The recent announcement by President Donald Trump (may Jupiter bless and keep him) that he will declare a national emergency in order to seize the funding he needs to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border has a lot of people comparing his actions to those of Julius Caesar during the final years of the Roman republic. I am here, as a historian, to point out that this is an inaccurate and unfair comparison.
For one thing, people are saying that Trump’s choice to hack executive power that was intended for use only in situations that directly and peremptorily threaten the American people is a lot like Caesar’s choice to declare himself dictator for life. The argument here is that the Roman position of dictator was intended to be granted to a consul for a year or so in case of war, so that he could command Rome’s armies decisively, and that afterward power was to be handed back to the people and the former dictator was to retire to the countryside mansion he would inevitably set himself up with. A national emergency per American law is, similarly, intended to be of short duration, undertaken with Congress’ tacit approval, and only exercised in the face of a (genuine) existential threat to the American people. In both situations, commentators (not me, obviously) are saying that the executive in question abused a statute that was in place for the protection of the populace and used it as an underhanded power grab.
The situations are, of course, totally different. When he used his already-granted dictatorial position to declare himself dictator in perpetuity, Caesar was firmly in power. He had gone to war against the Roman ruling class, won said war, and been elected Consul by a majority of the voting populace of Rome. Trump, as the reader will no doubt be aware, has yet to win his war to dismantle the current American government; he is not in any firm position of power, if the dissolution of rule of law under his reign is any indication; and, of course, he was not elected to his position by the majority of the voting populace of America.
It is also ridiculous to compare Trump’s actions one-to-one with Caesar’s, when Caesar was a successful general famous for such decisive actions as the crossing of the Rubicon to bring his army into Rome. Even if Trump had ever made a firm decision in his life, what exact moment could we pin down as the point of no return for him? Perhaps if the Rubicon were instead a series of intricately overlapping tributaries, there would be some comparison. As it is, I think we can all agree that Trump is no Caesar.
Certainly, the comparison is not entirely groundless. Like Trump, Caesar used the threat of invasion by foreign “barbarians” and his own perceived position of strength against them to gain the trust of his people. Like Trump, Caesar was born an enormously wealthy oligarch responsible to none but himself and a few of his fellow elites. And like Trump, Caesar married his wife mainly for decorative purposes.
But the comparison remains unfair; Trump is, as I said, no Caesar.
You see, Caesar went to war with his fellow Romans in order to enact populist reforms: social welfare, such as support for veterans, was at the top of his priority list. Was he a megalomaniacal tyrant? Sure. But he was also intelligent, circumspect, and compassionate. Let’s not malign him by comparison to a psychopathic incompetent. Caesar, at the very least, was complex.