Obamus Caesar

May 25, 2009

In 27 B.C., Augustus Caesar became the first emperor of Rome, marking the final end of the Roman Republic. While officially praising and respecting Rome’s republican laws and traditions, he laid the groundwork for five centuries of autocracy that have become synonymous with despotism and corruption.

It has been common since the founding of the American republic to compare and contrast it with that of ancient Rome, and the comparison can be entertaining, and maybe even informative, if we don’t try to make the analogy closer than it really is. The American presidency is not, of course, an hereditary monarchy. The powers granted to the office are not absolute. America is not Rome.

Yet the Roman emperor’s office did not start out as an absolute or hereditary monarchy either. In fact, Augustus and his immediate successors never held any such office as “Emperor;” Rome had no such office. They were called “Imperator,” but that simply meant commander of Rome’s legions, like our own “Commander in Chief.” The Roman Imperator didn’t even have the domestic authority wielded by the American President. Augustus became “emperor,” not through succession to a throne, but by adept political maneuvering and deal-making–and the shedding of just the right blood, of course. He held power and authority that are nowhere described or granted in Rome’s laws or traditions. Rome was a republic on paper long after its first emperor had consolidated his power.

At what point was the Republic over, and the Empire established? Did Romans during the reign of Augustus know that the Republic was dead? Surely, they must have. They lamented its passing while Julius Caesar still lived. We can measure the death of the Republic by the disappearance of those laments. After the civil wars were over, and Augustus was established in power, he “restored” the Senate, by which we mean that he told the Senate and the people publicly that power was back in their hands, while privately making sure that his hands were the ones on all the important levers. Gradually the laments over the death of the Republic were replaced by praise for its continued vitality, and Romans once again spoke in praise of the Republic and the rights of free Romans.

It was a sham, of course. We can look back and with a superior smile acknowledge what everyone knows: that after the ascension of Augustus, the Romans may have said they were “free citizens” of a “free Republic,” but they were in fact subjects of an autocrat, the first in a line that would continue for five centuries and stand forever after as the paradigm of despotism.

Rome did not declare itself an autocracy; its monarchy was furtive. Its citizens wanted to think that they were free people, that their government was constitutionally limited by its laws and traditions, that there were “no kings in Rome.” We can chuckle, but what will posterity say of us?

On May 21st, President Barak Obama proposed a new policy of “prolonged detention,” a euphemism for indefinite imprisonment without trial or charge. His proposal is a breathtaking power-grab, a long step beyond the worst excesses of the Bush Administration. What’s more, he proposed it as the capstone of a speech, delivered in front of the document itself, praising the lasting value of the “rule of law” and the limits placed on government power by the U.S. Constitution. That’s irony that you can feel in your belly.

Perhaps it’s as I began to think during the presidency of George W. Bush: perhaps the American electorate really doesn’t care about the Constitution anymore. That numbness has been coming for generations. Presidents and congresses have been trampling the boundaries of the Constitution and tearing holes in it almost since it was ratified. Each generation extends new outrages past the outer limits of the last, until we are asked to accept legal interpretations of its once-plain language that should embarrass any reasonable person.

Thomas Jefferson fretted over the Louisiana Purchase, suffering misgivings because he didn’t believe the Constitution granted him the power to do it. 139 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court could rule with straight faces (in Wickard v. Filburn) that the commerce clause of the Constitution grants to the federal government the power to regulate what a man does with grain produced by his own hands on his own land for his own use. By that point Americans were already living with a system of government whose relationship to its charter was tenuous, if not surreal.

At least, though, politicians had to say that they respected the Constitution. That seems now to have changed. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he is rumored to have said “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!” The remark itself is not all that interesting. No one who was present at the meeting was willing to go on record saying that it happened (though more than one was willing to say so privately), and even if we could prove that he did say it, people say all sorts of ill-considered things without dire consequences. What is more interesting is that the American public didn’t much seem to care. That remarkable utterance stimulated no public outrage whatsoever.

Evidently, the same public whose elected representatives had impeached a president for cheating on his wife couldn’t bring themselves to care whether his successor meant what he said when he swore to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution of the United States. Evidently, Americans now regard that oath as a bit of theater required by tradition, and nothing more, just as the Romans felt obliged to keep voting certain offices to Augustus, though there was certainly no danger that he would lose power without them.

At the end of that president’s term of office, during the election to replace him, only one candidate made an issue of the Constitution’s limits on federal power. That candidate was dismissed early as a crank. His critics were perhaps premature; Ron Paul went on to raise far more money, attract far more media attention, and make far more salient points than anyone expected him to. Still, the common consensus remained that he was a fringe candidate, if not a bit of a nut. And why? Because he was resolutely committed to the limits the U.S. Constitution places on governmental authority. How quaint!

We have passed a turning point. The common knowledge is not what it was when I was a child. Once, people took for granted that the Constitution seriously limited the powers of government officials. That notion was wishful thinking, even then; Civil War and its attendant calamities, economic depression, and facile court rulings had long since turned the Constitution into a paper tiger. But public servants were at least expected to act out a pantomime of respect for it.

We’re in a new era now. Barack Obama can stand in front of the Constitution and make a lovely speech praising its virtues and the “rule of law” as a prelude to calling for an act of naked despotism. Oh, the usual commentators are shocked and appalled, but there will be another news story tomorrow. And anyway, our own Lex Galbina, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, is still on the books, along with more than a century of retreat from the clear limits and provisions of the Constitution.

Augustus is generally regarded as the first Roman emperor, although he never officially held any such office, and although Rome went on for some time pretending that it was still a republic.

Is that where we are now? A candidate in America wouldn’t get far by openly scoffing at the Constitution in so many words, but it’s already okay to scoff at those who take the Constitution seriously. It’s okay, once you’re elected, to say “it’s just a goddamn piece of paper,” or to laud it with praises and in the same breath grab for despotic power.

Hail Obamus Caesar, Consul of the American Republic.