Crossing The Rubicon

In a time before the Roman Empire, Rome existed as a republic. Similar in some ways to the republic we now cherish as our own. Despite being a turbulent period, the Roman Republic survived internal and external threats for nearly 500 years. This was the era of classical Roman civilization where Rome expanded over the whole of the Mediterranean.

Like all republics, Rome feared the overthrow of the government through the actions of an ambitious and unscrupulous military leader. To protect against this possibility the Roman Senate established that no general may bring their legions south of the river Rubicon. The Rubicon marked the norther border between the Roman provinces and Rome proper.

In January of 49 BC Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army. His action precipitated the Roman Civil War and ultimately led to Caesar becoming dictator. “Crossing the Rubicon” has come to mean an action which passes a point of no return, because once Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legion he would either prevail or be guilty of treason and executed.

Fearing not that an unscrupulous general might seize power, but that the nation’s chief executive might use the military to quell internal dissent, the United States has a law analogous to the laws of the Rome. A federal law, the Posse Comitatus Act, limits the powers of the federal government in using military personnel to impose domestic policies within the borders of the United States. The original law made an exception for situations allowed by the Constitution or called for by the Congress of the United States. This protection was weakened in 2006 by the Bush presidency, partially in response to a perceived terrorist threat.

On July 4th of this year President Trump brought tanks and troops to the banks of the Potomac in a display of military force and addressed the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in a celebration of this nation’s founding. This by a President who has already warned of the collapse of the economy, riots and protests should he not remain as President and re-elected. The President has even “joked” about not leaving office should the upcoming election go against him.

This display was decried in the press as unprecedented. That is not perfectly true as there have been a smattering of military displays in Washington DC through the years. Most often to celebrate victory in a war or an inauguration. This demonstration was somewhat unprecedented though because the 4th of July has largely been kept as an apolitical event without overt military displays. Looking back to 1945, a quick search of the internet reveals that the majority of the time Presidents get out of town for the 4th, with golf being a major activity. Honoring the troops, watching fireworks and having a BBQ are other common ways to celebrate the 4th. One notable exception was in 1970 when Richard Nixon played a taped message to the crowd gathered on the National Mall. Tear gas was used to disperse the celebrants and protestors alike.
This is not an article about Donald Trump’s quest to be a dictator, a law on to himself, independent of Congress and the Courts. That is by now a given.

This is an article about the response to his actions.

The uproar against his proposed actions was immediate and came from members of Congress, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, veterans’ groups, members of the US Army, pundits and politicians. Many complained that this was a usurpation of power, a narcissistic need of the President to cloak himself in a display of military might; and then there were the complaints about the cost. Complaining about the cost – really? Complaining that his tanks might break up the concrete is not the point. To use another Roman analogy, complaints about cost are the equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

By successfully ignoring his critics Donald Trump has established a precedent. Next year the show of force will be greater. The tanks will be moving down Constitution Avenue instead of parked, and symbolism will be transformed into intimidation. The cries against this display will have been muffled by the distraction of complaints about broken concrete. It appears to the nation that we are bickering about a few million dollars and not the risk to our democracy. The consequence of the President’s action is lost when we argue about trifles. And the President wins again.

Congress has almost a year to pass legislation forbidding the presence of military displays within the District of Columbia except in times of war on American soil and for the immediate protection of the citizens. I acknowledge that this legislation may never be signed into law. This law would not have protected Rome from Caesar. But Donald Trump is no Julius Caesar.

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Dr. Robert Pretzlaff is an experienced public speaker and lecturer at the national, regional and local level. Have Robert speak at your next event.
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