In the Age of Trump, Return to Rome
Recently, historians have used the 20th century to explain the severity of President Trump’s authoritarian behavior; however, to fully understand the dangers of the Trump era, Americans may have to go further back — all the way to ancient Rome.
For centuries, Rome stood as a shining example of republicanism in a world that had been dominated by autocracy. After its establishment in 509 BC, the republic gradually expanded voting rights and established a complex set of checks and balances between its three branches of government. The Roman system has influenced representative governments for centuries, including the United States.
However, the republic met a grave fate in the 1st century BC with the rise of Augustus Caesar. After defeating Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Augustus began to absorb the powers of the republican senate and justice system. He promoted his family as an imperial dynasty, gradually normalizing autocratic rule. By Augustus’ death in 14 BC, popular elections had disappeared. The autocrat had effectively replaced the republic with an empire.
The Roman historian Tacitus documented the early days of the empire, fiercely criticizing the deterioration of republican institutions. Thomas Jefferson, inspired by Tacitus’ courageous criticism, called his work “a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example.” Tacitus’ commitment to political equality deeply influenced the foundation of the United States. Now, the parallels between Augustus and Trump demand a return to Tacitus, one of history’s greatest republicans.
In the Annals, Tacitus explains that Augustus was able to consolidate power because “opposition did not exist” to his rule. Through war, exile, and execution, Augustus had disposed of “all men of spirit” — or, republican leaders with integrity and conviction.
Over the last few months, President Trump has demonstrated an unmistakable Augustan hostility to people of spirit. Within days of his inauguration, Trump fired Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General who refused to defend Trump’s immigration and travel executive order, commonly known as the “Muslim Ban.” Recently, it was revealed that Sally Yates warned the Trump administration that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was “potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.” Within four days of the warning, the impeccable bipartisan prosecutor was axed.
A few weeks later, Trump decided to fire Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. A widely-respected attorney, Bharara was known for his commitment to combating public corruption. In fact, despite being a Democrat, Bharara was in the middle of investigating the powerful Democratic offices of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Initially, Trump told Bharara that he would keep him as a US attorney; however, Bharara was fired soon after he began investigating stock trades by HHS Secretary Tom Price, one of Trump’s cabinet members.
In isolation, these actions are not particularly disturbing — Sally Yates was going to be replaced by Jeff Sessions and many presidents have decided to replace their predecessor’s US attorney nominations. However, the recent firing of James Comey confirms suspicions about Trump’s opposition to independent, honest government officials.
While he has deeply frustrated both Democrats and Republicans, former FBI director Comey has consistently acted in defense of the rule of law. In 2004, Comey bravely stood up to then-President Bush, refusing to certify the legality of important aspects of the NSA program. Ultimately, Comey prevailed and the program was amended to better protect the privacy of the American people. Yet, despite his commitment to accountability and justice, Comey was fired by Trump soon after beginning an investigation into the links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Trump and Augustus undoubtedly share a tyrannical disdain for political opposition; however, the parallels between the eras of Trump and Augustus do not stop there.
Tacitus explains that, after Augustus’ disposal of republican leaders, the remaining “upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially.” After profiting from Augustus’ takeover, these elites decided to submit to the new regime, especially since “the new order was popular in the provinces.”
Today’s Republican Party seems to directly mirror the “upper class survivors” of Rome under Augustus. After riding a wave of populist anger in the 2016 election, leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have demonstrated an appalling lack of conviction. Since taking office, President Trump has shamelessly defied the emoluments clause, obstructed the justice system, and consistently mislead the American people; yet, the leadership of the GOP has put self-interest and party loyalty above the basic principles of American democracy.
Tacitus’ history of the fall of the Roman republic demonstrates the danger of political and moral cowardice in the face of autocratic threats. While Tacitus could not revive the Roman republic, he can provide a warning to our own democracy. Now, it is up to us to listen.