Ted Cruz's imperialist fantasy: Why his latest anti-Obama epithet is so dangerous

When Cruz says we're living under an "imperial presidency," his ignorance and hypocrisy are staggering. Here's why

Published February 15, 2014 2:30PM (EST)

  (AP/Alex Brandon)
(AP/Alex Brandon)

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, Sen. Ted Cruz now insists that Americans are living under an "imperial presidency" because of the way that the Affordable Care Act has been implemented. Cruz seems to like the way that "imperial presidency" sounds when it comes out of his mouth -- and the fear of an "emperor" in the White House is a motif that may resound with the Tea Party Republicans who might have a large say in deciding the Republican nominee for the presidency.

However, much like the wildly inaccurate "socialist" epithet that Tea Party elites attempted to attach to Obama during his first term, the idea of the president as an emperor is equally problematic. We would do well to remember that if anyone knew a thing or two about imperialism, it was the ancient Romans and those who lived under their dominion. When the Roman Empire approached its zenith in the middle of the second century A.D., the Greek orator Aelius Aristides authored words that should resound in contemporary discourses about American "imperialism." In a remarkably prescient analysis, Aristides in his oration 'To Rome" observed that the regularity of wars, compounded with their distance from Rome and the cultural and ethnic otherness of enemies, made wars into "myths" that "no longer seem real." Amazingly, this was written at a time when Rome was awash in the apparent rewards of empire: widespread peace, security and the smug sense of superiority that comes with imagining your state and culture as the world's patron.

Romans seem to have been proud of their empire. This patriotism, when combined with a missional sense of obligation to impose order on a chaotic world and the military capacity to carry it out, left little room for probing critiques. Even Aristides meant for his comments to be complimentary. Ironically, Cruz’s crass demagoguery of the Affordable Care Act does imply a question for Americans that, although unintended, may be far more useful: If we do indeed have an "emperor" in the White House, then surely he presides over an "empire"? Of course, while Obama has done little to halt a decades-long foreign policy of drone warfare, devastating sanctions, questionable military interventions and sustained increases in military spending, the American Empire was in excellent health when it was handed to him by Cruz’s former boss, President George W. Bush.

A historical appreciation of imperialism is especially relevant to Cruz and possibly many of his followers as well. Ignorance of what "imperialism" was – and still is – is a sure path toward a dangerous hypocrisy. The "imperial" vocabulary that Cruz tosses around is rooted in the Roman concept of "imperium": the prerogative to command obedience and to expediently exercise naked power. Certainly once ancient Rome converted to a political empire, imperium became associated with the office of emperor, but imperium originally belonged to the magistrates and the military officers who carried out the practicalities of empire itself centuries before Rome was ruled by purple-clad emperors.

While Americans react to Cruz’s statements at home, in distant lands that "no longer seem real," American spy agencies intrude upon the private lives of millions of people, American soldiers and private military contractors arrest and indefinitely detain people who have not been convicted of any crime and American drones continue to kill innocent people, including children. Is it really appropriate to decry the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as "imperial" while, at the very same time, supporting the excesses of naked brute force abroad?

When we study the positions and statements of Cruz, it becomes apparent that the senator and those who share his perspective are true believers in the unrestricted, unilateral authority of the United States to command obedience and submission around the world – an Americanized imperium. We might recall Cruz’s demagoguery during the nomination of now Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Cruz took Secretary Hegel to task for daring to thoughtfully consider whether the United States is perceived as a bully around the world chiefly due to the bellicose foreign policy of the Bush administration. In the past week, Cruz chose to criticize Obama’s recent diplomatic efforts to diffuse tension with Iran. In a hypothetical scenario that seems to have been directly yanked out of the Bush years, Cruz directly tied reduced sanctions on Iran to radical Muslims deploying nukes "over the skies" of New York or Los Angeles.

Critiquing the president as an "emperor" may simply be a cheap way to score political points on the way to announcing one’s candidacy for president. Certainly ambitious members of the Roman political class showed a similar proclivity to criticize not only their peers, but even those emperors who abused the traditional customs of elite culture and politics. At the same time, the vast majority of Roman elites were unwilling to dint the glory of Rome by questioning either the mechanisms or motivations for extending Roman imperium throughout the Ancient Mediterranean world. It is one thing to imply that the president is an emperor; it is another thing entirely to question the projection of American power at a time when Americans tacitly approve of the empire they paradoxically do not acknowledge.

Cruz suggests that we should fear an emperor in the White House. In Rome’s case, however, the empire preceded the office of emperor by over a century. We would do well to remember it.

By Colin P. Elliott

Colin P. Elliott is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics and Ancient History at Washington and Lee University, where he teaches economics and imperialism in Ancient Rome.

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American Imperialism Ancient Rome Editor's Picks Emperor Gop Tea Party Ted Cruz The Right