Trump’s Crossing the Rubicon

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When faced with his own Rubicon moment, will Trump provoke a crisis or will he stand down?

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s disregard for constitutional norms and any legalities per se.

Of course, Mr. Trump was not the first U.S. President to expand executive power at the expense of the legislature. Congress’s authority has been steadily eroding for decades.

Two men constantly pushing the envelope

Similarly, Caesar was not the first Roman leader to cross the Pomerium (the sacred boundary around the city of Rome) with an army, or the first to manhandle a tribune.

However, both men — Julius Caesar and Donald Trump — stood out in their time for pushing the envelope of power recklessly.

And while there is every expectation that future U.S. administrations will repudiate Donald Trump’s excesses, first Trump needs to lay down power.

This in itself may prove the most important test of constitutional order that the U.S. will face under Trump.

A third term for Trump?

Trump has provocatively floated the idea of serving an illegal third term. Surrogates have suggested it more openly.

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified before the U.S. Congress that he feared Trump would not concede if defeated at the polls in a future election.

The COVID 19 dimension

Could such a thing happen? The COVID 19 crisis shows how easily balloting could be disrupted in the case of a real or perceived emergency, and suggests (in the case of Wisconsin’s April election) how little confidence can be placed in the U.S. court system to protect the franchise.

But even without balloting irregularities, Trump has shown himself capable of manufacturing a crisis at election time.

And while it is certainly possible that other Republican leaders would stand up to Trump in this situation, in other matters large and small they have repeatedly shown a shocking willingness, whether due to fear or simple intoxication with power, to fall in line behind Trump and defend his excesses.

Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon

In one of the most iconic moments of Caesar’s biography, in 49 B.C.E. the general — under orders from the Roman Senate to disband his armies — made the cold-blooded decision to lead his army across the Rubicon river into Italy. This plunged the Roman world into civil war.

When faced with his own Rubicon moment, a moment of either laying down power constitutionally or grasping for unprecedented power, will Trump provoke a crisis or will he stand down?

It is quite possible that we won’t know even until sometime after the 2020 elections have been held. But the parallel with Caesar suggests two factors to consider.

Above all, seeking immunity from prosecution

We should always remember that Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon with his army and make himself an outlaw was not made lightly.

Caesar’s hand was forced (as he would have explained it) by the Roman Senate’s refusal to extend his commission as provincial governor. From his perspective, he needed to remain a governor until such time as he could be elected as a consul in Rome.

The reason he could not tolerate a gap between serving in the two offices was that they provided immunity from prosecution. Caesar knew that as soon as he left high office his enemies would bury him in litigation.

Why Trump loves Caesar

Similarly, Trump is facing the very real possibility of prosecution for obstruction of justice, on grounds spelled out in the Mueller report, when he leaves the Oval Office.

Robert Mueller operated under U.S. Department of Justice guidelines that say a sitting President should not be prosecuted for a violation of federal law. But a former President has no such immunity, and Mueller prepared the brief for that future lawsuit.

Thus, fear of prosecution might provide an incentive for Trump to cross his own Rubicon and attempt to hang on to power extra-constitutionally.

Trump versus Caesar’s lust for power

On the other hand, we should not lose sight of one important difference between Caesar and Trump. Unlike Caesar, and unlike some other modern Presidents, Trump does not appear to be particularly motivated by a desire for power for its own sake.

As best we understand the inner workings of Trump’s mind, what he craves most is admiration and respect.

In this way, he resembles Pompey, the third member of the first Roman triumvirate, along with Caesar and Crassus — more than Caesar himself. Whereas Caesar wanted to rule, Pompey merely aspired to be first man in Rome.

When Pompey approached Rome with his own victorious and unopposed army in 62 B.C.E., and faced his own “Rubicon moment,” Senator Cato cagily understood that all that was required to convince Pompey to lay down his arms was to heap him with honors and welcome him into the city as the savior and hero of Rome.

The United States might do the same. Trump’s transition away from the realm of presidential politics and from the temptation of grasping for extra-Constitutional power might be smoothed by the prospect of some other position of honor — say, as a presenter-cum-executive at Fox News.

