When the Founding Fathers of this country began the process of creating what they hoped would be a more perfect union, they sought lessons from the past.
Like many others inspired by the Enlightenment, they looked particularly to the ancient world, including Rome. On the one hand, they believed that Rome, at least for a time, was a bastion of liberty and defender of such virtues as hard work and patriotism. On the other hand, they concluded that such vices as materialism and greed ultimately corrupted Rome, which became ruled by emperors with dictatorial powers.
Starting with Augustus, those emperors were protected by armed legionaries called the Praetorian Guard, whose duty it was to act as the emperor’s bodyguards. The Republican Party’s elected officials in Washington have become that new Praetorian Guard.
I am not the first to speak of a Praetorian Guard in Washington. President Gerald Ford’s chief speechwriter, Robert Hartmann, complained of a “Praetorian Guard,” specifically, holdovers from the Richard Nixon administration whose loyalty was to Nixon rather than the new president. But the Republican Party itself at that time was not the largely monolithic body that it has become. In the 1970s, it was going through a period of transition, with moderates, conservatives and even liberals trying to decide in which direction the party would go. Today, liberals and moderates in the GOP are all but gone, leaving behind one that is more right-wing in orientation and that is willing to stand behind the president at virtually all costs.
That president, Donald Trump, is very much the type of person from whom the Founding Fathers sought their freedom. To individuals such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the king of England had become no different from the dictators of Rome. Such was made clear in the Declaration of Independence, which listed the patriots’ numerous grievances against King George III. Yet today’s Republican Party, Trump’s Praetorian Guard, has repeatedly defended Trump, a dictator-wanna-be.
The historical record has demonstrated several truths about dictators, all of which fit the current occupant of the White House:
>> 1. They demonize one or more ethnic, racial or political groups to rally support for themselves. For Trump, those "enemies of the state" are predominantly immigrants, Muslims and people of color.
>> 2. They co-opt or, more often, coerce the intelligentsia, for knowledge is power. Trump has attacked most media outlets as purveyors of "fake news," and he and his followers blast educators as a bunch of liberals (or even socialists) who seek to indoctrinate their students rather than provide them an education.
>> 3. They delegitimize the idea of independent bodies that have the purpose of upholding the law. The president believes Vladimir Putin over the reports he receives from his intelligence apparatus and has sought to politicize the judicial branch of the U.S. government so that it does his bidding. Moreover, he considered replacing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats with John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist with little experience in intelligence.
>> 4. They seek to politicize the armed forces so that they will do as the leader pleases. The Founding Fathers feared a large standing army, believing it could be used by a power-hungry person to crush individual liberty. Yet Trump fired former generals in his administration because they had independence of mind. And his Fourth of July event was an overt effort to make the U.S. military a political arm of the White House.
That Trump himself wishes to be a dictator can be seen as well in his affinity for such individuals, whether their names be Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. Like the monarchy from which the Founding Fathers sought to escape, he would like to stay in power indefinitely. When China’s National People’s Congress decided that China’s president, Xi Jinping, should remain in power as long as he wished, Trump famously commented, “Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day.”
That this largely-monolithic, conservative-minded Republican Party is now the Praetorian Guard to the president has been made clear time and again. Its leaders in the Senate refuse to complete passage of legislation to provide election security, fearing otherwise it will delegitimize Trump’s 2016 victory. Its members blasted Robert Mueller, a lifelong Republican, despite the overwhelming evidence turned up by his investigation of wrongdoing — including obstruction of justice — committed by the president and his underlings. Nearly all of its members in Congress rejected a Democratic-sponsored resolution to overturn the president’s declaration of a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border. And it has refused to stand up to Trump’s misogynistic, racist and ethnocentric policies, among them his recent assaults on representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna S. Pressley, and Elijah Cummings, as well as Al Sharpton.
In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton warned of “men who have over-turned the liberties of republics, commencing as demagogues and ending as tyrants.” Trump is exactly this type of person the Founding Fathers resisted: a dictator who wants to remain in power for life, who flaunts the rule of law and demonizes various groups in the name of rallying his base of support, who wants to make the U.S. military serve him as opposed to the country, and who attacks basic constitutional rights, including freedom of the press. Yet this Republican Party, this Praetorian Guard, has time and again shown itself willing to stand behind him. This is not the leadership for which America’s Founding Fathers put their lives on the line 250 years ago.