Trump, the Wall, and Ruling by Emergency Decree

Paul v. Hindenburg
As President of Weimar, Paul von Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree, becoming a proto-dictator.  Is America heading down that road?

W.J. Astore

In the Weimar Republic of Germany during the early 1930s, the President of that time, Paul von Hindenburg, ruled increasingly by emergency decree due to a hopelessly divided and ineffectual Reichstag (parliament or congress).  In 1932, for example, Hindenburg issued 66 emergency decrees while the Reichstag itself succeeded in passing only five laws.  Even before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hindenburg had emerged, in a supposedly democratic Germany, as a fuhrer or dictator, issuing decrees in the name of getting things done.  A time-limited “emergency” executive power, in sum, became Weimar’s new normal, setting the stage for a much more malignant autocracy in the future.

As Donald Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency to enlarge America’s preexisting wall along the border with Mexico, Americans would do well to remember the Weimar example.  Ruling by emergency decree is the path to authoritarianism, and Congress, no matter how divided or ineffectual it is, should act to stop executive overreach before it finds itself neutered and irrelevant.

Of course, the U.S. Congress has already largely refused to exercise its “power of the purse” over the military as well as its power to declare (and control) America’s wars.  Whether America’s elected representatives have the collective guts to stop Trump’s potential usurpation of power remains to be seen.

One thing is certain.  Americans are growing accustomed to a divided, dysfunctional, even a shutdown, government.  And we’re growing accustomed to presidents acting like dictators, especially under circumstances couched as “wars” or other national emergencies (as determined by that same executive branch).  No matter your political party or allegiance (or lack thereof), this is not how democracy works — it’s how democracy dies.

16 thoughts on “Trump, the Wall, and Ruling by Emergency Decree

  1. Excellent analysis. The problem is that most Americans have no idea where Weimar is. (See yesterday’s NYT’s article on Wisconsin at Steven’s Point banishing history from the curriculum.


    1. History is that niggling thing that should remind us all that anyone who says “There is No Alternative” is either a liar or an idiot.

      Part of why no one with power in America particularly cares about History – except insofar as it reliably tells self-congratulating stories about Western superiority. That’s all History education usually amounts to in the USA, unless you get into upper division courses.

      I remember, as a kid, looking forward to *finally* covering World War 2 in class (a long-standing autistic special interest of mine). But all I got was a one-week series of videos and a narrative reduced to: Hitler was bad, then those evil Japanese sneak-attacked Pearl Harbor, for which we repaid them with A-bombs. Also, there was D-Day, that great American triumph of guts and ingenuity – though there were Brits and some Canucks there too – leading to the liberation of Europe and the revelation of the Holocaust. Most of the week was spent on that, culminating in a semi-mandatory screening of Schindler’s List.

      A terribly disappointing experience, because even the battered old Time/Life (I forget which) histories (there was whole series, and I collected most from old libraries) told me there was so much more to the tragedy. And that the collective failure to learn from what that generation experienced, all around the world, is one of America’s greatest sins, that is a core component of why the country is self-destructing as we speak.

      But hey, I’ve got a solution to the federal shutdown: states (and/or groups of) take over all federal responsibilities – including taxation – and fund whatever local federal programs they like. If Texas wants a damn wall, it can have one (and pay for it). But California, won’t.


    2. P.J. O’Rourke said it best (at least, I think it was him) when he pointed out that “the Greeks are the impoverished descendants of a bunch of la-dee-da fruit salads who invented democracy and then forgot how to use it while walking around dressed up like girls.” I think, perhaps, that Ancient Greece is a parallel that would be more widely understood, seeing as the Greeks were leaders in almost everything at the time, whereas Germany was never in quite the same situation. In fact, just look up Alcibiades sometime, particularly if you enjoy grim comedy.

      The point I’m trying to make here is that this is nothing new. All democracies fall the same way – to the “tyranny of the majority,” as James Madison argued in his Federalist essays. This is the reason for the electoral college – something no other country has. The majority is a like-minded mob, and therefore with too much power, they will prop up an authoritarian system, especially when there is no reasonable alternative. Congress gets nothing done, therefore the people will demand its dissolution in favour of a dictatorship. Efficiency is a beautiful thing, but it also sets a dangerous precedent. Germans, by the way, love efficiency above all else.


