Parallels drawn between ancient Rome and the United States are nothing novel and vary from prosaic to alarmist. But Rome’s fateful slide from republic to empire increasingly appears to augur Washington’s crumbling ethicality.
Two decades ago, both houses of Congress clamored for President Clinton’s impeachment as seedy details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal came to light. As sordid a moment in American annals as that proved, it amounted to a shamelessly lied-about dalliance — a moral transgression previously committed by numerous presidents and one made laughable by Trumpian standards.
But those who clamored loudest for Mr. Clinton’s impeachment — Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham among them — are largely those who remain quietest while President Trump contemptuously disregards the Constitution and imperils the very democratic principles that their congressional seats were designed to defend.
Such “tidal” morality transcends Washington’s usual partisan games. Demagoguery of an insidiousness never before seen on these shores has transformed the GOP from the party of law and order to a barrel of Benedict Arnolds. Classically Roman in attitude and appetites, Donald Trump crossed the Potomac championing mendacity as a virtue. Veni, vidi, mendaci. Yet even the most gifted charlatan couldn’t foment this dystopian metamorphosis alone; Capitol Hill opportunists eagerly jumped aboard the Trump train once it pulled into the White House, and they display no intention of throwing the switch.
This is a sea change in government, an abandonment of ethics and values on a scale very possibly not seen since Caesar’s rise to power. It’s also a domestic variety of dastardly Chamberlainian appeasement — and though thankfully not equal in consequence, it’s equal in principle, encouraging Trump to dare increasingly brazen violations of his oath of office.
The oft-cited Department of Justice policy against indicting a sitting president contradicts both America’s ethos and sheer common sense. Our tri-branched government, devised precisely for safeguarding the nation from a power-hungry chief executive, is rendered moot if Congress declines its duty. The founding fathers didn’t risk their necks to rid the colonies of a foreign despot only to suffer a homegrown version — and it’s an affront to every American to pretend with this “policy” that they did. Yet Congress, suddenly a paragon of poltroonery, seems now the ornamental assembly of a third-world backwater.
As cowardly or complicit legislators allow Mr. Trump to reap emoluments, reapportion taxpayer dollars, and proffer shady deals with foreign powers, the Constitution grows ever-feebler and Congress’ moral standing erodes. These Trumpian misdeeds, among many others, are exactly the class of malefactions that gutted Roman commitment to the republic, and the now-ironically-named republicans’ glib refusal to impede Mr. Trump — in violation of their oath of office — is tantamount to the Roman Senate’s granting Julius Caesar triumph after triumph, on its way to appointing him dictator for life. (It’s worth recalling that Mr. Trump “joked” numerous times of running for a third term or simply refusing to vacate the White House — unsettling remarks that reek of Caesarian intent, and which his party does nothing to quell.)
A rude awakening awaits those who think America will return to normalcy once Donald Trump departs the political stage. The poisonous effects of his presidency will be felt for years after, from weaponizing virtually every political issue to the damage wreaked by environmental rollbacks to the stratospheric deficit to wounded national prestige and alliances. Even Mr. Trump’s repugnant crudeness and utter lack of empathy — emulated by his worst disciples — will spawn imitators in his absence.
Our Constitution’s resiliency never truly had been tested before Mr. Trump’s ascendancy, so many simply assume it will emerge unharmed. But flouting the Constitution with no congressional repercussions creates a deeply troubling precedent that endangers the core of American liberty. Once the Constitution has incurred all manner of unchecked abuse from Mr. Trump as his party turns a blind eye, how can we expect its presumedly ironclad words to remain enforceable? What’s to stop future presidents of either party from repeating his derelictions? Mr. Trump has already soiled the Constitution with insolent disobedience; what crimes a second term will embolden him to commit likely will dwarf those already perpetrated.
History is a guide — sometimes a warning — on how to avoid the calamitous mistakes of our ancestors. But we too often forget to remember, and the world can shake from our complacency.
Randy S. Robbins (email@example.com) is a writer and editor.