Today by some miracle, just as I finished Barton Gellman’s brilliantly detailed, frightening The Election That Could Break America in The Atlantic, I randomly caught the last hour of Quo Vadis — the bloody 1951 movie about Nero and the fall of Rome — and in too many ways they tell the same perilous story.
The Atlantic article lays out the interregnum between election day November 3rd and inauguration day January 20th. For the first time, an incumbent presidential candidate who will refuse to concede also controls all the levers of executive power and more. It’s uniquely dangerous — complex, essential knowledge.
The Election That Could Break America
If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop…
The startling bottom line is, there is no known path to any resolution when the incumbent won’t concede — especially if the vote is in dispute and the election is close. The Constitution says the ballots can be discarded!; the law says state legislatures and governors may take control. The president and his party are counting on that, planning for it. There’s endless ambiguity and untested law beyond that. It’s not clear what happens if they disagree (if say Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature and Democratic governor confirm conflicting Electors), except that the newly sworn in US Senate may matter, and the current Vice President may wind up with the final say. It is guaranteed, intentional chaos, vastly beyond anything from Bush/Gore 2000 or the George Floyd protests.
So pardon me if I’m in shock, confusing footage from Quo Vadis on TCM with current reports and premonitions of December/January CNN:
As I turn it on, Nero’s only friend Petronius is ending his life with dignity — freeing his loyal slave mate and calling his doctor for a fatal injection — which his woman grabs and takes too. As he dies, Petronius joyously declares he will never have to hear Donald’s lies, poetry or songs again — that he will finally be rid of Nero’s tweets.
In a huge coliseum rally, ten thousand Republicans cheer the release of hungry lions to kill and eat disloyal opponents, critics, press, and Christians. The MAGA hats are hard to see but the crowd’s grinning, roar and blood lust are unmistakable. Historians call Nero a populist.
In the climax, absolutely everything depends on Public Opinion, Overwhelming Majority, and Timing. At another huge rally, Melania — with Joe handcuffed beside her — has arranged for the biggest Christian leftist and Jill Biden to be gored to death by an angry bull. But the Christian hippie proves unexpectedly, freakishly strong — I think it’s Mark Ruffalo — and when the bull is dead, the astonished crowd is cheering that the victims’ lives must be spared as promised.
Donald resists but, under immense pressure from the crowd, sweatily gives a Thumbs Up — to unanimous cheers — and soldiers rush over to free them. But at just that moment, Joe escapes his cuffs and joins Jill and their Hulk on the coliseum stage. Donald pivots instantly to a Thumbs Down — and his Pretorian Guards try to intervene and grab prisoners and Christians — but it’s too late and suddenly his Pretorian Benevolent Police and Skinheads are fighting the armies of Roman Generals Essick, Milley and Mattis in the stadium — losing both the fight and the crowd’s support. In a short speech, Biden exposes Nero’s corruption and lies, and declares victory.
When afterward Nero encounters Melania, he blames her and her influence for his crimes — and strangles her to death.
When he escapes back to the Oval, Ivanka is waiting for him. As crowds scale the walls to rush in, she tells him it’s all over and hands him a dagger.
“You’ve lived like a monster. Now die like an emperor — by your own hand.”
His dying words confirm Nero and Donald, and their followers, are in the grip the same bizarre disease. As he snivels and whines, he worries for his fans:
“How tasteless life will be without me! How can they face such a world? How can they endure it?!”
As he’s too cowardly to take his own life, Ivanka interrupts his sniveling to twist the knife in and kill him.
I wish I could end this happily or with a “then I woke up”. But it’s not a dream or fiction. An immoral modern empire is collapsing dangerously around us. Overwhelming Majority and Timing WILL matter and our lives will depend on it — but it’s not even October yet, and our story is just beginning.