  2. Wonder whether Hindenburg’s whiskers were orange?

    But yes, not only the US seems to be heading that way and suffer total amnesia about the countless tragic examples of autoritarian rule in our recent history.
    In the meantime the shutdown seems to affect other countries as well and not only economically. Why, for instance, are the US organising their February 13/14 international ‘Iran-bashing’ gathering in Poland and not the US? It’s not our conference but the US’.
    One reason could be, that inviting MBS and his regional cronies would lead to too much local opposition both in politics and on the streets.
    But another reason can be that with the shutdown – not expected to end in time before mid-February ? – there would not be the indispensible staff in security or even traffic control to manage such a big gathering and assure the participants’ safety.
    And cancelling it at the last moment for such reasons would be extremely embarassing.

    Even more sinister reasons cannot be excluded either, as the last time the US ‘organised’ anything in my gullible country, it was a secret CIA torture prison for which there still is zero accountability. As for now, it already has seriously soured our relationship with Iran, with cultural exchanges apparently being the first victim as a Polish film festival there has been cancelled. I suppose no other European country was volunteering to host this shameful event apart from mine …


    1. I have to admit a bit of confusion about USA-Poland relations over the past decade. I understand why DC wants to cultivate Warsaw as an ally – Germany won’t support US bases forever, and Poland is a bit closer to the Middle East – but I don’t really understand why Poland’s leaders would ever trust the USA. Being caught between Germany and Russia has to be uncomfortable given the history, but when has the USA ever actually risked itself to protect Poland? Or the rest of Eastern Europe, for that matter?

      I suspect someone is doing the math on how many $ can be made if Poland increases defense spending and starts buying American military hardware. My guess is that’s behind the push to get European countries to increase military spending. Americans pay more than $2,000 per person on the military, Europeans less than half that. Nice big potential market if you are a bomb-maker.


      1. They alreay bought some obsolete second-hand F16s a few years ago and I think Patriot rockets are next on the wish list …
        As for military spending, Poland unfortunately is one of the few countries which already feed NATO the required %.

        I could understand it in the beginning, after decades of communist rule Uncle Sam might indeed have seemed a sugar daddy. But after nearly 30 years of ‘sovereignty’ you’d think they would realise they’d better be really chummy with the EU and other European countries. Yet they still seem to swallow any flattery from DC, hook, line & sinker.
        I fail to understand why after 30 years the country and its politicians still are so provincial or even parochial. And a parochial politician is easily trapped by foreign flattery.
        Then there’s our former minister of foreign affairs who is married to Anne Applebaum (a staunch right-wing Russia-hater and biased writer) and at some point was lobbying for Halliburton to drill shale gas here.

        A few years ago at a panel meeting with ‘Young Left’ aspiring politicians, not a single one asked our attention for any subject outside their own backyard. Their parents had an excuse as they could not travel freely and had no internet.
        But all these career-eager youngsters had to do was litterally walk out the door onto our main square with hundreds of tourist from all over the world and talk with a few of them.
        Ah well, there’s always hope …


        1. Applebaum tricked me for a few articles once upon a time, then I noticed she always says the same things – and then I realized who her husband was.

          I can only imagine how difficult it is for a country to rebuild after decades of effective occupation by the Soviets. Empire does terrible things to a society and nation, and losing 6 million or so people in the Second World War couldn’t have been an easy loss to recover from. I’m actually starting into some research for the next book in my series, that will take a woman from the 21st century to an alternate version of the Eastern Front, which in January 1945 ran right down the Vistula.


          1. I shouldn’t start a private sideline :-), but this research project sounds interesting – as too many of my compatriots keep rehashing the shady period right after the end of WWII. During my political refugee childhood I knew that my country had not really been liberated after WWII, but that is no reason not to acknowledge the gigantic sacrifices the Soviet Union made in WWII. After it ended it grabbed as much of the war spoils as western powers would let it take, so shared responsibilities.

            As for Ms Applebaum, she has suggested in Slate (I think 2009) that the US tortured only 14 people during GWOT or that Morocco (where GWOT prisoners were sent for torture) does not torture anymore since 1999, among plenty other ‘fake news’.
            She’s more dangerous than outright liers because she coats her lies in carefully phrased half-truths, thus giving them an aura of intellectual righteousness.

