- - Sunday, May 28, 2017


In 509 B.C. Romans drove out their king and instituted the world’s first republic.

And if you had asked a typical Roman citizen thereafter about the fate of that republic, he would have expressed the widely held sentiment that it would last forever. Romans, he would have argued, are passionately attached to our free institutions.

And so they were. Yet Julius Caesar would famously cross the river Rubicon in 49 B.C. to the thunderous applause of the people. Yes, the descendants of that freedom-loving Roman would willingly sacrifice those once-beloved institutions on the bloody altar of Empire.

Why would they do this? It was a question that consumed Cicero, Cato and the other conspirators who opposed Caesar as the republic disintegrated before their eyes. It seemed to them, and it was true, that the people had grown to love one man, Julius Caesar, above the ideal of self-government.

What Cicero and Cato did not, perhaps could not, understand is that as members of the senatorial class, they had benefited mightily from those institutions. They had land and slaves and a “good life.” For the average poor Roman, however, the franchise he was nominally granted as part of the republican bargain benefited him in ways more abstract than concrete.

And what did Caesar promise? Money. Indeed, he was legendary for his largesse, lavishing the public with his personal fortune, engorged by the spoils of conquered peoples. Caesar promised something else, as well: glory. His victories as general would be the peoples’ victories, and they would share in that honor.

Riches and honor. It seemed like a good deal to trade those tangible things for an ideal that seemed to benefit a very few people in a very large way.

But Caesar was not the end of this evolution from freedom, for in his own way Caesar was every bit as legitimate an expression of the popular will as the republican elections had been. The people wanted him to rule, and he accepted their offer, becoming the first in a long line of permanent dictators.

But in very short order, the Imperial Court produced a large, remote, bureaucratic regime, every bit as entitled and unaccountable as the decadent senators had been. It was these bureaucrats, in the end, who would decide who would be emperor, and how long they would reign, and how effective they would be. The emperor was but the face of government; the bureaucracy became the black and beating heart.

And the people? The people slipped into stupor, numbed by free bread and free circuses, permanently relieved of the burdens and the responsibilities of civic participation. And they seemed perfectly content in this supine state.

(What’s most astonishing about this state of permanent imperial bureaucracy was how incredibly durable it proved. For it was this Rome that endured in one form or another for 1,400 years after Julius Caesar.)

And in 21st century America, we have our own unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy. The election of a TV celebrity and political novice to the highest office in the land was entirely unacceptable to these bureaucrats, for he had won his election in part by promising to dismantle their shadow state. For all of Donald Trump’s personal failings, he disgusted the public less than the ruling elite that had become corrupt and sclerotic.

And so that elite has risen up in defense of its domain, sabotaging the choice of the people in the soft but swift coup we are witnessing before our eyes.

If the journalists and department chiefs and spies succeed in removing a constitutionally elected president, however flawed he may be, they will prove only how right the people were to choose Donald Trump in the first place, but also, maybe, that such a choice had come too late. If that happens, we voters will conclude that America long since slipped into imperial bureaucracy, albeit without the bloodshed that had consumed Rome, and that our freedom has been taken from us, not in the dead of night, but in broad daylight, piece by piece.

Will it be the bureaucrats, not the American people, who will decide who can be president? If we let this happen, we will deserve their fate, as did the Romans long before us.

• Matt Patterson is executive director of the Center for Worker Freedom at Americans for Tax Reform.

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