Although meant to convey cruelty, arrogance and a certain level of madness, the image of Nero fiddling as Rome burns (myth or not) is more pathetic than predatory. Surrounded by sycophants, this corrupt, incompetent, Caesar ruled by whatever rose to the surface of his mind at any given moment.
Congenitally delusional, Nero was the ultimate narcissist. Fast forward a few thousand years.
On January 27, President Trump issued an executive order barring people from seven Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - from entering the United States.
The move sparked national protests and international condemnation. Allies and enemies alike are now left to wonder, what next from the world’s lone superpower.
Protestors in San Jose rally last week to denounce President Trump's executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
A week after the executive orders, James L. Robart, a Judge of the US District Court for the Western District of Washington, issued a temporary ban on the president’s order.
Trump, easily the world’s most powerful 140-character tantrum conveyor, tweeted in response: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”
Trump added that should harm come to country Judge Robart is to be blamed.
Intrigued by the callous, caustic use of ‘so-called judge,’ I looked up James Robart on the Web. A Republican, he was nominated for the federal bench by President George Bush in 2003 and unanimously confirmed in a 99-0 vote by the Senate in June 2004. He was a distinguished corporate lawyer prior to his appointment, regarded by those who know him as a ‘judge’s judge,’ one driven by a profound respect for law and the constitution.
A colleague’s summation: “The cream rises to the top.”
Judge Robart asked a simple question about the executive order: “How many arrests have been there of foreign nationals from those seven countries since 9/11?” The answer: “None.”
Anyone crossing the path of America’s volatile president can expect to be predictably ridiculed or demonized. That’s what happened to the judge.
What was common in Nero’s Rome is becoming increasingly common in today’s America. Just as then, we have an entertainer in chief whose impulse to play to the gallery of popular opinion is directly intertwined with a steady descent toward what this piece in the Guardian called a “self-fulfilling prophecy: Rome is burning.”
But Rome holds other lessons, for Americans as well as for our current leader.
Omid Kordestani, Twitter’s Executive Chairman, who came to the U.S. in 1978 as an Iranian immigrant and settled in San Jose, responded to Trump with a tweet of his own: “Our democratic institutions will prevail and they are bigger than any one person in position of power, temporarily!”
The bite is in the word “temporarily.” Returning victorious, a Roman conqueror (not Nero) would ride in a triumphal chariot while a slave would whisper in the conqueror’s ear a warning: all glory is fleeting.
People like Judge Robart are fulfilling their obligations to uphold the constitution against executive orders that violate it, the first amendment in this case. This is particularly urgent since we are currently witnessing a partisan legislative branch turning into a rubber stamp for Trump’s executive branch. It’s by anticipating this danger that the founding fathers created the judicial branch as a safeguard to presidential excesses.
We haven’t heard the last word on the immigration ban. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco rejected a request by the Justice Department to restore Trump’s targeted travel ban. There will undoubtedly be more back and forth over the travel ban and ultimately, over the soul of America.
On the same Friday that Judge Robart issued his restraining order, I found about fifty of my fellow-Americans assembled in front of the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose. They had come spontaneously to support us, holding signs that read, “Immigrants are Here to Stay,” “We Are All Americans,” “Stop Separating Families,” and “Japanese Americans Say No Muslim Registry, No Deportations.”
I asked Peter, who is of the Jewish faith, why he had braved the weather to spend time in front of an Islamic Center.
“Because I feel strongly,” he replied, “that there is no place for bigotry in our country.”
He read from a flyer he was distributing to everyone in sight containing excerpts from a letter President George Washington wrote in 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI: “Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance … May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of other inhabitants …”
Americans are outraged by the president’s overreach and are taking to the streets and sounding out to their representatives their concerns about the erosion of America’s founding values. It is critical that we continue working within law to change the direction our country is heading. There is no room for complacency. History may regard Nero as a zero but let’s not forget that he ruled for 14 long and painful years before the Romans finally woke up.
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