Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Is Trump Our Emperor? Events Mirror Fall of Roman Republic.
The-Conversation
By The Conversation
Published 4 years ago on
February 15, 2020

Share

The U.S. Senate has made its judgment in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, acquitting the president. Fifty two of 53 senators in the Republican majority voted to acquit the president on the abuse of power charge and all 53 Republican senators voted to acquit on the obstruction of Congress charge.
All 47 Democratic senators voted to convict the president on both charges. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah was the only Republican voting to convict for abuse of power.

Timothy Joseph

The Conversation 

The Republican senators’ speedy exoneration of Trump marks perhaps the most dramatic step in their capitulation to the president over the past three years.
That process, as I wrote in The Conversation last fall, recalls the ancient Roman senate’s compliance with the autocratic rule of the emperors and its transformation into a body largely reliant on the emperors’ whims.
Along with the senatorial fealty that was again on display, there was another development that links the era of the Roman Republic’s transformation into an autocratic state with the ongoing political developments in the United States. It’s a development that may point to where the country is headed.

Leader is the State

Trump’s lawyers argued that the president’s personal position is inseparable from that of the nation itself. This is similar to the notion that took hold during the ascendancy of the man known as Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, who was in power from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14.

Photo of Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who led the GOP response in the impeachment trial, leaves the Senate floor on Feb. 4, 2020. (Alex Edelman/Getty Images)
The Republican senators’ speedy exoneration of Trump marks perhaps the most dramatic step in their capitulation to the president over the past three years.
Trump defense attorney Alan Dershowitz asserted that “abuse of power” by the president is not an impeachable offense. A central part of Dershowitz’s argument was that “every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest” and that “if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
This inability to separate the personal interests of a leader from the interests of the country he or she leads has powerful echoes in ancient Rome.
There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.

Oversight Becomes Harassment

Much of Rome’s decline into one-man rule can be observed in a series of developments during the time of Augustus, who held no formal monarchical title but only the vague designation “princeps,” or “first among equals.”
But in fact the senate had ceded him both power (“imperium” in Latin) over Rome’s military and the traditional tribune’s power to veto legislation. Each of these powers also granted him immunity from prosecution. He was above the law.
Augustus’ position thus gave him exactly the freedom from oversight – or what Trump calls “presidential harassment” – that the president demands. Such immunity is also the sort that Richard Nixon seemed to long for, most famously in his post-presidency declaration that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
In Augustus’ time the idea also emerged that the “princeps” and the Roman state were to a great extent one and the same. The identity of the one was growing to become inseparable from the identity of the other.
So, for example, under Augustus and then his successor Tiberius, insults against the emperor could be considered acts of treason against the state, or, more officially, against “the majesty of the Roman people.”

In fact the senate had ceded him both power (“imperium” in Latin) over Rome’s military and the traditional tribune’s power to veto legislation. Each of these powers also granted him immunity from prosecution. He was above the law.
A critic of the “princeps” – be it in unflattering words or in the improper treatment of his image – was subject to prosecution as an “enemy of the people.”
A physical demonstration of the emerging union of the “princeps” and the state came in the construction of a Temple of Roma and Augustus in cities across the Mediterranean region.
Here the personification of the state as a goddess, Roma, and the “princeps” Augustus were closely aligned and, what is more, deified together. The message communicated by such a pairing was clear: If not quite one and the same, the “princeps” and the state were intimately identified, possessing a special, abiding authority through their union.
Many higher-ups in the Trump administration, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to former Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have spoken publicly of Trump as a divinely chosen figure. And Trump himself declared earlier this year, “I do really believe we have God on our side.”
To this point, however, a Temple of Lady Liberty and Trump along the lines of the Temple of Roma and Augustus has not yet been constructed.
But the Senate impeachment trial has shown us how far along the identification of leader and state has moved in the Trump era. A central part of the president’s impeachment defense is, as we have seen, that the personal will of the president is indistinguishable from the will of the state and the good of the people.
Will the GOP-led Senate’s endorsement of this defense clear a path for more of the manifestations – and consequences – of authoritarianism? The case of the Roman Republic’s rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily that transformation can occur.
About the Author 
Timothy Joseph, Associate Professor of Classics, College of the Holy Cross. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

DON'T MISS

Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson Pledged $10M for Maui Wildfire Survivors. They Gave Much More.