            When she published her second ‘flatter ex-communist countries’ book (apart from the one with her Polish cooking) about how the USSR curtailed our press, she travelled the country to present it, everywhere introduced as a world-class journalist.
            I attended one of these meetings, in the hope that I could ask a question. Which would roughly have been : “You understand our part of the world so well and have written fascinating books about all the wrongs we’ve had to suffer (!), including the Soviet gulag. Can you tell us what the subject of your next book will be? Will it perhaps be the US gulag of secret CIA prisons, one of which was located only a few hundred km from here and others in our fellow ‘victim countries’ Lithuania and Romania?” Alas, there was no opportunity to ask questions …

            PS: What is your book series?


  3. Peter Van Buren has an interesting take on all this Sturm und Drang surrounding President Trump’s flagrantly political desire to extend an already existing wall in the desert — built by several of his predecessors — by another few hundred miles. The Wall May Be a Waste, But It is Not a Crisis.

    “Trump’s wall isn’t going to stop much illegal immigration. On the other hand, it is unlikely to hurt much of anything; it will most likely just be another waste of money. It is certainly not a Constitutional crisis over authoritarianism.”

    “There are currently some 700 miles of fence/wall/barrier along the 2,000 mile southern border, built in pieces under the Bushes and Clinton administrations, and maintained under Obama. Clinton even called his 1994 wall effort “Operation Gatekeeper.” There was little-to-no national opposition raised when the various walls were constructed, and no widespread movement to tear them down when Democrats held full control of the government in the early Obama years. No Russian leader stood on the border and declared to freedom loving people everywhere “Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, Other Mr. Bush, or Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!”

    “Apparently all the fears about abuse of power center on a couple of hundred miles of wall in the desert; wars in deserts further away now barely make the news. Spare us the hand wringing over crisis, abuse of power, and unconstitutionality. If anyone really wants to talk the talk on those topics, let’s reopen the debate on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as part of the negotiations to reopen the government.”

    “That all of that is ignored while the nation is on edge over a slice of wall tells you what this is all really about: 2020.

    What he said …


    1. If you want to try to sneak into the USA to do something nefarious, just pick any one of the three thousand or so miles of (mostly) unguarded, unwatched US-Canada border. Put on a pack, and do a little hike, and keep to the Rockies.

      Beats wandering through the deserts of the Southwest. But a wall to the north doesn’t keep out the parents of latino someday-voters. Which is what this is all about. The GOP has nothing left but racial nationalism and convincing a bunch of voters who will be dead in under a decade that it can stop the tide.


    2. I don’t quite agree with Peter here. The point is to prevent presidents from declaring (false) national emergencies in the cause of circumventing Congress. Sure, a longer wall for $5.7 billion may be mainly a waste of money with perhaps little additional harm, but what next will the president do in the (false) name of “emergency”? And how quickly will Americans become accustomed to a government that only seems to work when a strong man issues decrees while a dithering Congress does nothing?

      Of course, don’t get me started on the AUMF and all our undeclared wars …


      1. In metaphorical language, someone left the barn door open and the horses have escaped; the cat has gotten out of the bag, etc., etc. As for who deliberately left the door open or opened the bag, Congress can vote to repeal the National Emergency Act of 1974 any time it wishes, but so far has shown no inclination to do so.

        Dithering Congresses determined to do nothing have quite a record of handing presidents the power and authority to bypass them and their ostensible “oversight function.” In his article on this subject, Peter Van Buren provides a link to some relevant information supplied by CNN: Here are the 28 active national emergencies. Trump won’t be adding the opioid crisis to the list, by Ryan Struyk, CNN (August 15, 2017).

        States of emergency are nothing new for the United States.

        There are currently 28 concurrent active national emergencies in America — there’s been at least one national emergency for nearly four decades straight.

        Declaring a national state of emergency under the National Emergencies Act of 1974 outlines how a president can activate special statutory power during a crisis.

        George W. Bush declared 13 emergencies and Barack Obama declared 12 — nearly all of which are still active today. Bill Clinton declared 17 national emergencies, six of which are still active. Ronald Reagan declared six and George H.W. Bush declared four — but all of those have been revoked by now.

        The first declaration under the National Emergencies Act of 1974 came during the Iran hostage crisis — a national emergency that is still active today. Jimmy Carter blocked Iranian government property from entering the country. It’s been renewed each year by all presidents since then.

