It happened during the reign of the first Roman emperor. A child was born in an obscure farm building in a Middle Eastern province of the empire. 

All kinds of strange events occurred around the time of His birth, including a massacre of children, ordered by the Judean King Herod.

Along with some bewildered shepherds, three foreign ‘magi’ (wise men) found their way to the child’s birthplace. But no one in the imperial capital Rome paid much attention.

This proved to be a mistake, as the birth of this child would ultimately transform the empire — and the world — for ever.

The story of Jesus’s birth is rarely told with much attention to its historical context. But this year the circumstances of the time seem uncannily relevant. The Middle East is in just the kind of turmoil that had led the Romans to impose their imperial rule on Judaea.

And the United States is in just the kind of political crisis that led the Roman republic to become an empire under Augustus Caesar. In other surprising ways, too, what we are living through is similar to what the people of the early first century experienced.

Like our ancestors two millennia ago, we inhabit a distressing spiritual vacuum marked by pleasure seeking and unbridled consumerism. 

Christianity, the old religion, has become hollow to us, even as we go through the motions of recollecting the story of Christ’s birth.

The story of Jesus’s birth is rarely told with much attention to its historical context 

Let’s begin with the war in the Middle East, which I believe will ultimately lead the United States to send troops back into the region, despite the painful memories of the 2003 Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation — which, in truth, are painful only for the families of the relatively small number of U.S. service personnel who were killed (3,519) or wounded (32,000) there. God bless them and their British counterparts this Christmas.

Most of us have strongly held but casually informed political opinions on the Middle East. On one side, supporters of Israel — not all of them Jews — regard it as obvious that Israel has a right to defend itself after the horrendous atrocities perpetrated against Israeli civilians by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) on October 7.

Supporters of the Palestinians, some of whom shamelessly celebrated those atrocities, insist that the Palestinian resistance is justified because of the wretched conditions in Gaza and the lack of Israeli commitment to a viable Palestinian state. Arguments about the issue will ruin many a family Christmas this year.

However, this debate about whose cause is more just — the Israelis’ or the Palestinians’ — misses the point. 

The reality is that, in the 50 years since the last surprise attack on Israel on the Holy Day of Yom Kippur (October 6, 1973), it has proved impossible for Israel to find a peaceful modus vivendi with the Palestinians.

Israel made peace with Egypt at Camp David in 1978. It made peace with Jordan in 1994. It signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1995. 

And, under the Abraham Accords of 2020-21, Israel normalised its relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Indeed, it was about to reach a similar rapprochement with Saudi Arabia when the slaughter of the innocents happened on October 7, freezing if not killing the negotiations.

The United States is in just the kind of political crisis that led the Roman republic to become an empire under Augustus Caesar

The United States is in just the kind of political crisis that led the Roman republic to become an empire under Augustus Caesar

There are two obvious reasons why peace with the Palestinians has proved elusive. First, the Palestinian Authority established under the Oslo Accords has proved to be an oxymoron — it lacks any kind of authority.

Second, many Palestinians themselves have preferred the path of violence, turning to Hamas and other terrorist groups for leadership, apparently oblivious to Hamas’s true character as a criminal racket. 

While ordinary Gazans bear the brunt of Israel’s war of retaliation, the Hamas mafiosi live in luxury in Qatar on the money sent to Gaza by naive international donors.

But there is a third explanation for the agony of the Holy Land, and that is geopolitical. The Abraham Accords were one of the diplomatic triumphs of Donald Trump’s administration. 

Yet Joe Biden decided to change course, opting to try to revive the obviously dead Iran nuclear deal, the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ of 2015.

That deal was President Barack Obama’s attempt to induce the Islamic Republic of Iran to suspend — not to end — its nuclear weapons program in return for relief from U. S. sanctions.

It did nothing to prevent Iran using the money it received under the deal to finance terrorist organisations throughout the region, including not only Hamas and PIJ, but also Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

That was why Trump abandoned the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. It was why in 2020 he killed one of Iran’s principal malefactors, Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The present crisis in the Middle East is, therefore, the result of a combination of Iranian aggression and American pusillanimity.

Consider the passivity with which Washington has reacted to a succession of Houthi attacks on U.S. bases in the region and, most recently, merchant shipping in the Red Sea. 

Why send two aircraft-carrier strike groups to the region if you have no intention of using them for fear of ‘escalating’ the crisis?

However, the haplessness of the Biden administration’s foreign policy is not the main reason why Trump is now narrowly the favourite to be the next president of the United States, though the perception that Biden is drifting into new ‘forever wars’ is playing its part.

The probability of Trump’s re-election on November 5 next year is now, in my view, above 50 per cent. The prediction market agrees. So do most recent polls.

Despite his sea of legal troubles — and perhaps partly because of them — the former president is the clear frontrunner to be the Republican nominee, about 50 points ahead of Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. 

And Trump is well placed to defeat Biden in a rerun of the 2020 contest, especially if you look at his polling leads in key swing states.

The crucial issue is not Biden’s foreign policy flops. Nor is it his advanced age, though even a majority of Democratic voters admit that, at 81, he is too old to be president. The key issue is ‘Bidenomics,’ a term devised by the dotard president’s handlers.

