Donald Trump and the Demise of the Roman Republic by Charles Uphaus

Donald Trump and the Demise of the Roman Republic

What?? Yes, DT and Julius Caesar are separated by over 2000 years in time, and no one but Donald Trump himself and a few of his toadies ever claimed that he is anything like a military genius or accomplished author. But, as we enter 2020 and think about where we are and where we may be headed, a lot of similarities emerge: both individuals share total amorality, overweening ambition and vanity, and the wealth to buy a lot of favorable publicity. And most importantly, like Julius Caesar, DT recognized the vulnerability of the prevailing political system, with its perceived corruption and inequities, and saw how easily it could all be kicked over by an appeal to popular resentment and fear, aided and abetted by a few unscrupulous, self-serving allies. Unlike the great tyrants of the 20th century, neither Caesar nor Trump were/are ideology-driven. That’s why the “fascist” analogy is wrong. Caesar’s “ideology” was, simply, Caesar; Trump’s is Trump.

Of course, the decline of the Roman republic began generations before Julius Caesar, just as the decline in public trust in the institutions of government and the press in this country goes back at least to the 1970s. Caesar and Trump represent culminations of trends, not their instigators. 

And now? “A republic, if you can keep it,” was Ben Franklin’s reported response as to what kind of government the constitutional convention had come up with. We may now be dependent on a few dozen senators who will determine whether or not we keep the republic he and the other founding fathers bequeathed us.  

That’s because impeachment that’s not followed by removal from office may constitute the equivalent of Caesar’s assassination — a temporarily successful but ultimately futile effort. Those who know history know what followed: a prolonged civil war leading finally to the establishment, at the hands of Caesar’s equally ambitious and amoral nephew Octavian/Augustus, of absolute monarchy in everything but name. Augustus and his successors were careful to rule, not as kings, but in the name of the senate, whose continued acquiescence they assured through an adroit application of carrots and sticks, bribes and threats (including mob violence, the modern equivalent of which is the threat of being “primaried.”) 

Failure at this point to remove Trump from office would serve to embolden him and his followers to undertake further, and possibly irreparable, assaults on the nation’s norms and institutions, and would lay to rest, permanently, the threat of removal from office following impeachment. If the president’s actions – both corruptly using public resources and coercing foreign involvement to subvert the election process – do not warrant removal from office, nothing ever will. This president and his successors, with the senate serving as enabler and cheering section, would have near total license during their terms of office to stack the federal judiciary, muzzle the media (those primary constraints on the executive), and press the justice department entirely into their service. Welcome to imperial Rome.

The founding fathers knew their history, both ancient and recent. The constitution they devised was meant to give us the best shot at avoiding tyranny. An ambitious, amoral and unfettered chief executive combined with a supine senate is their worst nightmare come true.

By Charles Uphaus

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