The most powerful politician in the most powerful country in the world stands accused of criminal corruption as his term in office comes to an end. His current political office grants him immunity from criminal prosecution but as soon as his term ends he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. Rather than face prosecution he instead declares himself Dictator for Life, plunging his country into civil war and ending the republic he once served.
No, this isn’t the dystopian end to the Trump Presidency. This is the story of how Julius Caesar, charged with corruption and abuse of power, went from elected Consul, and hero of the Roman Republic, to declaring himself dictator for life.
There are parallels between Caesar’s situation at the end of his Governorship, and Trump’s presidency. Recent allegations of corruption have dogged the Trump administration. The office of the President grants Trump immunity from prosecution. However once Trump leaves office he may face criminal charges stemming from corruption allegations.
The end of Republican Rome illustrates how the American democracy stands on a precipice. Will Trump acquiesce and peacefully give up power, whether in 2020 or 2024, and in so doing face the consequences of his alleged criminality? Or will those consequences prove too great for Trump, and like Caesar before him, signal the end of the Republic he currently serves?
Crossing the Rubicon
Gauis Julius Caesar needs no introduction. He was an extraordinary politician and military strategist. Born into a down and out noble family, Caesar rose through the ranks of Roman society to become Consul. The position of Consul, shared between two men, was the head of the Roman Republic, and is compared to the US presidency.
Caesar’s enemies accused him of corruption and abusing his power during his time as Consul. However as Consul, and later as Governor of Gaul (modern day France and northern Italy), Caesar was immune from prosecution. As the end of Caesars Governorship of Gaul approached it was clear that he would face prosecution. Without his Governorship, Caesar would no longer receive immunity, and he would be subject to the law as any other Roman citizen. Rather than face prosecution, Caesar marched his army on Rome, commencing a bloody civil war. Caesar triumphed in his war against the Roman Senate, and declared himself Dictator for Life. Many historians marks this as the end of the Roman Republic.
Et tu, Cohen?
The recent testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, contained allegations of corruption against Trump. Cohen testified that Trump used campaign funds to pay hush money to a porn star. Cohen testified that Trump lied to the FBI and the Justice Department about his knowledge of the 2016 WikiLeaks scandal. In his testimony, Cohen seemed to imply that Trump instructed him to commit perjury.
These are, for now, allegations. No charges have been levelled against Trump. However if any of the allegations have merit, Trump could face criminal charges.
Although, any potential charges would not be levelled until Trump leaves office. There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits the indictment of a sitting president. However, it is the Justice Departments position that no sitting president can be subject to criminal prosecution. Therefore, no matter the allegations levelled against Trump, so long as he is President, he will not face criminal prosecution for his alleged actions.
Our Die is Not Yet Cast
The United States stands on a precipice like Rome before the dictatorial Imperium destroyed the Republic. Our current President is accused of serious criminality. However, the political office he inhabits shields him, for now, from any criminal prosecution. If the crimes levelled against Trump become too great for him to face in his return to the citizenry, we face the same fate of Republican Rome. The US Presidency has become he most powerful office in human history. It controls the worlds biggest military, a vast intelligence community, and a powerful domestic bureaucracy. Yes there is some oversight by the legislature. However we have seen that the GOP is ready to rubber stamp anything Trump puts to them provided he furthers there conservative economic agenda.
At this stage, not much stands between American democracy and the fate of the Roman Republic. Trump may stand down either in 2020 or 2024 and faces whatever consequences may befall him. It is hard to conceive that a president would refuse to step down at the end of their mandated term. However the office has grown so powerful that it isn’t clear if America’s institutions could stop them if they refused to step down.
We must hope that American democracy prevails through its current constitutional crisis. However once it resolves, we must take action to ensure it never happens again. First and foremost, we must democratize the President’s powers. The power to declare war, the ability to use nuclear weapons, oversight of the intelligence and homeland security bureaucracy. These powers must return to the people through the legislature. The American people should never have to fear one man having such power that he could declare himself Dictator for Life as did Caesar.
Second, a sitting president cannot be immune from criminal prosecution. The American people cannot abide a President using their office to shield them from the consequences of their criminal actions. This immunity creates a destablizing hazard within the American political system whereby a criminal President could see it more in their interest to end democracy than to face the consequences of their actions. In addition, if the powers of the presidency democratized, criminally prosecuting would not destablize the government.
The Trump presidency has created a crisis in American politics. If it does not end democracy, we must repair the institutions that have failed. Without democratizing the President’s power, and revoking their immunity, the country will continue its constitutional crisis.