The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

A Reality Check on the Trump-as-Dictator Prophecies

Former president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during an event for his supporters in Coralville, Iowa, December 13, 2023. (Vincent Alban/Reuters)

On the menu today: Let’s stipulate that no presidential candidate should be joking about being a dictator, even if it’s just for one day. But the recent contention from former congresswoman Liz Cheney that America’s existing checks and balances would prove powerless against the worst impulses and ambitions of Donald Trump requires you to have a particularly grim perspective on our fellow citizens.

If America’s Checks and Balances Won’t Stop Trump . . . Whom Will They Stop?

Over on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, former congresswoman Liz Cheney warns, “Checks and Balances Won’t Stop Trump . . . The Constitution’s protections won’t be able to block his abuses of executive power.”

Readers of this newsletter know that I’m not a supporter of Trump, never voted for him, never will, and find his glaring character flaws, narcissism, erratic judgment, and childish stubbornness outweigh his acts as president that I applauded (tax cuts, defense buildup, killing Soleimani, judicial appointments, First Step Act, Right to Try). But I don’t like this argument that Republicans or the electorate at large must reject Trump because if he wins the election, democracy will end, the Constitution will burn, and America will become an autocracy.

Because if our existing checks and balances under the Constitution aren’t strong enough to stop abuses of power by Trump . . . why would you think that they’re strong enough to stop abuses of power by Joe Biden or anyone else? Because there’s another guy running for president who has also been willing to ignore the Constitution when it proved inconvenient.

Cheney begins:

As we approach the 2024 primaries, some Republicans have begun arguing that the checks and balances constructed by the framers of our Constitution make our republic invulnerable to whatever illegal or unconstitutional acts Donald Trump might attempt in a second term.

Does anyone feel that accurately describes their viewpoint? Have you run across anyone arguing that the country is “invulnerable” to any attempted illegal or unconstitutional acts on the part of a president?

Anyone with functioning neurons knows that the presidency is a powerful office, and that simply through control of the executive branch, use of executive orders, appointments (temporary and otherwise), meetings with foreign leaders, etc., a malevolent president could do a lot of damage. It is more accurate to say that some believe that our Constitution’s system of checks and balances mitigates or limits the amount of damage that Trump or any other president could do.

Cheney warns “our current Congress” won’t limit Trump’s power. This assumes that Trump wins in 2024, Republicans win control of the Senate, Republicans eliminate a filibuster that they kept in place during 2017 and 2018 despite Trump demanding they get rid of it, and Republicans expand their razor-thin majority in the House — and then that once Republicans control all those branches of government, there will be no Republicans who would be willing to object when Trump violates the law or Constitution.

I’m not saying that scenario is impossible, just that it requires every Republican in the legislative branch to accept a role akin to obedient eunuchs. But during Trump’s last term, he and his staff clashed with congressional Republicans quite a bit. During one of the early battles to repeal and replace Obamacare in 2017, Trump told a group of about 30 House conservatives holding out on the proposed bill to “forget about the little s***, let’s focus on the big picture here.” The Republicans, who believed the “little s***” that Trump was dismissing amounted to about one-fifth of the national economy, were unpersuaded. No legislator enjoys being talked down to or told he must vote a certain way.

Keep in mind, barring some unexpected resignation or health issue, the U.S. Senate in 2025 and 2026 will include Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. All three voted to impeach Trump in January 2021, which I think establishes strong bona fides that they’re willing to defy Trump when they think he’s wrong.

There’s also the not-so-minor factor that if Republicans do win a bigger House majority in 2024, that majority will be built upon victories in a whole bunch of swing districts. America’s purple suburbs and exurbs are not yearning for a dictatorship. If Trump gets elected and promptly starts acting like a dictator, the electorate will take it out on him in the midterm elections. (For everyone screaming that Trump will cancel or rig elections beyond 2024, I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Cheney envisions Trump simply ignoring judicial rulings that don’t go his way. “Trump ignored judicial rulings in dozens of cases rejecting his stolen-election claims, including several rulings by federal judges he appointed.” Yes, Trump ignored them, but Trump also didn’t make any move to defy them during his remaining time as president. A whole lot of people predicted that Trump would refuse to leave the White House on January 20, 2021. But that morning, he packed up; issued a bunch of pardons and commutations; declared, “As I conclude my term as the 45th President of the United States, I stand before you truly proud of what we have achieved together”; went to Air Force One for the last time; and flew back to Mar-a-Lago.

I don’t have a crystal ball; Trump could well trigger a constitutional crisis by openly defying a Supreme Court ruling. But if that Supreme Court ruling was about the actions of a federal agency, a fair question is whether everyone who works at that federal agency is willing to act in defiance of the court.

As Michael Brendan Dougherty observed, the story of Trump’s first term is the story of a man largely ignored by his own staff and the executive branch he allegedly ran. Trump reportedly wanted to build a moat with alligators at the border and arm U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel with bayonets. His own staff apparently didn’t take Trump’s ideas seriously; it’s hard to envision the federal civil service saluting and jumping into action to turn whatever popped into Trump’s head into reality. Read about federal bureaucrats; dragging their feet, slow-walking, and ignoring orders from above are arguably their greatest set of skills. Actual smart people who know what they’re doing have gone up against the federal bureaucracy and walked away, years later, with little to show for it. Why is everyone so certain that the typical Trump sycophant, the Charlie Kirk type, is going to turn his corner of the federal government into a well-oiled, obedient machine?

Cheney also envisions Trump turning the military into his personal force to cancel or nullify future presidential elections:

One commentator recently asked what “army” Mr. Trump would employ to halt the 2028 elections and remain in power. I would direct her to what retired Gen. Mike Flynn was arguing before Jan. 6 — that the president should deploy the U.S. military to seize voting machines and rerun elections in swing states. Mr. Trump has already committed that Mr. Flynn and other extremists would serve in the most senior positions in a second Trump administration.