In defense of Caesar

Defenders of Caesar can point to his many valuable reforms: Caesar did reform the Roman calendar, which with some minor modifications is still the calendar we use today.

Beyond that global achievement, there are also Caesar’s

– reorganization of the Roman provincial government,
– reform of the courts,
– reform of the Roman welfare system,
– renewal of the city by emptying the slums to found colonies abroad and encouraging foreign professionals to immigrate, and
– architectural and cultural/literary initiatives.

Major civilizational progress

All of these measures represent major civilizational progress that give Caesar a lasting legacy well beyond his military conquests.

Caesar thus laid the foundation for a Roman Empire that was quite robust and would continue to rule the Mediterranean world for hundreds of years to come.

The only major area where Caesar’s reforms were lacking was the establishment of clear rules of succession. Transfer of power remained a bloody affair for centuries.

Trump’s record and legacy: Poor and indefensible

How does Trump measure against these standards? With regard to positive accomplishments, there is very little to defend in Trump’s case — and much to be ashamed of.

The centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, the “America first” agenda, has either languished (the much-touted “wall” on the Mexican border) or been implemented in a partial and ham-fisted manner.

There was the selective turning away of travelers from majority-Muslim countries, including some with legal resident status, based on obscure and ever-changing guidelines.

Turning lives upside down

This has turned countless ordinary lives upside down and it calls into question the nation’s ability to honor the most basic commitments it makes to permanent residents and even citizens.

There is the slowdown in processing refugee applications and the requirement that refugees for asylum at the southern border wait on the Mexican side of the border, where there are no facilities, resulting a public health and humanitarian crisis and a boom for Mexican crime rings.

There is the industrial-scale separation of families at the border, and the administration’s inexcusable failure to keep track of which children belong with which parents, making the United States the ward — senselessly and avoidably — of a cohort of hundreds of orphans.

As for the rest of Trump’s 2016 platform: The idea of “repealing and replacing” Obama’s Affordable Care Act was shown to be an empty promise. Almost the only legislative accomplishment Trump can point to is the old Republican standby, the obligatory tax cut.

Trump: Ego gratification, not agenda execution

But Trump’s long list of presidential failures don’t seem to matter, really.

After all, what does Trump’s 2020 campaign slogan “Keep America Great,” despite the chaos of the last three-and-a-half years, tell us?

Above all, it tells us one thing: The 2016 slogan “Make America Great Again” was never really about enacting an agenda, it was simply about glorifying the maverick Trump.

Despite today’s hyper-partisan United States, one must assume that future historians will not defend Trump’s trampling of norms, as they sometimes do Caesar’s, by pointing to “accomplishments,” as admirable ends that justified sordid means.

A final set of questions for the U.S. after Trump

The other defense of Caesar, the idea that the Roman Republic was already dead and that Caesar merely helped to midwife the next phase of Rome’s development, suggests some chilling question for our own time.

1. The United States is undoubtedly at a crossroads. Has Trump grasped something cynical about our future that most of today’s political class is unwilling to see?

2. Is politics now reducible to the formulas of reality television? (I.e., does the public not want facts and expertise, or the responsibility of self-government, but merely a narrative with easily identified villains?).

3. Are elections and electorates so easily manipulated in the era of Internet espionage and social media manipulation that outcomes are open to the highest bidder?

4. Is the United States so intractably divided that the prudent politician will pander to the extremes, and provoke and capitalize on hate and violence?

5. Is the era of American exceptionalism (aka American idealism, American economic strength, American global moral leadership) over, and is the United States so in need of a new, meaningful identity that it will settle for a cheap and ill-fitting nationalism?


We will not attempt to answer these questions, as they will be answered by the American people themselves.

For the time being, we can only, like Cato and Brutus, stand horrified at the prospect that Trump, of all people, could be the harbinger of the next phase of American — and (by extension, lacking a positive U.S. anchor) global — governance.

As long as there is a glimmer of hope for humane self-government, let us hope that decent people of all parties will hold out for it.

Let us wish Trump a prosperous and obscure life after politics, and hope that when the time comes to bury him, and we have gained a little perspective, there will be few still inclined to praise him.


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