The more decadent a society becomes, the more easily it can be blinded to its own decay. History is littered with countless civilizations that saw their grandest, most ostentatious periods precipitate an unflattering, often gruesome decline. The triumphs and conquests of Rome gave way to barbarian invasions and civil wars, while Britain’s dominance as the modern world’s first superpower shattered into over 40 independent nations and as Brexit painfully inches closer, an increasingly fraught former metropole.
We needn’t look very far to see such decadence repeated. Our current elite is an eerie parallel of those former upper echelons that saw their grandest displays of awe before their inevitable collapse. Our current administration is no different from the ruling elite of the past — the constantly evolving Trump cabinet, when measured by collective wealth, is the richest in modern U.S. history and seemingly just as out of touch.
No one exemplifies this better than Louise Linton, the wife of current Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin. Her now infamous 2017 Instagram post of her stepping off of a government jet, accompanied by the hashtags of luxury brands such as Valentino and Tom Ford, did little to help establish her relatability with the public. Yet, it was the Hermès Birkin bag swinging from her arm, routinely regarded as the world’s most expensive purse, that drew the strongest historical parallels.
Marie Antoinette, the French queen whose spending and decadence helped ruin the last shreds of credibility of the ancien régime, was also tarnished by such scandal. The “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” was an incident in which court gossip and attempts at personal gain created such a toxic crisis that, by its end, a cardinal had been discredited, the Pope enraged and a court noble banished as a slave aboard a galley. The attempt by a Confidence trickster named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy to defraud the crown jewelers of $15 million worth of diamonds in today’s value permanently tarnished the royal family’s credibility with its subjects. Though the Queen was confirmed to be innocent, the damage was irreparable.
Marie Antoinette’s inability to extinguish the idea that she had perpetrated an extravagant fraud for her own gain parallels Linton’s behavior in her post’s deleted comments, where she replied to critical users that she and her husband had “given more to the economy” than they ever would. Her reply to one criticism with “adorably out of touch,” accompanied by a heart-eyed emoji, was unintentional self-satire at its finest.
As impeachment proceedings draw closer and complaints of exploiting the system for personal gain are lodged from both sides of the political spectrum, one can’t help but wonder if we are approaching our own precarious zenith. But that is the issue with decay: by the time the rot has been found, the body is already infected. It is no secret that our society is increasingly polarized politically and economically, but only when we address our wounds can we begin to heal. History has taught us that ignorance is deadly, but it also lacks substantial examples of how to stop a society from falling over the cliff. We can recognize our decadence, but can we save ourselves from it?