Now, Trump can put as many yes-men and sycophants onto the White House staff as he likes, and he can try the work-around of naming “acting” officials and just ignoring the need for Senate approval for as long as possible.

But every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” While they also swear to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me,” they remain obligated to disobey unlawful orders. An order to seize voting machines, nullify legitimate election results, and re-run elections until the president’s party won would be inherently unlawful.

I just don’t see our men and women in uniform as mindless automatons who will obey whatever orders Trump gives them, no matter how self-evidently unlawful or in defiance of the Constitution they are. Nor do I see the men and women of America’s law enforcement that way. Yes, you can find bad apples in both groups. But I just don’t think that the entire military and all the law-enforcement agencies of the U.S. government will nod and go along with an effort to end 250 years of constitutional limits on the power of the president.

It’s also an inaccurate assumption to believe that America’s generals and admirals are Republicans or conservatives and will instinctively agree with whatever Trump wants to do; the U.S. is full of retired military officials who have demonstrated in retirement that they are dyed-in-the-wool liberals on many issues — Wes Clark, Stanley McChrystal, Mark Milley, Michael Hayden. It seems likely that our current four-star generals privately hold a variety of political viewpoints, and at least some, if not most or all, would object to and refuse to obey unlawful orders, and that their perception of what constitutes an unlawful order is well within the mainstream.

We both oppose Trump’s return to office, but I think that’s an important distinction between my worldview and Cheney’s. Apparently, she thinks that if Trump gets back into the Oval Office, he’ll act like a dictator, and everyone who works for the federal government will just say, “Okay then,” and that will be the end of America as we know it.

I’ve run into a surprising number of progressives who apparently genuinely believe that if Donald Trump wins the 2024 election, that will be the last free and fair election that America ever has. These people believe that if Trump wins, then by the 2026 midterms, if not by the 2025 gubernatorial elections, Trump and his acolytes will have figured out a way to rig the elections, or disenfranchise large number of Democrats, or hack the voting machines, or some other nefarious plot that will end self-government. The irony is that these people are the mirror image of the Trump fans who insist that the 2020 election was stolen, and that Democrats (or the Deep State, or whomever) rigged the elections, hacked the voting machines, etc.

A trailer for the summer thriller entitled Civil War recently debuted. The trailer begins with a radio announcer making a reference to a “third-term president,” suggesting that at this point in the not-so-distant future, the Constitution has either been altered or ignored. A news announcer declares that 19 states have joined some sort of secessionist movement, led by California and Texas — a nice little detail that defies the expected easy narrative of blue states or red states seceding. The film looks violent, bloody, and grim.

I feel like we’re seeing more near-future sci-fi or speculative fiction lately depicting a semi-post-apocalyptic America, torn apart by a second civil war — DMZ and Bushwick come to mind, as do The Last of Us, some novels, and shows and films going back as far as Jericho and Barb Wire. (And then there’s Kurt’s series, where J. Edgar Hoover is celebrated within the future People’s Republic as a “pioneering symbol of resistance.”) No doubt, this is the creative class looking at America’s political divisions and the violence of January 6 and fearing everything could get worse.

I worry about an unraveling social fabric and worsening divisions in America, too, and you can find those themes in works like this and this. But I don’t like the mentality that one day we’re going to wake up and find that roughly half our fellow citizens have just turned evil. Almost all these stories envision all or portions of the U.S. military eagerly gunning down their fellow citizens over whatever political division triggered the split. These speculative-fiction offerings don’t just have a grim view of humanity, they have a particularly grim view of Americans: that roughly half of us are quietly itching to murder our fellow citizens, and would eagerly take that opportunity if some demagogue called for it. (You might wonder if some of these offerings represent psychological projection.)

Yes, we have idiots in our country. We have plenty of people whose views on the proper role of government and the Constitution are the diametric opposite of our own. But your family member, old friend, or neighbor who thinks completely differently from you and drives you crazy with their Facebook postings? They’re not Hamas. They’re not itching to burst through a wall and kill as many people as possible.

We may yell, shout, cut off friendships, cut off family members, and manifest these intense disagreements in a lot of ways. But it takes a lot to reach the point where you’re willing to pick up a firearm and start shooting at your former friends and neighbors and fellow citizens because you have defined them as the enemy.

If you think electing the wrong guy will destroy the country, then your country was already destroyed, or at minimum it was hollowed out and on the verge of collapse. This is how you end up like Rob Reiner, arguing, “If you vote for anyone but Joe Biden, you are voting to destroy American Democracy.” He’s contending that in order to save your right to vote for the leader you prefer, you must give up the right to vote for the leader you prefer.

A guy running for president should not joke about being a dictator “for a day.” Particularly when that guy has previously declared, “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” But let’s note that Trump isn’t the first major figure to publicly yearn for temporary autocracy: “What if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions.”

Don’t let your vehement opposition to Donald Trump lead you down the path of believing that roughly half the country is evil and eager to turn the United States into a fascist autocracy. We’re a big country full of flawed, but mostly decent human beings just trying to do their best, make a living, raise their kids, and try to build a better future for them. We’re not 20 minutes away from turning into The Man in the High Castle.

ADDENDA: Andy McCarthy asks a good question: In the current negotiations on Capitol Hill, why is the Republican proposal accepting up to 3,000 illegal-alien crossings per day?

. . . If you’ve ever wondered how bug-eyed I can get while talking about university presidents saying that calls for genocide are “context dependent” . . . well, now you can see. (I’m speaking off the cuff, so at one point I say, “code of context” when I mean “code of conduct,” but I think everybody gets the gist.)

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