How often have we not seen, even in our own lives, that actions we take to preserve something we cherish end up destroying that which we seek to protect? Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but the desire for security and the yearning for justice are forever the final refuge of tyrants.
When Sulla marched his legions into Rome in 88 B.C. (and then again in 82 B.C.) many of his supporters worried about this breach of a precedent that had endured nearly half a millennium, since the founding of the Republic in 509 B.C. But most of them nonetheless continued supporting Sulla because he had very good and honorable reasons for breaking with precedent. He had, after all, been treated shamelessly by the Senate and his enemies had resorted to illegal measures to ruin him. Of even more concern, the Republic was teetering on the edge of chaos because of the increasingly violent altercations between the conservative optimates and those seeking a more liberal order, the populares.
History loves irony. Sulla was stunningly successful in reestablishing the primacy of the Senate and the aristocracy and in bringing much-needed stability to the Republic. Sulla even daringly rid the Republic, albeit only temporarily, of that most insidious and enslaving of practices—the grain dole—an ancient form of welfare that emasculated and made dependent vast numbers of the citizenry. Yet, how often have we not seen, even in our own lives, that actions we take to preserve something we cherish end up destroying that which we seek to protect? Sulla’s marching his troops into Rome, as well as his breaking of that other time-honored precedent—retaining dictatorial powers for longer than six months—made it much easier for others to follow suit. Julius Caesar, who was only 18 when Sulla entered with his legions the second time, almost certainly reflected on Sulla’s earlier breach when he crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. But unlike Sulla, Caesar was going to retain his power indefinitely and he was going to undermine the Senate and finally ensure justice for the downtrodden of the Republic, the populares. Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but the desire for security and the yearning for justice are forever the final refuge of tyrants.
Slouching toward Empire
Much is being made these days of President Trump’s expansive, many would say cynical, interpretation of the term “emergency.” Some argue quite reasonably that if everything is an emergency then nothing is. I am reminded of a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a law being enacted by the Roman Senate, during the reign of Augustus, making all pornography illegal. Then, very shortly thereafter, Augustus declared that any criticism of the emperor was pornographic. Words do matter and we should all guard against defining them too broadly and allowing them to be twisted for convenience. There frankly is already far too much modern doublespeak, where license is liberty, where tolerating religion is considered a hateful intolerance of others, and even where we smugly justify the carnage caused by illegal wars under the rubric of nation-building. So, it should come as no surprise that the term “emergency” has also expanded so greatly as to become meaningless—but Trump is the least guilty culprit.
Where does the blame more fairly fall? Certainly, much blame falls squarely on the shoulders of his presidential predecessors who have capriciously employed the device to further their agendas. Every American president elected since the National Emergencies Act was first enacted in 1976 has declared national emergencies that seem to stretch the plain meaning of the term. There are too many ludicrous examples to cite—nearly 60 so-called national emergencies have already been declared—but here are a few that strain credulity: Reagan declaring a national emergency in 1985 and banning trade with Nicaragua, Clinton prohibiting the import of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone in 2001, Obama declaring an outbreak of influenza a national emergency in 2009 and restricting visas for Russian citizens who might have been involved in the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
But far more blameworthy than all these former presidents is the Congress itself. The National Emergencies Act recklessly avoids even attempting to define what constitutes an actual emergency. More disgracefully, the Act actually promotes executive overreach by allowing the Congress to counter a presidential declaration of a national emergency only if both houses of Congress are willing to overcome a presidential veto—so remote a possibility as to render the Congress completely impotent in this matter. It is telling that before the enactment of the Act, presidents had only declared eight national emergencies, starting with former President Wilson in 1917. Clearly, the Act itself has served as a catalyst to a dangerous proliferation in presidential declarations of national emergencies and the usurpation of legislative authority. Combined with the 1973 War Powers Act—which has never hampered any president from perpetuating military actions—the National Emergencies Act is arguably the most stunning example of collective political self-castration since 27 B.C. when the Roman Senate demanded Augustus retain dictatorial powers after he ostensibly transferred all his power back to the Senate.
Was It Already Raining When Noah Built the Ark?
The Congress would do well to both amend the National Emergencies Act and the War Powers Act to reassert their proper authority. In the meantime, although I have serious misgivings about the continued usurpation of legislative authority by the executive, and even though I harbor reasonable doubts about the efficacy of a wall along the Rio Grande (there are cheaper and more useful measures such as E-Verify and prohibiting the use of any government funds for the welfare and education of illegal immigrants), Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency is fully in keeping not only with the expansive definition of the term as employed by past presidents, but also arguably with the plain meaning of the word. Some emergencies, such as rampant illegal immigration, are slow to develop, but their impact over a longer period will be devastating and might therefore justify being termed emergencies. If a frog is in a pot of cold water on a burner that is turned on full blast can you consider it enough of an emergency to extricate the poor creature? Or must you wait for the water to start actually boiling before declaring an emergency and rescuing it?
Another example from ancient Rome may help put this in proper perspective. What are generally referred to as the barbarian invasions during the latter centuries of the empire, were more generally, and certainly in the beginning, more akin to large-scale migrations. When Marcus Aurelius staved off the Marcomanni and other barbarian tribes along the Danube, toward the end of the second century A.D., many in Rome thought it a wasteful effort far from the capital and they were delighted when his heir, Commodus, ended the wars. There was not, after all, in their estimation any emergency that warranted such a huge cost to the treasury. And when the Romans decided much later to formally allow barbarian tribes to peacefully enter their land, it seemed to make perfect sense. The poor, destitute Visigoths, after all, were fleeing from the devastation wrought by the Huns pressing onward from the east. But we all know how that turned out. While the Romans certainly deserve some of the blame for the newcomers turning on them, it is also indisputable that no civilization can afford to allow indiscriminate and indefinite immigration into its territory.
Rome, beginning in the age of Augustus but especially after the Antonine plague toward the end of the second century, was in dire need of immigrants to bolster its dwindling population. So, too, the United States needs a fresh flow of immigrants, but a flow that is reasonable and well-regulated. Half a million illegal immigrants this year (on top of nearly one million legal immigrants) can be reasonably presumed not to be a national emergency, and another half a million next year may also be validly defended against an assertion of an emergency. But half a million illegals year in and year out ad infinitum is the very definition of a dangerous and emergent threat to the nation.
When some politicians claim that climate change is not just a national emergency, but a worldwide one, they are not claiming that the world is ending in the next few years; only that life as we know it eventually will be fundamentally altered. (One wonders if those seemingly courageous fifty-eight former senior national security officials who have criticized Trump’s use of the National Emergencies Act to construct the Wall would dare to write a similar letter denouncing a future attempt by a Democratic president to declare climate change a national emergency.) In like manner, when politicians insist that there is a national emergency regarding immigration they do not mean that the Republic is doomed this year or next. Rather, they mean that the fabric of our society and the culture that underpins it is slowly fraying and uncontrolled immigration will—as with Rome many centuries ago—fundamentally erode and alter our legal, social, and cultural heritage.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Cincinato abandona el arado para dictar leyes a Roma (Cincinnatus abandons the Plough to dictate Laws to Rome)” (1806), by Juan Antonio de Ribera (1779-1860), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.