Is President Trump our second emperor? Former President Obama resembles the statues that Augustus, the first emperor of ancient Rome, distributed for worship. Obama’s calm reign, his effective executive orders and avoidance of conflict, also recall Augustus. President Trump could be Tiberius, the messier successor of Augustus, who preferred Capri to Rome, as Trump prefers Mar-a-Lago to Washington. Unlike Augustus, Tiberius was never declared a god by the Senate.
Behind the funny parallel lies a point. We should admit, without apocalyptic rhetoric, that politics here and elsewhere are moving in an imperial direction. We live in a system of empires, international networks of power, that are not just American but also Chinese, Russian, British, French, Turkish, Iranian, Arab, and even Roman Catholic. Civil religions, the religions of state ceremonies, monuments, and official values, are being adjusted to suit empire in all these places.
Empires are not bad in all respects, and every form of political organization has special evils. Democracy, monarchy, nationalism, socialism, oligarchy, aristocracy all bring good and evil effects. Republics allow many forms of political power to work within a representative government. But successful republics develop into empires. It happened in ancient Athens and Rome, then among 15th-century Venetians. Worldwide empires sprang from republics of the 16th-century Dutch, 17th century English, 18th century Americans, and 19th century French.
Empires are not democratic. Usually, they promote or allow slavery. Elected leaders turn into autocrats, controlling international domains by fiat. Politicians become oligarchs, using public offices to amass wealth. Empires make wonderful monuments, from the Parthenon in Athens and the Pantheon in Rome to our memorials for Washington, Lincoln, Vietnam, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and World War Two. Imperial civil religion is expansionist and inclusive.
Empires are not democratic. Usually, they promote or allow slavery.
An imperial system can retain democratic fluidity, allowing access to power from many directions for talented people. Empires often promote cultural and ethnic pluralism, tolerance, and exchanges of religions, ideas, and arts. Rome showed that states moving from republic to empire may last thousands of years. The Roman Empire actually still continues, spiritually in the Roman Catholic Church and politically in the United States. Our Senate, our capital city, and our mixed form of government take their models from Rome. Every year, our president reports on the state of the union standing between metal fasces that represent the bundles of rods and axes, the instruments of punishment and execution that were carried before Roman consuls.
Presidents since Washington and Jefferson have deployed military power at will. But earlier presidents did not have the power to act immediately as an imperator—an imperial military commander—that presidents now have. Presidents now can attack targets thousands of miles away, without putting any troops at risk, in minutes. Our presidents now command a military with about 49,000 soldiers in Japan, 38,000 in Germany, and 28,000 in South Korea, with eleven aircraft carrier groups and eighteen missile submarines prowling the oceans. We maintain nearly 800 military bases in 70 nations. Only the British have had anything like this imperial reach.
Two rivals of the United States, Russia and China, have both lately modified their republics and revived imperial traditions. Russia had a republic in 1996, when President Clinton helped Boris Yeltsin gain re-election as president. President Putin apparently took revenge in 2016. Within Russia, Putin plays up the eagle from Czarist times and the Russian Orthodox Church. He has alternated as president and prime minister to consolidate an era of one-man control that will likely extend from 1999 through 2024, and possibly beyond.
In the People’s Republic of China, which has a system of leadership teams with term limits, Xi Jinping became Paramount Leader—leader of government bureaucrats, of the Communist Party, and of the military—in 2013. Before Xi, only Chairman Mao, the founding demigod of this Chinese state, and Deng Xiaoping, who turned toward capitalism, have held this title. Xi encourages Confucian traditions, respectful of emperors, in Chinese education. In empires, peace may be enforced without justice. Most imperial leaders feel free to reject democratic norms like press freedom. During an interview with Megyn Kelly that aired on June 4, President Putin challenged Kelly’s right to ask several questions. During and after the first Republican debate in August of 2015, Donald Trump challenged Kelly’s right to question him.
Emperors expect to have the last word. They speak from between the fasces, the rods and axes. But the forms of republics, like the ancient Roman Senate and our own, may persist and retain some power even under emperors. Let us continue to work and to hope for as much personal freedom, political democracy, peace, and tolerance as we can get in this imperial age.
Featured image credit: Emperor Tiberius, by Jastrow. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.