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.
President Donald Trump has a disturbing way of talking about the U.S. military. Consider the following Trump quotation about the recent attack on U.S. troops in Niger:
“I have generals that are great generals,” Trump said. “I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. My generals and my military, they have decision-making ability. As far as the incident that we’re talking about [in Niger], I’ve been seeing it just like you’ve been seeing it. I’ve been getting reports.” [emphasis added]
For Trump, it’s not the American people’s military, it’s “my” military. Generals are not Congressionally-appointed officers, they’re “my” generals. Trump has a fundamental misunderstanding of his role as commander-in-chief, as well as the role of the U.S. military. He sees himself as the big boss of “his” military, with generals as his personal employees whom he can order around and fire at will.
And by “order around,” I mean the issuance of orders regardless of their legality, a point Trump made back in March of 2016, in response to a debate question by Bret Baier:
BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.
So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?
TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.
BAIER: But they’re illegal.
TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.
As I wrote then, Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of leadership, and especially his boasts about the military obeying his orders irrespective of their legality, disqualified him as a presidential candidate. Of course, Trump’s dictatorial statements didn’t deter his determined fans. Indeed, they elected him because they wanted a Strong Man, not because they feared one.
So here we are, with a dictator wannabe as president, treating the U.S. military as if it’s his personal Praetorian Guard. If the Republic isn’t dead, its heartbeat is fading fast. Meanwhile, the sordid and corrupt Empire of Trump – just by its endurance – grows ever stronger.
Donald Trump’s faults are legion. But which ones are truly awful?
A crass womanizer who brags about his penis. But wait a minute. Lyndon B. Johnson was vulgar and crude and crass and a womanizer – and LBJ was easily eclipsed as a womanizer by John F. Kennedy.
A bigot who attacks Mexican immigrants and Muslims among other “undesirables.” But wait a minute. Richard Nixon railed against the Blacks and the Jews, among other “enemies” of Nixon’s righteous “silent majority” of Americans.
An ignoramus who knows little of foreign policy. But wait a minute. Many presidential candidates have lacked foreign policy experience (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, to cite two recent examples).
A posturing tough-guy who supports torture for America’s enemies and the murder of terrorists’ families. But wait a minute. The Bush/Cheney administration freely used torture (they just called it “enhanced interrogation techniques”), and the Obama administration freely uses drones to “take out” terrorists and whoever may be with them (including innocent family members).
A serial liar who can’t be taken at his word. But wait a minute. Name any president, other than Jimmy Carter, who prioritized truth-telling.
A bully who bludgeons his opponents into submission. But wait a minute. Just think of LBJ, Nixon, and Dick Cheney (yes, he was a Vice President, but still). These men were all bullies.
A shameless showman who exploits the media while professing to hate it. But wait a minute. Nixon despised the media; the media colluded with Kennedy to hide his negative qualities; and Obama has cozied up to the corporate media even as he’s actively prosecuted whistleblowers.
Focusing on Trump’s many “awfuls” is not the best way to defeat him, since America’s presidents have hardly been choir boys. Put simply, Trump’s prejudicial attitudes toward women, minorities, and other groups or peoples he doesn’t like don’t mark him as exceptional, nor does his record of flip-flops on issues, as the American people have come to expect that politicians are basically liars.
Where Trump is vulnerable, I believe, is his tyrannical qualities. Trump’s past behavior suggests he sees himself as above the law. Put differently, he sees himself as a law unto himself. And if he wins the presidency I simply don’t believe he’ll honor his oath of office to the U.S. Constitution.
Remember during the Frost Interviews when Nixon said, If the president does it, that means it’s legal? That’s Trump in a nutshell. Recall during the Republican presidential debates when Trump said the U.S. military would obey his orders regardless of their legality under the U.S. Constitution. Yes, he later recanted that dictatorial position, but his initial answer revealed his essential nature: I’m in charge, I’ll do what I want, everyone else has to obey me.
Here “Star Trek” fans may recall an episode from the original series called “Space Seed,” featuring Ricardo Montalban as Khan. A tyrant from Earth’s past, Khan speaks of unifying humanity under a strong leader. Spock’s reply is telling: “Unify, sir? Like a team of animals under one whip?”
Khan then waxes about the wonders of one-man rule, eventually blurting out, “We offered the world order!” The Donald, today’s version of Khan, offers to make America great again.
Trump has the makings of a tyrant. His approach to the presidency is fundamentally undemocratic. His statements and behavior suggest if he becomes president he’ll do what he wants and expect others to fall into line, even the U.S. military, which swears its oath to the U.S. Constitution and not to any one leader. At a time when Congress has abdicated its responsibility to declare war or to check executive warmaking prerogatives, a tyrant like Trump is an especially dangerous prospect as president.
Because of this, Trump is truly an awful choice for president.