In a couple of recent blog posts, I mused about two unpleasant possibilities in the present American political environment. One was about the rise of American empire and the decline of its republican system of government as happened in ancient Rome.
The other blog post was about the real and tragic possibility of the US armed forces evicting a reluctant Donald Trump who will become a squatter at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue if he will not leave on inauguration day in the wake of a Biden victory (my apologies for the title, I should have said 2021 instead of 2020). Unfortunately, many journalists have had to go down this same rabbit hole in the last three years as Trump turns the United States into his personal banana republic.
As a former military intelligence officer and historian, I consume vast amounts of such information. Often, military intelligence personnel in and out of active service have turned their eyes to third world nations to predict and observe coups. Now, we get the possibility to do it with the American republic that is now finishing its transition into full blown empire.
It is with the above in mind that I read a letter to the editor on the website Defense One. Entitled “. . . All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic”: An Open Letter to Gen. Milley,” the letter advises the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to remember his oath of office and that he may have to evict Donald Trump if he illegally squats in the White House after 12 pm on January 20, 2021. Certainly, all of us who have served in the military or in civilian offices have taken this stern oath.
In the essay, former officers John Nagl and Paul Yingling solemnly list Trump’s crimes and the unprecedented crisis he has caused for America’s republican experiment. I emphasize the word “republican” with a small “r” to remind you that the United States is not a democracy like Athens. Rather, it is a republic with a complicated system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, like the Roman Republic, many aspects of this complicated system protect an increasingly entrenched oligarchy. In ancient Rome, this resulted in the decay of the institutions of representative government and eventually in an empire openly ruled by an emperor. Unfortunately, as in ancient Rome, is Donald Trump’s real crime in the eyes of his enemies simply that he is doing the theft and corruption openly? Perhaps his critics may be protesting too loudly? Trust me, I don’t love Trump, but I also have no love for the military industrial complex that is killing the country in a manner worse than COVID-19.
In the modern era, the efforts of the 1% to grab more resources overseas have required an expansion of the American military with all of the expense of blood and treasure of its members and at the expense of civilian rights with an increasing intensity in the wake of World War 2. This has been even more so in the last 20 years of the war on terror. No one can deny the growth of a domestic security state in the wake of 9/11, especially in the form of the USA Patriot Act. There is no time to document all of this in a short essay. However, two decades on, the US public realizes that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 and that his country was not a threat to the countries around him, let alone the United States. Osama bin Laden was killed at the hands of US Navy Seals in 2011. However, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, US and allied troops are still dying, not to mention thousands of civilians, all at the altar of commercial interest.
In the letter, Nagl and Yingling refer to the example of Caesar in Roman history when he marched his legions to Rome in an effort to keep the Senate from trying him for “crimes” while conquering Gaul. I can tell you, the “crimes” that the authors and the ancient Senators refer to were not for slaughtering the natives of Gaul, Basically, like Caesar, Trump’s true crime in the eyes of the oligarchs is really for openly defying the system. What people like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden do not like is their economic class’s laundry being done in public. A member of the oligarchy must play the game and not act like this openly, embarrassing the system as a result.
While not a Roman historian, I can tell you that the oligarchy in the Roman Senate had as much sleaze or even more in their corner. What Nagl and Yingling do not mention is that the Senate’s hero, the general Pompey, had done much of what Caesar had done in Gaul when he marched through the Near East, including Judea in 63 BCE when he conquered Jerusalem from the Maccabees in a bloody siege.
Like Caesar, Pompey also brought home unbelievable amounts of spoils and killed thousands of natives in Judea and other places, doubling the empire’s gold reserves and wealth through new tax revenues. However, unlike Caesar, he learned to play the game and compromise. Caesar did this only reluctantly, but only to a certain extent. Also, by this time, the Republic was one in name only. It was by now a full blown empire that was the supreme power in the Mediterranean, one that had seen civil wars as previous dictators such as Sulla and Marius warred against each other to claim the spoils of that empire. Before Caesar, Sulla had marched on Rome. The previous dictators and their civil wars happened in Caesar’s youth. Unlike Pompey, whose rise was purely through the Army and his popularity got him into the oligarchy and Senate, Caesar came from a noble, yet impoverished family. He fell on the wrong side of Sulla and had to flee Rome. Captured by a patrol of Sulla’s army, he was brought back but pardoned by the dictator. Certainly, all of the above as well as other close experiences of death in his youth hardened his resolve and instilled in Caesar the lesson to go all in or nothing. This template stayed with him for life. At a certain point, the Rubicon had to be crossed and Caesar was the consummate opportunist who knew when to cross.
