I believe that Maximinus Thrax, whose brief reign ran from 235 to 238 AD, was the first Roman emperor never to have set foot in Rome. The Thracian brute started a trend. As the years went by, more and more Roman emperors gave the city a miss. Diocletian (284-305), who brought the crisis of the third century to an end, hated the city. Some later emperors settled on Ravenna as the seat of power for the Western empire. Constantinople emerged as HQ for the East. Rome retained a certain ceremonial significance but was increasingly irrelevant to the business of empire.
The turn away from Rome happened for many reasons. Among other things, the Senate, the anchoring institution that had been slowly waning at least since Octavian emerged as Augustus, finally became a corrupt joke, a powerless club for rich old men who were out of touch with the realities of power. As one early historian put it, “Rome is where the emperor is.”
Parallels between Rome and America can be overdone. But I wonder whether the moment hasn’t come to begin thinking of Washington the way the later emperors thought of Rome: as a corrupt if showy impediment to the fortunes of the country. There has been intermittent talk over the last several years about the possible advantages to relocating parts of the government outside Washington. Donald Trump made a half-hearted stab at doing it, with negligible results. I think a more concerted effort should be undertaken. The focus should be on eclipsing Washington, DC as the seat of government.
It has long been obvious to candid observers that there is something deeply dysfunctional about that overwhelmingly Democratic, welfare-addicted city. It is a partisan sinkhole. Jefferson wanted the capital moved from New York to Washington in part to bring it closer to the South, but also to place it in a locality that was officially neutral. There is nothing neutral about Washington today. The city has some impressive architecture and urban vistas. They should be preserved and staffed as tourist attractions. But the reins of power should be relocated.
As a first step, we should hold the next presidential inauguration someplace else. There is nothing in the Constitution that says the inauguration must be in Washington. LBJ was sworn in on Air Force One just a couple of hours after Kennedy was assassinated. When Warren Harding died, Calvin Coolidge was visiting the family homestead in Vermont. His father, a justice of the peace, administered the oath of office in the parlor. I think the next inauguration should be well away from the swamp of Washington. Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach is one venue that springs to mind, but I am sure there are other attractive spots.
The advantages of moving the inauguration are many. For one thing, we will all be spared the nauseating drone of television newscasters assuring themselves of their own great importance and, assuming the new president is a Democrat, numbing the public with rancid clichés about “the peaceful transfer of power in this great country,” etc. Should the new guy be someone like Trump, then the clichés will be of a different tenor but will, I can assure you, be no less rancid.
The business of Washington is to make government bigger — forever. That is not what the people, who pay for it, want. Moving the inauguration could also begin the larger process of shifting focus, money and prestige away from Washington, which would then be revealed for what it really is: a thoroughly partisan town wholly under the influence, and in the pay, of the Democratic Party.
In any event, the next Republican to win the presidency should insist on being inaugurated outside the District. CNN and kindred media would scream bloody murder — be prepared for non-stop skirlings about “insurrection” — but it is a cheering thought that CNN itself will probably have ceased to exist by that happy date, placed as early as January 2025 by many sages.
Some readers might think that I offer this suggestion in jest. On the contrary, I offer it in earnest. The United States is undergoing its own “crisis of the third century” just a little ahead of schedule. Legitimacy is draining out of our governing institutions at an alarming rate. Stanching that debilitating flow requires that we redirect our attention away from the greedy puppet show in Washington to the true source of legitimacy, which is with the people.
But what if the candidate is Donald Trump? Could the Republic endure another term of Trump? Every sinew of the regime, which is Washington writ large, is straining to short-circuit that possibility. I am of two minds about it myself. On the one hand, I think Trump had the single best first term of any president in history. On issues from energy and employment to the judiciary and foreign policy, his administration was an astonishing success. On the other hand, there is no doubt that he was and is a deeply divisive figure. Reelecting him would jumpstart the hysteria machine that threatened to paralyze the country from 2016 to 2020. There is something to that, just as there is something to the worry that he would be too old in 2024. But the pain that a second Trump administration would cause among the beautiful people might just be worth the chaos it would likely involve.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2022 World edition.