PINKERTON: A Lesson from Ancient Populists — If the People Are United, They Will Not Be Defeated

(Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)

James P. Pinkerton Former Fox News Contributor
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The populists are numerous, but demoralized. By contrast, the well-financed invaders, acting on the orders of the imperial city, are confident in their mission of trampling the hinterlanders.  The big question: Can the populists — who haven’t lacked in the past for a fighting spirit — rally against the onslaught and defend their way of life?

Does this scenario sound a bit like the 2020 election? The red states on the defensive, while the blue states on the offensive? Yes, but it’s also the story of what happened more than 2,000 years ago, when the Roman Empire invaded what is now Germany. This history is told in the German-made Barbarians, a six-hour miniseries now on Netflix.

In 9 A.D., when three Roman legions, some 20,000 men, marched east of the Rhine River, Germany was a concept, not a country. That is, the Romans — more sophisticated, more literate, more organized — had Germania on their maps; they thought the territory would make a nice addition to their empire. Meanwhile, the locals thought of themselves merely as separate tribes: Bructeri, Cherusci, Marsi, each jealous and suspicious of the other.

Thus it seemed inevitable that the Romans would roll over Germania, defeating the tribes one by one, just as Julius Caesar had done in Gaul a half-century before.  Yet this time, it was different. A young Cheruscan, Arminius, rallied the tribes, and together they annihilated the Roman army in the Teutoberger Wald.

Arminius was an interesting figure. Although born a “barbarian,” he was ransomed to the Romans as a boy; such hostage-taking was standard practice in those days, so as to help assure peace along the frontier. Raised as a Roman, Arminius knew Latin and, more importantly, knew how the Romans thought — and fought.

Yet underneath all that overlay of imperial civilization, Arminius was still a barbarian, or, one might say, a German—arguably, the first German. So Barbarians is about Arminius uniting the tribes to resist the Roman yoke, even as he was fooling them into thinking that he was still their loyal vassal. In particular, the local Roman commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, made the fatal mistake of trusting his “adopted” son on military operations.

Indeed, the show plays up a double Oedipal angle: Arminius dealing with his legal father, Varus, as well as his own biological father, Segimer. Plus, of course, there’s a love triangle, as well as plenty of pagan religious imagery and ritualizing, which will remind the audience that long before Wagner’s operas and Lord of the Rings, Norse mythology was rich and real to its believers.

For their part, the Romans were confident, perhaps even smug, about their ways,  their beliefs and their powers. One of their deities, Mars, the god of war, is repeatedly invoked in the show — and if the Romans have him on their side, how can they lose?

Yet in the end, the Roman legions are wiped out in the German woods. In the close, Arminius speaks to the severed head of Varus, his resentment tinged with the tiniest bit of sorrow about the ghastly fate of the man who had trusted him: “You never understood that we wanted a different life, different ways.”

In those words about difference, we hear something timeless: the bravehearted voice of rebellion — against foreign authority and in favor of independence. Give me liberty, or give me death.

In fact, a few years after his epic victory, Arminius was soon murdered by rivals within das Volk, as the German tribes reverted to factionalism, strife — and weakness.

Yet Arminius’ rallying cry has echoed across the millennia, being heard as nationalism. Interestingly, the word “nationalism” comes from a Prussian, Johann Gottfried Herder, who also wrote in 1772, “He that has lost his patriotic spirit has lost himself.”

These patriotic nationalists soon Germanified “Arminius,” into “Hermann.” Indeed, Hermannschlacht (Hermann’s War) became a founding legend of Germany as it unified in the 19th century; to this day, the ancient hero is honored in a spectacular monument near the battlefield.

To be sure, after the disasters and atrocities of the first half of the 20th century, German nationalism went into a deserved eclipse. So it’s interesting that Barbarians has been made now for contemporary watching; evidently, even in modern Germany, some old ways there are not forgotten.

Yet beyond Germany, the story of peoples invoking the habits of their hearts and rebelling against foreign dominion has been told all over the world.  Sometimes the story has been one of peaceful populist politics, and at other times, it’s been bloody war.

Today, here in the U.S., we’re mostly at peace, and yet the ideal of America as a unified nation is in question; sadly, we seem to have become two nations, one blue, one red. And in this 2020 election season, it appears that the blue nation, richer and more digitally proficient, is poised to overwhelm the poorer and less tech-adept red nation.

Some might ask: Are the blue forces — spearheaded by Big Media, Big Tech, and Big Money—actually more numerous in terms of voters? Indeed, that’s a good question, since most residents of blue states aren’t part of any Big Juggernaut.  That is, being not rich and not connected, they might be red-friendly enough to cheer for someone who speaks to their deepest family values, such as, say, Amy Coney Barrett.

Indeed, it seems fair to say that most people, everywhere, are supportive of tradition and of a folksy conservatism. As such, they are instinctively fearful of the blue bulldozers of cultural radicalism and the chaos that shoots up in the wake of hegemonic flattening.

So why are some of these regular folks voting red, while others are voting blue? Why are so many naturally conservative American tribes voting in opposition to each other? This is the mega-question of 2020, and beyond.

The only thing we know for sure, now, is that if like-minded people, of any tribe or race, can’t find a path to unity, then, in their disunity, they will all be crushed.

The life of Arminius tells us that unity is power — power to defeat an empire. But history can’t tell us what will happen in the future, as to whether or not an American Arminius will arise.

That mystery can only be solved by someone who is well schooled in the ways of the modern world and yet is not a slave to the worst of those ways. That is, someone willing to take history into his, or her, hands — and brave enough to pick up the torch of destiny.

James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.