Donald Trump Is Becoming an American Dictator
by ANDREW DOBBS
U.S. president Donald Trump intends to be a dictator. By this I mean that he wishes to individually dictate law and individually control the levers of the state through a mixture of legal and extralegal mechanisms with no effective external restraint. The actions he is taking are all in pursuit of this goal, and he is already well on his way.
Trump infamously promised in his convention speech that he alone could fix the country’s problems, and that’s how he intends to govern — alone.
There are a finite number of institutions that can stand in the way of a president. Up to this point, most presidents haven’t wanted to be dictators, and so they have respected these institutions enough to capitulate when the rules of the game indicated that they, the presidents, had lost to them.
But Trump is the kid that trashes the Monopoly board when he’s losing. One of the most important lessons we have learned so far is that many of the things we assume presidents will do are just convention and good form — they aren’t actually required.
Trump tells us all to go fuck ourselves when we ask to see his tax returns. It’s why he hasn’t relinquished his business interests, either.
One voluntary convention that looks like its days may be numbered — press briefings. The press is venerated as the noble institution charged with holding the powerful accountable. In point of fact it has lost a lot of respect and credibility over the years, culminating in Trump himself — a tabloid-trash headline-grabber that the news media just couldn’t help but empower because its bottom line mattered more than its civic duties.
Trump attacked this challenger first, knowing that it was both the nearest to collapse and the most influential. A solid shove or two could bring down the press and make the rest of his contests easier.
The press lives and dies by way of access and if Trump eventually cuts off the press briefings — one of those elective conventions that we just assume every president has to do — there will be a very serious question as to why a New York Times bureau reporter in Washington, D.C. is any better than a kid with a blog that follows the president on Twitter.
Principled reporters will be left to compete with amateurs — and increasingly unable to justify their expense to on-the-brink publishers. Sycophants, on the other hand, will be lavished with exclusive access. The media ecosystem thus turns toxic.
Trump hasn’t gotten there yet, but he waved that weapon in the press’ face with Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s absurd anti-press conference the weekend after the inauguration, in which he berated the media for simply stating facts. Trump and his administration are fucking with the epistemological underpinnings of news altogether. Add to that a blatant threat of hostility and access-denial to come and Trump is at a profound advantage against this adversary.
The press has had plenty of work to do, nonetheless. Most of the media’s stories have revolved around executive orders and other directions to the federal bureaucracy, very much in line with what we predicted before Trump was sworn in.
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Agency staff is another potential limitation on presidential power — if staffers buck him and refuse to follow orders or slow-play things or otherwise sabotage his desires and demands in ways big and small … then his dictates never get translated into actual action.
To forestall agency resistance, Trump has executed an administrative blitzkrieg on federal agencies. Republicans have long hated environmental protection and the expectation that they not poison their own children, so Trump paralyzed the EPA by presidential fiat.
By making an example of a couple of agencies he cowed the rest of them into falling into line. Now the entire trillion-dollar, million-and-a-half-strong federal workforce either speaks with one voice — Trump’s — or shuts the fuck up. Just ask Badlands National Park’s Twitter manager how thorough the micromanaging is.
The pièce de résistance was that Trump ordered, by decree, his infamous border wall to be built. No debate, no haggling or negotiation, no consideration of alternatives. One of the largest federal civil-engineering projects in U.S. history became a fact by Trump’s word alone. Alone.
Now Trump may be able to slip the bill to Mexico like he’s promised. He can set tariffs and maybe even withdraw the United States from NAFTA — all by his lonesome, it seems. Add to this his unilateral institution of a religious test for entry into the United States under certain circumstances, and it is clear that things we all assumed were part of the constitutional order are actually subject to the president’s capricious whim.
Congress is the institution our textbooks taught us is supposed to stop such a president, but lawmakers seem to be completely useless in this regard. Besides their repeated surrender of powers to the executive over many years, Trump’s policy actions have put him in a position to dominate them, as well — and by extension the party bases that put the members into office.
Obviously the biggest threat in Congress comes from the majority — Trump’s increasingly enthusiastic Republican Party. Trump’s brilliant move here was to kick off his policy blitz not with classic Republican red meat such as tax cuts, but with the global abortion gag rule and two big strikes against so-called “free trade” agreements.
With one hand he rewarded the most indispensable core of the GOP base, the element most capable of giving him trouble if they had any principles other than their bigotry. And with the other hand, he forced the party’s powers-that-be to nod and smile while he eviscerated orthodox Republican policy.
The notion that a Republican president would kill a major trade agreement and put another — NAFTA, no less — on life support in the first week of his administration would have been an absurdity at any other point in the last 60 years.
