Is Trump our Emperor? Events Mirror Fall of the Roman Republic. – GV Wire

The United States Senate rendered its judgment in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, acquitting the president. Fifty-two of the 53 Republican majority senators voted to acquit the president of the abuse of power charge and all 53 Republican senators voted to acquit the obstruction of the congressional charge.
All 47 Democratic senators voted to convict the president on both counts. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah was the only Republican to be convicted of abuse of office.

Timothy Joseph

The conversation

Trump’s swift exoneration by Republican senators marks perhaps the most dramatic step in their surrender to the president in the past three years.
This process, as I wrote in The Conversation last fall, is reminiscent of the ancient Roman Senate’s conformity to the autocratic rule of the emperors and its transformation into a body largely dependent on the whims of the emperors.
Along with the senatorial loyalty that was once again on display, there was another development that connects the era of the transformation of the Roman Republic into an autocratic state with the ongoing political developments in the United States. It is a development that can indicate where the country is heading.

The head is the state

Trump’s lawyers have argued that the president’s personal position is inseparable from that of the nation itself. This is similar to the notion that arose during the ascendancy of the man known as the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, who was in power from 31 BC to 14 AD.

Photo by Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who led the GOP response to the impeachment trial, leaves the Senate on February 4, 2020 (Alex Edelman / Getty Images)

Trump’s swift exoneration by Republican senators marks perhaps the most dramatic step in their surrender to the president in the past three years.

Trump’s defense attorney Alan Dershowitz has asserted that the president’s “abuse of power” is not an impeachment offense. A central part of Dershowitz’s argument was that “every public servant I know believes his election is in the public interest” and that “if a president does something that he thinks will help him get elected in the the public interest cannot be the sort of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.
This inability to separate the personal interests of a ruler from the interests of the country he ruled resonates powerfully in ancient Rome.
There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever took place. Rather, there has been an erosion of republican institutions, a constant slippage over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within an individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.

Surveillance becomes harassment

Much of Rome’s decline towards one-man rule can be seen in a series of developments in the time of Augustus, which held no official monarchical title but only the vague designation “princeps” or “first among” peers”.
But in fact, the Senate had ceded to him both power (“imperium” in Latin) over the army of Rome and the traditional power of the tribune to veto legislation. Each of these powers also granted him immunity from prosecution. He was above the law.
So Augustus’ position has given him exactly the freedom of surveillance – or what Trump calls “presidential harassment” – that the president demands. Such immunity is also what Richard Nixon seemed to aspire to, especially in his post-presidential statement that “when the president does it, it means it’s not illegal.”
During the time of Augustus, the idea also arose that the “princes” and the Roman state were to a large extent one and the same. The identity of one grew to become inseparable from the identity of the other.
Thus, for example, under Augustus then his successor Tiberius, insults against the emperor could be considered as acts of treason against the State, or, more officially, against “the majesty of the Roman people”.

In fact, the Senate had ceded to him both power (“imperium” in Latin) over the army of Rome and the traditional power of the tribune to veto legislation. Each of these powers also granted him immunity from prosecution. He was above the law.

A critic of the “princeps” – whether in unflattering words or in the inappropriate treatment of his image – has been prosecuted as an “enemy of the people”.
A physical demonstration of the budding union of the “princeps” and the state occurred in the construction of a temple of Rome and Augustus in towns in the Mediterranean region.
Here, the personification of the state as 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 “princes” and the state were intimately identified, possessing a special and permanent authority by their union.
Many senior officials in the Trump administration, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to former Energy Secretary Rick Perry to former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have spoken publicly of Trump as a divinely chosen figure. And Trump himself said earlier this year: “I really believe we have God on our side. “
At this point, however, a Temple of Liberty and Trump modeled on the Temple of Rome and Augustus has yet to be built.
But the Senate impeachment trial has shown us just how much head and state identification has progressed in the Trump era. As we have seen, a central element of the president’s defense of impeachment is that the president’s personal will is indistinguishable from the will of the state and the good of the people.
Will the approval of this defense by the GOP-led Senate pave the way for more manifestations – and consequences – of authoritarianism? The case of the rapid slide of the Roman Republic into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily this 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.

David C. Barham