Trump Is Not a Dictator

The president is boxed in. Let's stop with the fear-mongering.

The federal government has been closed for longer than any period in US history. According to nearly every poll, most blame the president and the Republican Party.

Donald Trump has not given himself a way out of the impasse, wrote CNN’s Harry Enten this morning. He created conditions in which his approval rating, which was stable but underwater, is falling rapidly. There’s potential, I’d say, to erode his hardest supporters. We are witnessing in real-time a demonstration of a downward spiral.

The Democrats, meanwhile, do not have incentive to back down. The reverse is true. They won the midterms. They entered negotiations with an advantage, though Trump ignored it. Since taking formal control of the House, they have passed legislation passed previously by Senate Republicans to reopen the government. The Democrats are wedging Congressional Republicans, furthering weakening the president.

As I have argued, the longer the Democrats say no to the president, the more he will demonstrate his presidential unfitness; and the more Trump demonstrates unfitness, the more the voting public will demand something be done about him. Consider: Delta Airlines reported today that it’s losing $25 million a month due to the shutdown.

Consider, too, that the only way out of the current impasse, the only way short of humiliating himself more, is yet another demonstration of unfitness: declaring a national emergency. By declaring a national emergency, Trump could remove the wall from funding negotiations, reopen the government, and spend money allocated for other things without Congressional approval. Trump has been threatening to do that very thing for a week, but hasn’t followed through. Here, we should ask why.

Why hasn’t a president most associated with despots, autocrats and Big Men not invoked for himself what liberal critics have called “dictatorial powers”?

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, wrote Sunday that no matter the outcome, Trump’s threats “should set off alarm bells. Our president is behaving like an autocrat.” Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, said Monday that the president wants to be “the leader of a regime which is in a permanent state of emergency.”

I get that. I think it’s true. But it’s also true is that wanting to be a despot, or having the temperament of a despot, is not the same as being one, or achieving despotic goals. In the difference, I think, is potential for fear-mongering in a way that benefits academic careers but encumbers a clear understanding of our moment.

Trump hasn’t invoked “dictatorial powers,” because an American president, though given vast powers, is constrained by public opinion and by the views of everyone he works with. Since few like the idea of bypassing the Congress—a clear abuse of power—he hasn’t declared an emergency in the absence of a clear and present emergency.

Americans tend to believe presidents are more powerful than they are. In truth, they live boxed-in lives. The courts, the news media, the political opposition, not the mention our nation’s structure of government, which aims to distribute power among the 50 states—these constrain him. And let’s not forget the Republican Party. While very good at winning elections, it’s otherwise dysfunctional. Donald Trump’s only benchmark achievement has been a gigantic tax break for the rich.

There is value in making the case that a president is “closer to Ferdinand Marcos than to Ronald Reagan,” as Levitsky and Ziblatt did. (The Editorial Board published last week “Incompetent, Criminally Minded, Fascist.”) But in making such a case, we run the risk of obscuring what’s happening, and terrifying people needlessly.

We also give the impression that someone like Trump isn’t supposed to happen in this country, imbuing him with a kind of supernatural power. In fact, our system has always been vulnerable to charlatans, demagogues and goons. It’s an imperfect republic, but a republic nonetheless. That is, if citizens do the work to keep it.

And we are.

Even if Trump were to invoke emergency powers, he’d face fierce backlash made more fearsome by his unpopularity. If he acts on his threat, he’d deepen an already deep impression that he has no business being the president of the United States.

Does that mean no harm done? Not at all. The Muslim ban, the warehousing of immigrant children, environmental degradation and economic inequality—these and more are hugely destructive. Yet they can be addressed, or even reversed, by the next president. That they can be means that Donald Trump is not a dictator, and never will be. The president is too far gone now. I doubt there’s any way back.

—John Stoehr


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