But Trump has altered the very grounds of U.S. politics to the extent that all the contexts are now uncertain and the entire process disorienting in the extreme. The fact that Republicans are now celebrating protectionism with nary a word of protest from any quarter means that essentially any policy could flip on them, and so the only point of reference they have is doing what Trump wants of them.
The Gag Rule and the Muslim Ban in particular have secured the undivided support of the party’s grassroots for Trump, so congressional capitulation is not only the only coherent path, it’s the only politically safe one. The GOP Congress will be to Trump what the Reichstag was to Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein’s council of representatives was to the Iraqi despot — a rubber stamp.
It’s actually this phony imprimatur of legal authority that will make Trump a dictator and not an autocrat.
As for congressional Democrats, the less said the better. What exactly have they done to even slow down Trump or lodge anything but impotent protest? The protectionist decree won praise from Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, an act of absolute betrayal to whatever shreds of the socialist tradition he still had claim to — abandoning any reference to the global working class most at risk under these trade regimes and empowering a reactionary strongman for no reason whatsoever.
Old white men from the union aristocracy gave Trump even more cover and even Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren approved Trump’s nominee Ben Carson for secretary of housing and urban development, a role for which he has no credentials beside being from a city. She showed up to the Logan Airport protests, but this only highlights the incoherence of liberalism in this crisis.
Instead the Democrats have demonstrated a lack of any principles beyond their own sense of intellectual superiority and a vague wish that the president were nicer. Unless something changes dramatically, there is no chance that they will ever beat Trump at the ballot box — even if Trump keeps his voter suppression at a minimum. Which he won’t.
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The press, the federal bureaucracy, Congress and the opposition party — Trump has made serious blows towards neutralizing them all in a very short period of time. What’s left?
First there are the courts, and Trump is already on the path to some collisions here. A well-respected liberal good-government group and several noted law professors filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump is in violation of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, though the suit is a decided long shot.
More likely to be a problem are the legal challenges certain to be filed against his executive orders. Many of these orders are being rushed with insufficient legal review, ensuring that some of them are likely illegal.
How Trump responds when the courts say — like they did with Obama — that his actions overstepped his powers will be a crucial test. At this point submitting to court decisions is essentially a custom — the courts have no power to force him to comply.
One early test was not encouraging. Even after federal judges blocked elements of Trump’s order barring entry into the country by travelers — including refugees, green card and visa holders — from certain Muslim nations on Jan. 28, Customs and Border Protection agents continued detaining travelers, anyway — in blatant defiance of judicial authority.
Before those cases can make their way through the system, Trump will confront another element with similarly momentous consequence — the military. Trump has been butting heads with the CIA and the deep state — a dangerous circumstance we’ve already covered. Trump even brought a laughing gallery with him when he spoke to CIA agents at the agency’s wall of honor.
Yet the CIA is small when compared to our gargantuan armed forces.
There’s already been a conflict between senior military leadership — along with civilian management and congressional overseers — and the Trump White House over torture, which Trump says “works.” Every single military expert on the subject says the opposite.
Still, the U.S. military has aligned itself with torture regimes in the past. A much greater test will come when there is a substantive policy or even legal dispute between Trump and his generals. Certainly his removal of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the National Security Council and his appointment of fascist political hack Steve Bannon instead will not encourage a lot of good faith from those quarters.
At that point there are no good options — either the military resists civilian oversight and Trump loses ground to generals with a new political agenda, or Trump switches out principled officers with toadies in uniforms. When that happens the jig will be up.
Note that Trump has already threatened the nation’s third-largest city — Chicago — with martial law. If my presumption is right and Trump wants to be a dictator there is certain to be a conflict with the brass. And if he wins … he’s won it all.
Well actually there’s still one force Trump will have to contend with. The American people. If any one of the above contests goes against the president, his very boldness and ambition will put him in a precarious position — he can’t afford to lose.
The mass mobilizations in his first days as president show that there is a constituency ready to take to the streets to oppose him. A loss to them will threaten his rule altogether.
He isn’t afraid of standard-issue marches in permitted areas on the weekends, however. These were important and beautiful, but they were more for encouraging and sustaining people than they were for threatening Trump’s power. The spontaneous demonstrations at airports this weekend were a step forward, but they still stopped short of disrupting commerce.
Still, one foot in front of the other is the key.
If Trump defeats the press, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, the Democrats, the courts and the military and there is no mass-disruption of business as usual, a large-scale obstruction of the ability of the ruling class to operate normally, then Trump will be a dictator.
If Trump falls, it will be because people decided to fight. It will be because unlike Trump, we are never alone.
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