        Presidents must renew national emergencies every year because the statute lets emergencies automatically expire after one year[emphasis added]

        Other ongoing national emergencies focus on the 9/11 terror attacks, the war in Iraq and the blocking of some property and people from around the world in countries such as Yemen, Ukraine, South Sudan, Venezuela and Burundi.

        Past emergencies have focused on everything from swine flu to rough diamonds [emphasis added].

        Here’s a list of the 28 active national emergencies:

        1. Blocking Iranian Government Property (Nov. 14, 1979)
        2. Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (Nov. 14, 1994)
        3. Prohibiting Transactions with Terrorists Who Threaten to Disrupt the Middle East Peace Process (Jan. 23, 1995)
        4. Prohibiting Certain Transactions with Respect to the Development of Iranian Petroleum Resources (Mar. 15, 1995)
        5. Blocking Assets and Prohibiting Transactions with Significant Narcotics Traffickers (Oct. 21, 1995)
        6. Regulations of the Anchorage and Movement of Vessels with Respect to Cuba (Mar. 1, 1996)
        7. Blocking Sudanese Government Property and Prohibiting Transactions with Sudan (Nov. 3, 1997)
        8. Blocking Property of Persons Who Threaten International Stabilization Efforts in the Western Balkans (Jun. 26, 2001)
        9. Continuation of Export Control Regulations (Aug. 17, 2001)
        10. Declaration of National Emergency by Reason of Certain Terrorist Attacks (Sept. 14, 2001)
        11. Blocking Property and Prohibiting Transactions with Persons who Commit, Threaten to Commit, or Support Terrorism (Sept. 23, 2001)
        12. Blocking Property of Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Zimbabwe (Mar. 6, 2003)
        13. Protecting the Development Fund for Iraq and Certain Other Property in Which Iraq has an Interest (May 22, 2003)
        14. Blocking Property of Certain Persons and Prohibiting the Export of Certain Goods to Syria (May 11, 2004)
        15. Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus (Jun. 16, 2006)
        16. Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Oct. 27, 2006)
        17. Blocking Property of Persons Undermining the Sovereignty of Lebanon or Its Democratic Processes and Institutions (Aug. 1, 2007)
        18. Continuing Certain Restrictions with Respect to North Korea and North Korean Nationals (Jun. 26, 2008)
        19. Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Conflict in Somalia (Apr. 12, 2010)
        20. Blocking Property and Prohibiting Certain Transactions Related to Libya (Feb. 25, 2011)
        21. Blocking Property of Transnational Criminal Organizations (Jul. 25, 2011)
        22. Blocking Property of Persons Threatening the Peace, Security, or Stability of Yemen (May 16, 2012)
        23. Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Ukraine (Mar. 6, 2014)
        24. Blocking Property of Certain Persons With Respect to South Sudan (Apr. 3, 2014)
        25. Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Conflict in the Central African Republic (May 12, 2014)
        26. Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela (Mar. 9, 2015)
        27. Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities (Apr. 1, 2015)
        28. Blocking Property of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Burundi (Nov. 23, 2015)

        So add President Trump’s petty little threat to declare a “national emergency” to this long list of mostly threadbare schemes to grab someone’s property — for displeasing the corporate sponsors of the U.S. “government” — and he hardly appears as some new Teutonic avatar of anti-democratic menace. In fact, he wants to throw a tidbit political bone to his so-called “base” and the virtue-signalling “Democrats” in the House don’t want to let him have a “victory,” which he will declare anyway — as he has in Syria and in so many other instances — no matter how things actually turn out.

        A crisis for the “Republic”? I don’t think so. Just the usual Kabuki puppet show. Too bad for the 800,00 federal workers without paychecks; but if a real left-wing, anti-war, working-class Democratic Party actually existed, it would organize and stage a nation-wide strike, shutting down all transportation networks across the country, until America’s excuse for a “government” called off this cheap theatrical farce and let everybody who actually works for a living get back to their jobs and pathetic incomes.

        I think that Peter Van Buren correctly assessed both the tone and substance of this made-for-cable-tv tabloid travesty. “Historic?” Hardly.


        1. When you look at that list, Mike, virtually all of them are about “blocking property.” They seem to be about sanctions, commerce, trade.

