglesias tweeted:

Matthew Yglesias: On Twitter: "It seems profoundly dysfunctional that the whole imperial court has to travel, lest some particular faction bend the king's ear. https://t.co/wb1X9G63mC" https://twitter.com/mattyglesias/status/865635638363660288

All I can say is: Matthew, I welcome you and I welcome the United States back to history.

The Economist compares Donald Trump to Henry VIII—not just once, but again, and again. It's not meant to be a compliment.

However, English governance under King Henry VIII Tudor functioned better than under his son Edward VI Tudor and his daughter Mary I Tudor. The reigns of Henry VIII and his father Henry VII were bookended by periods of turmoil and chaos, beginning and ending with the murdered child monarchs Lady Jane Grey and Edward V York. And, recall, Henry VIII and his father were breaths of stability and calm compared to what had happened before: The wheels really came off under Henry VI Lancaster. Whatever normalcy was restored under Edward IV York, while the Wydville-Gloucester feud burbled under the surface, collapsed when the wheels came off again under Richard III York.

Henry VIII seems a worse-than-average king when he stands in the shadow of his daughter Elizabeth I Tudor and his great-great uncle Henry V Lancaster. But on the great Mar-a-Lago golf course of human political history, he made par.

Face facts: throughout much if not most of history, the guy (or gal) at the top is not up to the job—not intelligent, not curious enough, not perceptive enough, not calm enough to be both head of state and head of government. He or she has risen to his or her high place either because descent or the choice of the clan has settled on them as the alternative least likely to provoke civil war, because an uneasy factional truce has settled on them as the choice least dangerous, or because of success in controlling that particular bunch of thugs-with-spears who happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Administrators, wealthholders, technocrats, lobbyists, and courtiers tiptoe around such rulers, trying to manipulate them for the public good or for their faction's good or—rarely—for the rulers' own good as they flail about, knowing that they are out of their depth and that their immense power and luxury is purchased at the price of immense danger and never being sure what is actually going on. Damocles flattered Dionysios II, Tyrant of Syracuse, telling him "that there had [n]ever been anyone more fortunate". Dionysios—well, he did not exactly snap, but:

[Dionysios said:] "So, Damocles, since this life [of mine] delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?"

When Damocles said that he desired this, Dionysios gave orders that the man be placed on a golden couch covered with a most beautiful woven rug, embroidered with splendid works; he adorned many sideboards with chased silver and gold; then he gave orders that chosen pretty-boys should stand by his table and that they, watching for a sign from Damocles, should attentively wait on him; there were unguents and garlands; perfumes were burning; tables were piled up with the most select foods. Damocles seemed to himself fortunate.

In the middle of this luxury, Dionysios ordered that a shining sword, fastened from the ceiling by a horse-hair, be let down so that it hung over the neck of that fortunate man. And so he looked neither at those handsome waiters nor the wonderful silver work, nor did he stretch his hand to the table. Now the very wreaths slipped off. Finally he begged the tyrant that he should be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be fortunate...

And so the technocrats who seek peace and prosperity have to maneuver in a setting dominated by a chief who, if he or she were not already paranoid, will rapidly become so.

Thus the technocrats do what they can—what we can. My favorite anecdote right now when people ask me how to influence Donald Trump is to reach back to the days of, yes, Henry VIII Tudor, and talk about how Thomas Cardinal Wolsey had his cooks invent strawberries and cream to try to distract Henry from the lack of progress on the king's "Great Matter".

Now there are exceptions. But they were regarded as marvels. The Qing Dynasty in China had three good, competent emperors in a row: Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. It was a good age. The Antonine Dynasty in Rome had five: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. It was the wonder of the millennium:

Because your government is both universal and like that of a single city-state, its governors rightly rule not as foreigners but, as it were, their own people.... Additionally, all of the masses of subjects under this government have protection against the more powerful of their native countrymen, by virtue of your anger and vengeance, which would fall upon the more powerful without delay should they dare to break the law. Thus, the present government serves rich and poor alike, and your constitution has developed a single, harmonious, all-embracing union. What in former days seemed impossible has in your time come to pass: You control a vast empire with a rule that is firm but not unkind....

As on a holiday, the entire civilized world lays down the weapons that were its ancient burden and has turned to adornment and all glad thoughts, with the power to realize them.... Cities glisten with radiance and charm, and the entire earth has been made beautiful like a garden.... Like a perpetual sacred flame, the celebration is unending.... You, better than anyone else, have proved the truth of the proverb: The earth is everyone's mother and our common fatherland. It is now possible for Hellene and non-Hellene, with or without property, to travel with ease wherever he wishes, as though passing from homeland to homeland.... As far as security is concerned, it suffices to be a Roman citizen, or rather one of those people united under your rule....

Let us pray that all the gods and their children grant that this empire and this city flourish forever and never cease until stones float on water and trees cease to put forth shoots in spring, and that the Great Governor [the emperor] and his sons be preserved and obtain blessings for all.

Unless you were lucky enough to live in China under the three good emperors of the Great Qing, or in Rome under the five good emperors of the Antonine Dynasty, your likely mode of governance was—if not civil war—somebody not unlike Henry VIII. Or Donald Trump. Manipulated and guided to various degrees by courtiers and philosophers. Remember Nero, and Seneca.

The truly marvelous thing in historical perspective is not that someone like Donald Trump is president, but that for nearly 250 years we had an America in which it was literally unthinkable that someone like Donald Trump would be president.