After President Donald Trump’s impeachment acquittal, Democrats and liberals have joined Never Trumper Steve Schmidt in claiming that the president is “above the law” and has become something more than a president, like, I don’t know, an “emperor,” mayhaps?
Many have long suggested that America — a historic republic in some degree fashioned on the model of ancient Rome which has risen to effective hegemony in the known world, also like ancient Rome — is echoing the decline and fall of the Roman Republic and proceeding toward an autocracy. There are weaknesses in this comparison, but the political animosity and tribalism prevalent in America today do echo a terrifying time in Roman history.
Americans fear that the president might make himself a dictator or a god-emperor like the Divine Augustus. Schmidt calls Trump an “emperor” and Republicans warned that Obama’s abuses of power made him something like a king. This hyperbole is false, of course. Even at their worst, both Obama and Trump have remained presidents, wielding perhaps more executive authority than the Founders envisioned and more than the Constitution granted, but crucially checked by other branches of government and the states.
Trump is no Julius Caesar — hinting at declaring himself king while repeatedly refusing the crown — and he is no Augustus — making himself emperor while paying lip service to the Senate. He may be a far more peaceful version of Sulla, however.
Before Julius Caesar and his nephew Octavian — later Augustus — would set Rome on the course toward empire, the dictators Marius and Sulla fought a bloody civil war for Rome. Marius and Sulla, both war heroes, would alternately control Rome, imposing an iron fist by publishing the names of political foes whose lives and property were forfeit. Taking power after Marius, Sulla tried to institute reforms to strengthen the Senate and prevent future dictators, but the civil war between the two men would set the republic on a path to empire, unleashing the ambitions of men like Pompey the Great, Caesar, Mark Antony, and ultimately Augustus.
By the time of the second emperor, Tiberius, Rome had fully accepted the rule of one man. Tiberius tried to hand over control back to the Senate, but they refused. He ultimately left an effective vizier, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, in control of Rome while he retired to Capri. Tiberius and Sejanus became very unpopular, but even after the Senate executed Sejanus, they did not try to reverse the imperial administration. It seems the Senate lost the will to govern, preferring the rule of one man. When the infamous tyrant Caligula died, the Senate debated not whether or not to reassert its power, but which person they should choose as the emperor.
Neither Obama nor Trump has executed their political enemies, but America’s current tribalism does echo the kind of partisan fear Rome experienced in the civil wars of Marius and Sulla. Conservatives are afraid to identify themselves as such in many sectors of society, fearful that Democrats will brand them as “hateful” or “Nazis” due to their political views. Liberals are so suspicious of social conservatives that they demonized Chick-fil-A even after the fast-food chain stopped funding allegedly “anti-gay” groups.
Due to the Progressive movement, the Constitution’s system of checks and balances has slowly eroded over the past 100 years. President Woodrow Wilson launched “War Socialism” with a government take-over of industries during World War I. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal usurped the legislative power of Congress. Indeed, the unanimous Supreme Court decision Schechter Poultry Corp v. United States (1935) struck down a law that gave Congress’s lawmaking power to FDR’s administration.
FDR’s notorious court-packing threat bullied the Supreme Court into submission, permanently subverting Congress’s legislative power. While Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump have rightly slashed federal regulations, they have not passed a provision like the REINS Act, which would return some of that vital legislative power to Congress. Like the Roman Senate before it, Congress does not mind ceding its legislative power to the executive branch, because crafting laws involving economic regulations is hard work.
Congress has a perverse system: Instead of passing regulations, they pass vague laws calling for goals like “clean air” and establishing an administrative agency to make those regulations. That way, Congress voted for “clean air,” but they did not vote for the specific job-killing regulation that harms businesses. They can blame the agency for being too harsh, shifting the responsibility while taking credit for the overall scheme.
Meanwhile, liberal judges have redefined the Constitution to create new “rights” with which the Founders would have vehemently disagreed. For instance, when the Fourteenth Amendment was enshrined in the Constitution, states were passing laws to clamp down on the heinous practice of abortion. Yet in 1973, the Supreme Court claimed the Constitution included an “unenumerated right” to abortion — in the Fourteenth Amendment!
Trump’s presidency represents a belated attempt to return to the Constitution. His originalist judges and justices will uphold the plain meaning of the Constitution, not subvert it to further their political goals. His slashing of regulations helps limit the administrative state.
Yet, like the reforms of Sulla, these important reforms are far from perfect and are likely to be subverted by the next president, especially if he or she is a Democrat.
While Trump has slashed regulations, he has not passed the REINS Act, so executive agencies continue to essentially make law. While Trump is restoring the federal judiciary, liberals are crying wolf, claiming this has more to do with forcing conservative issues than returning to the plain text of the Constitution. Recently, Trump redirected military funds to the construction of the border wall — even though Congress explicitly refused to grant him funding for that wall. This is a far worse abuse of power than anything in the Ukraine scandal.
Contrary to the liberal and Never Trump scaremongering, Trump is not an emperor, and many of his actions are returning the American federal government to the limits of the Constitution. Yet, also like Sulla, Trump’s limited reforms are not likely to prevent the Constitution’s decline.
America is not Rome, and it seems the decline of the U.S. Constitutional republic will not be anywhere near as violent as the decline of the Roman Senate. Yet partisanship and disregard for the limits of the fundamental law of the land are prevalent today as they were in the sunset days of the Roman Republic.
America is not destined to follow in Rome’s footsteps and reject its Constitution, but citizens should be concerned. Liberals and conservatives need to unite behind the plain text of the Constitution, support Congress’s lawmaking power and originalism in the courts. Trump needs to champion the REINS Act, and he needs to accept that Congress has the power of the purse. When America abandons the limits of the Constitution, it empowers both liberals and conservatives to abuse their power.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.