          Trump, if he declares a national emergency, will do so to evade the will of Congress. Congress doesn’t want to fund his wall. A majority of Americans don’t want to fund it. So, if Trump follows this path, he does so as a “unitary executive,” ruling by fiat, against the will of Congress and most of the people. And sure — it’s “only” six billion dollars. But once the precedent is set, six billion may grow very quickly.

          There simply is no national “emergency” at the border; to declare one and then to misappropriate funds in its name seems unconstitutional to me, And, as you said, this is really all about politics for Trump and keeping Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh happy.

          I don’t care if it’s Trump or Hillary or Jill Stein acting this way — this accelerates America’s march toward authoritarianism.


          1. Funny, I see that particular barn door as having more or less been left open while the rest of the barn burned down. America is already functionally authoritarian, with a classic ‘selectorate’ choosing who gets to stand for office with the blessing of a major party and an Executive Branch that has been doing exactly whatever it pleases for decades, and is responsible for the deaths of millions of people around the world.

            Americans have already been executed without trial, and neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has stepped in to guarantee the Constitutional rights of the accused – so long as they’re abroad (but how long will that last?). America has captured and imprisoned – again without trial or even proper investigation – foreigners who have been labelled as “enemy combatants” as a legal fiction to enable torture. American police have the authority to kill *anyone* so long as they can say they felt threatened. Swat teams use military-grade equipment and any police department with a compliant prosecutor can seize all of your property and assets if they simply declare them – again without meaningful checks – to have been gained through the manufacture, transport, or sales of illegal drugs.

            The real national emergency is the fact that DC does whatever it wants while ensuring that the Constitution is only ever interpreted in such a way that it suits the interests of those already in a position of power – hence Citizens United. Obama deported more illegal immigrants than Bush, and under his watch many died.

            We white people are only just now realizing that the America our schools taught us to believe in is a total fantasy. And this is happening now because the economic and social oppression of all American society’s Others has gone on for so long and is so deeply entrenched into the political-economic-social system that real reform is probably impossible without a truly broad-based, post-partisan mass movement that aims to reform the underlying federal architecture of the nation.

            But I doubt this will happen, because:

            A. Too many white people with power benefit from the status quo, and will continue to benefit, unless/until the whole thing implodes (which eventually happens with all Empires).

            B. The educational system teaches distinctly white and middle-class suburban values to students, presenting the current status quo as a culmination of history that can never change without everything descending into barbarism.

            C. America’s Constitutional architecture was designed to balance the interests of thirteen Atlantic colonies, and political boundaries west of the Appalachians become increasingly, well, stupid. The electoral college is one result, and now represents the GOP’s one hope of survival.

            So while I *do* agree that Trump’s “National Emergency” idea is complete and utter bullshit, I also see it as well in-keeping with trends in American history.

            My whole life I’ve been waiting for the President to come along who would realize how much the system relies on no one actually having to stand up, take risks, and fight to preserve it. America has relied for decades on the restraint exercised by elites who all realize they’ve got a pretty great deal, and don’t want to risk it. And now, when we’re in the midst of the worst political crisis in modern American history, those elites are still trying to keep the whole rotten thing plastered together without addressing their own moral complicity in letting matters decay so far.

            Hence, the importance of recognizing America’s similarities to Weimar Germany. Most of the same tools Hitler used are available here. The cosmetics of the rhetoric are different in many ways, and the situation isn’t exactly the same in all details – but the basic illness remains common to both.

            Vulnerable architecture + craven guardians of the system = eventual catastrophe.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Hitler, in Mein Kampf was scathing in his contempt for democracy and “parliamentarianism.”

    Here he is in his own words:

    “Our movement (National Socialism) must necessarily be anti-parliamentarian, and if it takes part in the parliamentary institution it is only for the purpose of destroying this institution from within; in other words, we wish to do away with an institution which we must look upon as one of the gravest symptoms of human decline.”

    and this…

    “(we) reject in general and in its own structure all those principles according to which decisions are to be taken on the vote of the majority and according to which the leader is only the executor of the will and opinions of others. The movement lays down the principle that, in the smallest as well as the greatest problems, one person must have absolute authority and bear all responsibility.”

    I strongly recommend Mein Kampf (Amazon has it) to everyone as proof that Hitler made his intentions perfectly clear before he took power. It was a best seller in pre-war Germany and leaves a reader in no doubt that the claim that “we had no idea that Hitler would go so far!” is absurd.


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