While Trump’s father Fred instilled in his son Donald the notion of “take no prisoners.” it is here that the comparison with Caesar becomes laughable. Caesar was refined and educated in a real fashion. He family gave him and he exceeded in the best education available and became a master orator and writer in his lifetime. His Gallic Wars are not just required reading in Latin and literature courses. During their time and ours, they are brilliant propaganda that he penned to popularize his exploits in Gaul and Britain with the Roman public. Caesar was not just a master general and politician. He was an educated, gifted and polished scholar in residence on the battlefield and in the Senate that needed no ghost writer or test takers to succeed. He won his own battles and was truly a stable genius.
Caesar was not just a politician. Indeed, he served in the Roman Army and did so as one of its most brilliant commanders, a brilliance that defeated Pompey the Great in their civil war as much as the professionalism and experience of the Caesarian legions helped to defeat those of Pompey. The military service and command experience Caesar achieved was required for anyone to rise up the “cursus honorum” (literally the path of honor). In Rome, political rank was based upon military service as much as political knowledge at each station up the ladder to the coveted seat of senator. Politicians were expected to have an innate knowledge of military affairs. Military service was not shirked in Rome, but ran after with a gusto that the hoplites in Sparta would have found familiar. Only later as the empire became fat under the Augustan dynasty of the first imperial family did rich Romans come to look down upon military service and more and more “barbarians” come into the legions from the auxiliary forces of Roman allies. They were attracted by the incentives of regular pay, a retirement and Roman citizenship upon discharge after their 20 years from the legions, a rarity in the ancient world.
In comparison, Trump with his sexual exploits is more like Nero, the most bohemian of Roman emperors. The Donald is in charge of a hodgepodge mass of armed goons. While many of them have military experience, most were malcontents and terrible servicemen and women to begin with. They are interspersed with a series of other malcontent volunteers brought in by various agencies that Trump has hijacked, such as the Federal Marshals. Like Trump’s pattern in the civilian world, his die-hard base relate to him as they exist in the dregs of society. In Trump, they see a champion of their approach of a bull’s charge into the China shop and cow career agents. Their champion is the enemy of career military officers (witness his persecution of LTC Alexander Vindman and insulting John McCain’s Vietnam service in the 2016 election) diplomats, and bureaucrats who professionally play by the rules of the game instead of the every changing “deal” that only the unscrupulous prevail in. Trump, like his followers get where they get by bullying, intimidation and outright theft. They are sociopaths and psychopaths of varying degrees of functionality. Their lack of subtlety lessens their functionality, stealth and use to the 1% who need silent and professional servants, not buffoons to advance their interests. Trump followers feel emboldened by a chief executive who has thrown the rule of law and precedent to the wind, not that those laws favor the underclasses of American society.
What Nagl and Yingling fail to grasp though is that Donald Trump is a product of his time and of the growing American empire. The violence of war comes home and destroys the society there, fueling class and racial warfare. I agree with Michael Moore and a number of commentators on this point. As in Rome, the republic is dying of its own internal contradictions. As the military (especially the Proletarian Guard under the imperium) did in Rome, it is exercising an increasing influence upon the affairs of state. The legislative bodies have simply become simple rubber stamps and the military arm. General and President Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest fears are coming to fruition. The empire is on the rise. I fear the republic is dead or dying.
In the end, General Milley may fulfill his oath to install a newly elected president. However, I think that he will continue to serve the empire, one that to all of you naysayers I must say will be around for some time. While the lifestyle and expectancy for those at the bottom will continue to decline, the oligarchic 1% will continue to do quite nicely once the “revolution” is over and the exhausted lower classes get used to the new “normal.”. The question is whether or not we may begin to call the chief executive an emperor.