Gore Vidal, American Empire, and on Re-reading Claudius the God

Imperator Claudius 

I have been watching biographies on the late and highly talented American writer, Gore Vidal, who lived from 1925 to 2012. Vidal grew up on the floor of the US Senate, as a page boy to his blind grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore, a southern populist. Vidal was at the centre of American public life for decades, as a writer, essayist, TV guest, controversialist, and occasionally as an aspiring politician. He was gay and out from a young age. He turned to Hollywood and became a highly successful scriptwriter for movies and television, made a pile of money and retired to the coast of Italy with his life partner of many years. From his vantage point he continued to write and to criticize the American Empire, as he saw it.

A BBC documentary on Vidal is here,  and his lectures on the American Presidents is here. Plenty of good material on him can be found on youtube. He makes for witty, stylish, and agreeable conversations, except if he thought you were a fool. Informed of the death of Truman Capote, a rival gay American writer, he was said to have said that it was “a good carrer move”.

Vidal was the first to proclaim that the Republican and Democratic parties were two wings of the same party, the ownership party. Campaigning for the Democratic primary in California against Gerry Brown, Vidal showed up at an unemployment insurance office and told the plaid-shirted working class people that the United States was a conspiracy against people like them, in the most Brahmin of Southern accents. They could believe him because he was so authentically American upper class, and he was saying the truth.

When he saw Obama’s Presidential acceptance speech from the comfort of his living room, he turned to the camera and said “This is the end of the Republican Party”.

I have had plenty of occasion to think about that comment in recent days. Did Obama’s election signal the end of the Republican Party? A good case can be made that Trump ‘s election was the reaction of people like those California white unemployed to whom Vidal was speaking so many years before. A plausible argument can be made, as Peter Zeihan does, that each of the American major parties are undergoing a once in eighty years morphing of their electoral bases. And it can be plausibly argued that the party changed least by recent events is the Democrats. It still remains a fragile coalition of minorities, cemented if at all by wokeism, but it is the more committed of the two parties to the maintenace of Empire.

The Democrats are in the main the war party. And if the war party, then the party of Imperial America. It is no accident that the heads of America’s state security agencies, FBI, NSA and CIA, were openly agitating against Trump during his recent presidency. Why? I think because Trump signaled the end of Imperial America, of America acting as world cop. It might be dragged back into that role again by the force of events, but if you believe the analysis of Zeihan, America is retreating from its post WW2 role as guarantor of the sea lanes and world policeman. A decade of chaos and small wars is about to be upon us.

Which leads me back to Gore Vidal. He thought that the US started to go off its constitutional limitations when President Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase without the permission of Congress, and that it went further astray when President Lincoln used the civil war for a vast accretion of power to the federal government. This led to Teddy Rooselvelt seizing the Philippines as America’s Pacific bastion, and you know the rest. Truman capped it all with the national security state of the 1950s.

I call this kind of reasoning “impossibilist”. Vidal had an idea of what America ought to be like, and he was nowhere satisfied that his vision of constituional restraint had been followed. So it is easy when you are as bright, accomplished and privileged as he undoubtedly was, to set your self a standard so high that it could never be attained. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t right; it is just that realtity did not turn out as he wanted.

If you are in the mood for a meditation on the nature of Imperium, read Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God. I was reminded of Vidal because  Claudius was acclained Emperor  by the Praetorian Guard immediately after the assassination of his nephew Caligula, but Claudius was by avocation a historian, amd the reign of Claudius reads like what Vidal would have been like if Imperial responsibilities had been thrust upon him. By no means was Claudius an Imperialist, he was a Republican by sympathies, but the days of the Republic were forever a foreclosed past, and there he sat, in the throne of command, deluding himself that he could retire from his responsibilities and take up writing history once more.

I have toyed with the idea of a history in the manner of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars – another great read – that would start at Truman or Eisenhower (the Caesar Augustus of the American Rome) and carry on for the next 150 years or whenever the United States finally fell. It would assume, as its core premise, that whatever the United States had orginally intended itself to be,  it had been transmuted by global responsibilties after World War 2 into an Imperium. Naturally the  only game in town was the Presidency. The side players were the Senate and the House of Representatives, with occasional deference to the augurs of the Constitution, the Supreme Court. China,  Russia, Afghanistan,  and Europe have walk-ons  just as Parthia, the Germanic tribes, or the provincial Roman elites would figure in the histories of the Roman Caesars.

What is now delicious gossip and insider knowledge will become assuredly known in the passage of years:  about the sexual proclivities of Emperor Lyndon Baines Johnson (the Tiberius of this metaphpor), Bill Clinton (very hetero) his wife Hillary (lesbian but more discreet), Obama (yeah, you know it), or the insider treatment of Emperors Nixon and Trump – both deposed for angering the Imperial Party. All that is now considered to be opinion, marginal, secret, or conspiratorial, will then be known as common facts, and it would only take a future Gore Vidal to write it down in a novel, and call it “Imperium, the first twenty Caesars” to be published in 2257. I say it will take a political insider like Vidal to write such a book. Some people are born too far from the councils of the Great to understand what it means to decide upon peace or war, or when it is time to assassinate a rival, or when it is time to fake an election. But a boy raised on the floor of the US Senate as a page to his blind Senator grandfather Gore, now that is an environment where, I suspect, any such future Suetonius will come from.

Both Machiavelli and Thucydides were once insiders who used their defeats and exiles to invent, respectively, political science and history. But novelists who turn to gossipy inside histories, like Vidal and Suetonius, have an enduring place in the canons of good writing. Even if they are wrong, or perhaps, especially if they are wrong, in their political causes and beliefs.