Trump is well placed to defeat Biden in a rerun of the 2020 contest, especially if you look at his polling leads in key swing states

Trump is well placed to defeat Biden in a rerun of the 2020 contest, especially if you look at his polling leads in key swing states

Objectively, by most conventional measures, the U.S. economy is in good shape — certainly in better shape than Britain’s or Europe’s. Unemployment is low (3.7 per cent). Inflation has come down substantially (to 3.1 per cent, compared with a peak of 9.1 per cent in June last year). The financial markets are rooting for interest-rate cuts next year. 

But voters have still not forgiven the administration for the inflation they suffered last year. They also sense that a slowdown is coming, if not a recession — the inevitable result of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes.

As a consequence, Biden’s polling on this key issue is terrible: on average, nearly 61 per cent of voters disapprove of his handling of the economy, and 65 per cent his handling of inflation. An even higher proportion (69 per cent) think the country is ‘on the wrong track’.

Though he has not sunk as low as Jimmy Carter in 1979, Biden’s position is uncomfortably similar to that of Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush at the same stages in their only presidential terms.

I do not entirely blame my fellow Americans for considering re-electing Trump. His first term was much better for the average U.S. household — who saw their real income surge 9 per cent before Covid struck, after 17 years of stagnation — than most elite media coverage would have you believe.

However, in view of all that has emerged about Trump’s unconscionably reckless conduct between election night 2020 and the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, I fear that his return to the White House could mark the beginning of the end of the American republic and the first step towards an unconstitutional American empire.

And I worry that Trump will be able to justify overriding the constitution by pointing to both domestic and international emergencies.

At home, there will inevitably be ‘mainly peaceful’ (i.e. partly violent) protests in Democratic strongholds if Trump is declared the election winner.

Abroad, Trump will inherit a triple global crisis in Ukraine, Israel and potentially also Taiwan. Even if China’s President Xi Jinping does not risk blockading the island he covets, it would not surprise me if Hezbollah opened a new front against Israel in the New Year.

Consider how the Roman republic died as the ruthless political operator Octavian — Julius Caesar’s adopted son — asserted his power.

He became emperor by steps: first as one of the second triumvirate — an alliance between three rival statesmen, Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus, giving them absolute power; then as lifetime commander-in-chief (imperator), tribune and censor; and finally as ‘princeps civitatis’ (First Citizen) with the title ‘Augustus’.

What made the Roman Empire possible — indeed, necessary — was the need to end a state of recurrent civil war at home and of geopolitical crisis abroad, especially in the Middle East, but also in central Europe — Rome’s Ukraine was Germania — and even in unruly Britannia, conquered by the Romans after AD 43.

Augustus won power by ousting Lepidus and then defeating Mark Antony and his lover Queen Cleopatra and invading Egypt, which he subsequently annexed. It was Augustus, too, who incorporated Judaea, including Herod’s kingdom, into the Empire. It was a Roman census that required Joseph and the pregnant Mary to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

And this brings me to the other major resemblance between our time and the time of Jesus’s birth 2,023 years ago.

One reason why Donald Trump’s return to power is now a possibility is that we in the West inhabit a moral and ethical wasteland. If we were still a truly Christian civilisation, Trump would stand no chance of becoming president again.

A people who were committed to the teachings of the Old and New Testaments would have no hesitation in identifying him as a serial violator of at least half the Ten Commandments and, therefore, morally unqualified to occupy the highest office in the republic.

Yet the U.S. today is only nominally a Christian country, in the sense that a majority of Americans still identify as Christians of one denomination or another.

According to survey data, both faith and observance have significantly declined in the 20 years since I have lived and worked there. In the 1990s, 90 per cent of Americans identified as Christians. It’s now down to two-thirds. Weekly church attendance has also slumped.

In this respect, the U.S. is beginning to resemble England, where less than half the population (46.2 per cent) now say they are Christians. More than a third (37.2 per cent) say they have no religion, according to the 2021 census.

Like the people of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, we are almost entirely consumed by the pleasures and preoccupations of this world. One of many symptoms of our spiritual bankruptcy is the epidemic of mental ill-health sweeping the English-speaking world.

Dark days may lie ahead. It is some comfort, surely, that a saviour could be born at such a time

Dark days may lie ahead. It is some comfort, surely, that a saviour could be born at such a time

Another symptom is the slump in fertility rates as more and more couples opt to have just one child or no children at all.

Whatever people may say when they rationalise this decision to limit their reproduction below the replacement rate (to sustain the species), in truth the decision to restrict or forgo parenthood is an implicit expression of despair.

For there is no greater joy to be had in this world than that of bringing a baby into it. It is, I would argue, the ultimate affirmation of faith. Yes, we know that every child is doomed, as are we, to experience suffering and, inevitably, death.

And yet we know that the delights of life are worth all its trials and its inevitable end. A Christian knows that we humans are more than mere naked apes. We know that God made us ‘in His image’.

It is, thus, no accident that at the heart of the Christian faith is the Nativity. The greatest story ever told begins with the birth of a baby boy, immaculately and divinely conceived, to a young Jewish woman. 

And the story ends, not with His cruel crucifixion in Jerusalem, but with the conquest of the Roman Empire itself by the religion founded by Him — Christos, the Anointed One of the Lord God.

This Christmas, let us remind ourselves that His 2,000-year reign over the faithful began not only amid a Middle Eastern crisis, but also in the period of transition from republic to empire.

Dark days may lie ahead. It is some comfort, surely, that a saviour could be born at such a time.

  • Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, and columnist with Bloomberg Opinion.