DON'T MISS

Did Fresno Unified’s Biggest Contractor Not Pay Its Workers? Company Still Gets Millions After Civil Penalty

DON'T MISS

Biden Marks Earth Day by Going After GOP, Announcing $7 Billion in Federal Solar Power Grants

DON'T MISS

Fresno Unified Says It Has No Superintendent Succession Plan Despite HR Leader’s Claim

DON'T MISS

Work Starts on Bullet Train Line From Las Vegas to LA

DON'T MISS

Trustees to Vote on New Fresno High Gym, Bullard Security Fence. Who Were the Low Bidders?

DON'T MISS

Will CA Lawmakers Crack Down on Spending by Utility Companies?

DON'T MISS

Supreme Court Will Take Up the Legal Fight Over Ghost Guns, Firearms Without Serial Numbers

DON'T MISS

Express Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection, Announces Store Closures

DON'T MISS

Will There Be a Third Measure E? What Richard Spencer Says.

UP NEXT

Californians Worry About Crime, Setting up a Ballot Measure Showdown

UP NEXT

McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines Are So Unreliable They’re a Meme. They Might Also Be a Climate Solution.

UP NEXT

Will State AG Rob Bonta Jump Into 2026 Race for CA Governor?

UP NEXT

Local Leaders Must Put Their Shoulders Into Making Fresno ‘Education City USA’

UP NEXT

Carbon Capture Isn’t Nearly as ‘Green’ as Fossil Fuel Promoters Make It Sound

UP NEXT

CA’s High Construction Costs Limit Housing. A Supreme Court Decision Might Help

UP NEXT

A Fresno Edition of Monopoly? That’s Capitalism at Work, Baby!

UP NEXT

Biden’s Embrace of Trump’s Tariffs Could Spell Trouble for His Reelection: Fareed Zakaria

UP NEXT

‘Digital Democracy’ Project Penetrates California’s Opaque Political Processes

UP NEXT

While California Politicians Skirmish Over Housing, the Shortage Keeps Growing

Fresno Unified Says It Has No Superintendent Succession Plan Despite HR Leader’s Claim

12 hours ago

Work Starts on Bullet Train Line From Las Vegas to LA

13 hours ago

Trustees to Vote on New Fresno High Gym, Bullard Security Fence. Who Were the Low Bidders?

Local Education /

15 hours ago

Will CA Lawmakers Crack Down on Spending by Utility Companies?

15 hours ago

Supreme Court Will Take Up the Legal Fight Over Ghost Guns, Firearms Without Serial Numbers

15 hours ago

Express Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection, Announces Store Closures

15 hours ago

Will There Be a Third Measure E? What Richard Spencer Says.

16 hours ago

Melvin and Matzah: Giants Manager Recalls Childhood Passover

16 hours ago

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass Safe After Suspect Breaks Into Official Residence, Police Say

17 hours ago

Newsom Wants to Make It Easier for Arizona Women to Get a California Abortion

17 hours ago

Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson Pledged $10M for Maui Wildfire Survivors. They Gave Much More.

Lana Vierra misses the swing set at her Lahaina home, which was reduced to ashes in the wildfires that swept through her community last summ...

11 hours ago

11 hours ago

Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson Pledged $10M for Maui Wildfire Survivors. They Gave Much More.

12 hours ago

Did Fresno Unified’s Biggest Contractor Not Pay Its Workers? Company Still Gets Millions After Civil Penalty

12 hours ago

Biden Marks Earth Day by Going After GOP, Announcing $7 Billion in Federal Solar Power Grants

12 hours ago

Fresno Unified Says It Has No Superintendent Succession Plan Despite HR Leader’s Claim

13 hours ago

Work Starts on Bullet Train Line From Las Vegas to LA

Local Education /
15 hours ago

Trustees to Vote on New Fresno High Gym, Bullard Security Fence. Who Were the Low Bidders?

15 hours ago

Will CA Lawmakers Crack Down on Spending by Utility Companies?

15 hours ago

Supreme Court Will Take Up the Legal Fight Over Ghost Guns, Firearms Without Serial Numbers

MENU

CONNECT WITH US

Search

Send this to a friend