Hello, Tyranny: Life in the Age of Trump

The incessant flow of noise and static from the Trump White House—occupied territory on American soil—is designed, among other things, to conceal the fundamental new reality of our political situation: that we have an unelected autocrat running the Executive branch of our government, and that the plan is to make it the only branch.

I repeat the point I made in a previous column: that Donald Trump is unelected, not because of any skullduggery by Vladimir Putin or James Comey, but because of massive voter suppression that deprived millions of Americans of their right to vote last November. That suppression was enabled by the decision of the Supreme Court (another unelected body) in Shelby County v. Holder that gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the bedrock legislative guarantee of our most fundamental constitutional right. The Court that ruled in this case secured its antidemocratic majority when George W. Bush was installed in office in 2000 by the selfsame Court in Bush v. Gore, a majority that perpetuated itself when Bush appointed two right-wing justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and when the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate (itself a product of voter suppression) refused to consider Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland last year to replace the deceased Antonin Scalia.

See how nicely it all works?
But not nicely enough for Donald Trump.

Trump, notoriously, is dissatisfied with the chicanery that put him in office despite being outpolled by nearly three million votes by his Democratic opponent. He couldn’t find any more votes that had been cast for himself (though he hasn’t given up trying), but he has made the claim—rejected by the National Association of Secretaries of State, which represents every certifying body in the fifty states—that there is no evidence of the three to six million fraudulent ballots he asserts were cast for Hillary Clinton, or of significant irregularity of any kind—voter suppression obviously not counting. (Three million disallowed ballots would erase Clinton’s actual popular majority, but give Trump no advantage; six million would be better evidence of the “landslide” victory he insists he won to everyone from the Trump Tower doorman to the Prime Minister of Australia.)

Because Trump’s claims are so preposterous on the face of them—good luck to Mike Pence, the vice presidential stooge now in charge of validating them—they aren’t taken seriously except as evidence of the extremity of his narcissism. We aren’t simply looking at a personality quirk, though. No dictator is ever satisfied with being unloved. Trump will keep hunting for those illicit votes, and though he won’t find them he will use their mythical existence as an excuse for further laws aimed at voter suppression, the effect of which will be quite real. It will also be a further excuse for deporting those millions of “bad hombres” who not only kill, rape, and steal on our cities’ streets, but (who knew?) sneak in to vote as well.

In short, there is considerable method to Trump’s madness. And it only begins here.

Trump’s idea of governance is the executive order. Hardly had his oath of office died on the wind when he took us to watch him signing the first of what has now become a daily series, with the hapless Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in attendance for window-dressing. Executive orders have grown with the imperial presidency, along with the thicket of regulations that, hatched in Executive agencies, are now required to “implement” Congressional legislation. Barack Obama signed quite a bunch of orders, many pertaining to regulations, as part of his hapless effort to free himself from a stonewalling Republican Congress. Republicans decried this as tyranny, of course, but the complaint has disappeared now that their guy is president. Many of Trump’s orders, too, have been directed at reversing Obama’s previous ones, again a tactic scarcely unique to him. But undoing one set of orders means replacing them with another set, and so legislating by executive fiat. Republicans are already beginning to find that this can be a two-edged sword.

The most notorious of the new orders has been the temporary ban on entry into the United States by persons traveling from seven Muslim-majority countries, challenges to which are now proceeding through the courts. The order was issued in such a fashion as to create a maximum of chaos at airports and confusion among the agencies enforcing it, for one of tyranny’s hallmarks is to create an atmosphere of perpetual crisis that only the Leader can clear up. It doesn’t matter whether the chaos is so great as to effectively negate the order, because it can always be “clarified” by subsequent ones. The point is to keep the flood of commands going, thereby to better accustom the country to arbitrary rule by the Commander-in-Chief. (Have you noticed, by the way, how commonplace it has become to refer to the president as “commander-in-chief” of the country, whereas in fact he is only commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a very small subset of the citizen body with a specific function? The distinction is not trivial. The Constitution refers to no one as El Jefe.)

The travel ban order was struck down by a federal justice in Seattle, James Robart, whom Trump instantly denounced as a “so-called judge.” As even Mitch McConnell observed, sitting judges are not “so-called”; they are actual, no less than the senators who appoint them. Nor is this the first time Trump has used the phrase: Candidate Donald Trump had referred to the judge who ruled against him in the suit against Trump University, Gonzalo Curiel, in the same terms. A government of laws requires acknowledgment of and due respect for those charged with interpreting them, and it is not a matter of mere discourtesy when their authority is defamed. It is a challenge to that authority, and when that challenge comes from the president, the Constitution is in crisis.

Somewhat less noticed, but no less critical, is the attempt now underway to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Law that was passed to regulate banking in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008. Only Congress can repeal the law outright, but same objective can be achieved piecemeal by revoking the regulations that define its practical operation through executive order, just as the Supreme Court was able to kill the Voting Rights Act by cutting away its enabling provisions. The fact is that almost all Congressional legislation of any complexity is in effect only a blueprint to be fleshed out by regulatory agencies, and the process, obviously fraught with the potential for subversion, succeeds only if the agencies conscientiously interpret statutes in the spirit in which they are written. Republicans who opposed Dodd-Frank when it was passed are shedding no tears at its evisceration, but, once again, if a law you don’t like can be undone by executive action, then so can one you do like, and voted to enact to begin with. If the regulatory agencies (themselves subject to Congressional oversight) can have their work of years overturned at the whim of the president, where does that leave the legislative branch itself?

George W. Bush nicknamed himself “the Decider” during his illegitimate occupancy of the White House, but even the unabashed author of the memoranda justifying Bush’s use of torture, John Yoo, now declares himself ‘worried’ by Trump’s power grab. I suppose we should congratulate (so-called) conservatives on discovering the virtues of the separation of powers, but it has after all hit Republican lawmakers where they live: in their jobs. If Trump can simply appeal over their heads to make his business friends happy without legislative encumbrance, then what’s the point of running for Congress in the first place? Washington is an expensive town, the pay is not that great, and if you wield none of the power that brings you big bucks from lobbyists, what’s the point of a political career?

What Donald Trump is doing is simply what tyrants do: gathering all powers of government into themselves. Make no mistake about the daily circus Trump creates around himself; it is the smokescreen by which he simultaneously subordinates all operations of government to his own will and attempts to distract us from what he’s doing. That he seems often enough not even to know what that will is—or, what amounts to the same thing, has little care for the consequences of his acts—is of a piece, too, with the classic tyrannical temperament. Part of the definition of tyranny is arbitrariness; the other part, inseparable from it, is caprice. From tweet to tweet, The Donald wants to keep you guessing, and the beauty of it all is that he’s as curious as any of us about what he’ll say or do next.

The question is whether there is an agenda behind all this other than the brute concentration of power. Republicans have bet on this so far, and on their ability to shape it to their own benefit and that of their corporate sponsors. They are even figuring on impeachment or invoking the disability clause of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment when they have gotten what they want out of Trump. It’s the most dangerous game anyone has ever played with the country. How it ends may determine what becomes of our Republic itself. For sure, the damage already done will be a long time walking back. The American presidency has been agglomerating powers at the expense of the other two branches of government for a long time now. In three weeks, this process has leapt forward by as much as in the past several decades. Tyranny would be its logical culmination, and a would-be tyrant is already in place.

About Robert Zaller 53 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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