During the election process of 2020, Republican elected officials made a series of statements and policy decisions that show pretty clearly that they wanted to suppress the votes of Black Americans. If you object to their statements and actions, but for some reason voted for Trump, this is not a criticism directed at you.
In addition to these overt attempts to force the vote towards their preferred outcome, there are still many elected officials, including Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who refute the election results a full two months after the vote (it is now January 3). There is increasingly strong indication that the president and his most devoted followers actually reject democratic processes and want to force the United States to accept a re-election of the incumbent over the will of the majority of voters: 81.28M for Biden/Harris versus 74.22M for Trump/Pence.
The fact that the president himself is trying to force this override of the vote is quite an accusation. It is supported by several indicators: (1) his fondness for autocrats, especially Vladimir Putin; (2) his contempt for actual facts, the scientific method, and research-based journalism; and (3) his attempt to use the power of the presidential pardon to impose his own immunity against prosecution.
The president also has a much longer his track-record of acting with impunity as a businessman who inherited much, lost more, and was compelled to halt his pattern of racist discrimination as a landlord. He has never apologized for taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty for the Central Park 5; the five boys who were convicted and later exonerated for being falsely accused of a gang rape in Central Park.
The common theme through all of this: the president’s assertion that he has complete impunity. If he seeks to override democratic will, he seeks to become emperor.
Impunity and a re-think on Empire
Americans often imagine the British Empire as the paradigmatic model of imperialsim. As an Italian-American, I tend to check back on the Roman political processes that led from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Imperium, the source of the term, initially only meant ‘command over an area’. When the Roman Patrician Senators refused to admit Gallic leaders into the Senate, they perpetuated the condition of military direct rule over Gaul; the condition of ‘recently acquired territory through conquest’ evolved into a permanent political arrangement in which the commander-in-chief of the Roman military maintained total domination over that territory. And most importantly: the conquered people of that territory had no say in their own governance. The commander (Imperator) did not have to answer to them in any way. This impunity, this total lack of accountability, is the functional definition of empire.
It is also worth noting that these first Emperors were not kings. Augustus adopted the term princeps, meaning ‘first citizen,’ as a was to portray himself as a Roman-among-Romans while within the capital, but also the absolute dictator in areas under his direct command. The term ‘prince’ derives from princeps, ironically exposing the betrayal hidden in its ostensibly Republican origins. Augustus paid lip service to the Roman ideal of rejecting kings, while at the same time establishing an even worse form of imperial impunity.
Which made me re-think the American Revolution this morning.
Push back against tyranny, not monarchy
Americans are taught that the colonial leaders initially despised the British Parliament for imposing taxes upon them, while not granting the colonists any seat or voice in Parliament. The objection was not to taxation itself (as recent conservative extremists have implied) but rather an objection to taxation without representation. The parallel with the condition of the Gauls is important here.
However, throughout the 1760s and early 1770s, the colonial leaders did not disparage the King. When the King decided to back Parliament’s tax-impositions, the colonists then argued against tyranny. For years, I missed the distinction here. They were not categorically opposed to monarchy. Rather, they were opposed to political leaders acting with impunity. Once George III began to treat the colonialists the way the Romans treated the Gauls, he shifted from being a King to the role of being an Emperor. That is what the colonists found intolerable.
This also lines up with a critical moment in British history that is normally not taught to Americans: the Glorious Revolution of 1689. In that Revolution, James II was deposed and the English nobility invited William of Orange to become King. William accepted their terms, which meant that his family would be the royal heads of state and the Anglican Church, but he would NOT be an absolute monarch like the French royalty. He and his successors would be required to serve the interests of the people, rather than be a monarch equated with the existence of the country itself. The Glorious Revolution redefined the British govern-mentality: British subjects had a distinctive expectation of their King and how they would be ruled. Among those British subjects were the ones colonizing North America.
This does not exonerate the colonists for their widespread practice of slavery. In the 21st century, we tend to re-visit this period with a condemnatory view of the founding fathers; and in that sense I would rather amplify: slavery was legal and practiced not just in the southern colonies, but also in New York and New Jersey at the time; and Boston merchants were deeply involved in the African slave trade. So, no apologia here. The challenge of historical analysis is to hold those ugly facts in our view while also trying to understand the thinking of the colonists who led the American Revolution.
A more useful 21st-century way of looking at this history is that Black Americans, now, are demanding equal treatment under the law, and an equal right and opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In which case, to honor the epic struggle of Black Americans and their demands, we cannot dismiss the assertions made by colonial leaders who were also slaveholders. Even if Jefferson looks pretty hypocritical to our eyes today, we can still hold him to his words. And we need to understand how those words came about. What Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, Madison, and Adams were objecting to was tyranny. They were experiencing the moment that the United Kingdom was really becoming the British Empire, and they rejected this sudden pivot towards imperialism.
Like the Romans, the British stumbled into imperialism with a lack of clear intention. For the Romans, the reinterpretation of the word ‘imperium’ is an indication of bass-ackwards political improvisation. Julius Caesar’s initial intention was to gain sufficient credibility to be able to join the Senatorial elite. He also expected that Gauls, like other people under Roman rule, would be incorporated into the Republic.
For Britons, the Virginia Colony and the East India Company were profit-seeking chartered corporations. The Plymouth Colony was a bit of an escape-valve, a place granted to religious extremists (Puritans). This began to change with an attempt to assert more direct Royal control over New England in the 1680s, by the very same James II whom the English themselves later rejected for his high-handedness.
When the British East India Company gained direct governing control of territory through the battles of Plassey (Bengal, 1757) and Buxar (Bihar, 1764), a new question arose: is Britain a mercantile kingdom, or is it a global empire that rules territories and peoples through direct coercion? British conservatives such as Benjamin Disraeli were very much in favor of the imperialist identity, but that was a full century later during the era of Industrial Imperialism. Americans may view “rule Britannia” through that 1870s lens, but politics were understood very differently by Brits in the 1770s. Adam Smith argued that the American colonists should either be given representation in Parliament or political independence. Many contemporary British leaders apparently agreed with him. The British attempt to retain the Atlantic colonies in the 1780s was somewhat half-hearted. Why? Because it conflicted with their own conception of political accountability, framed by their own revolution in 1689. They themselves objected to imperious domination. A generation later, conservatives like Spencer Perceval (Prime Minister, 1809-1812) were already shifting to an imperialist viewpoint. The British attempt to recapture the United States in 1812 was far more brutal.
Always in motion, the past is…
Donald Trump has actively opposed the removal of 20th-century Confederate monuments, and opposed the military’s stated intention to rename military bases. He claims that you cannot change history, and the removal of these 20th century monuments and names is like an attempt to erase history. The perverseness of this argument is that he is trying to reinforce the white-supremacist arguments that arose after the Civil War and treat them as uncontestable truth. This gets very personal for me: I was born on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I would very much like to see my birthplace renamed for someone who actually served the United States and defended the Constitution, not someone who betrayed that Constitution to perpetuate slavery. I would rather list my birthplace as Fort Robinson, named after General Roscoe Robinson Jr., who actually commanded the 82nd Airborne. I get the sense that the president, and anyone who still supports his cause on 3 January 2021, would rather fly the Confederate flag and betray the Constitution of the United States.
History is not a fixed object. It does not ‘provide’ any inherent justification for racism, nor for willful amnesia that supports imperial impunity. To understand where we are now, we need to actively study connections to prior events, and to keep re-visiting those events as we learn more. “History” is our understanding of the past, and we need to constantly refine that understanding as life-experience reveals more to us. Events in 1st century Gaul, 17th century England, and 18th century India directly pertain to how we need to understand January 2021 in the United States. We need to push back against impunity, and the creeping encroachment of imperialist thinking that it promotes.