Trump Wasn’t a Dictator, but He Played One on TV

Trump Wasn’t a Dictator, but He Played One on TV

MY FELLOW AMERICANS, our long National Infrastructure Week is over. The whole thing’s been exhausting: a four-year assault on the sensibilities and senses at a relentless death-metal pace. Every day brought a new enormity, from that uncomfortably Freudian spat with Kim Jong Un about whose “nuclear button” was “bigger & more powerful” to the eerie “I’m meltinggg!” rants about voter fraud near the end. 

Midway through Donald J. Trump’s tenure, in a desperate attempt at self-care, I moved my iPhone from nightstand to dresser—just to delay my what-fresh-hell-is-this early morning scan of the president’s Twitter feed until I was actually upright. But was it all as radically disjunctive as it felt? Humor me: Try, if you can, to mentally mute @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter feed; conjure up a President Trump who in his public conduct is as impeccably boring as Vice President Mike Pence. Thus limited to concrete actions taken and new powers seized, you might be able to make out something that looks closer to a bog-standard version of the imperial presidency—not quite as “not normal” as the Trump presidency seemed. America’s “thought leaders” find that notion unthinkable. 

Trump is “the closest we have ever come to a dictator,” declares former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. The mere prospect of 45’s reelection “poses the greatest threat to American democracy since the Second World War,” the New York Times editorial board insisted as Election Day loomed. Trump “stands without any real rivals as the worst American president in modern history,” the Gray Lady gasped, having “outstripped decades of presidential wrongdoing in a single term.” It’s usually a mistake to reach for historical superlatives about a presidency we’ve barely finished living through. Even so, I could entertain a couple for our newly departed 45th: “least competent” or “most rhetorically unhinged.” But the closest we’ve ever come to a dictator? C’mon, man. Contemplate the Four Seasons Total Landscaping incident four days after the election. Aiming to schedule a key press conference about legal challenges to President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, the Trump team shot for the Philadelphia Four Seasons but accidentally landed at a lawn-care outfit between a crematorium and the Fantasy Island adult bookstore. 

What should have been obvious long before had become gut-bustingly apparent: If this bunch were actually hellbent on implementing fascism, they’d get lost en route to the Reichstag and end up torching a garden supply store by mistake. None of the above should be particularly comforting. Attempting to overturn a democratic election is no less deplorable just because you’re comically bad at it. The fact that our 45th president lacked the competence, self-discipline, and functional attention span to bring his worst autocratic impulses to fruition was certainly better than the alternative. But Trump’s manifest unfitness for office cut both ways. Those same character deficits helped magnify the toll of “American carnage” in the epically bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And even if Trump’s authoritarian bluster rarely cashed out into any real-world seizure of new powers for the president, it was far from harmless. 

Four years of 100-proof strongman rhetoric may have the effect of building up our tolerance if and when the real thing comes around in a smoother blend. When (at least) half of the political class feels driven by partisan loyalty to defend or downplay open contempt for constitutional limits, it’s likely to make well-planned assaults on those limits that much easier to execute. Donald Trump may yet end up being a “transformational” president, not because of the abuses he managed to carry out but thanks to the dangerous possibilities he revealed. AS SEEN ON TV IF YOU WERE even half paying attention, as Trump’s tenure wore on you should’ve noticed how infrequently the man’s authoritarian brain-spasms made the transition from alarming tweet to nefarious plan. In the first three years of his term, for instance, the president threatened, among other things, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller; revoke birthright citizenship with the stroke of a pen; shut down the Mexican border entirely (“I’m not playing games!”); and “hereby order” American companies to stop doing business with China. The power of my tweets compels you! In each case, Trump basked in the resulting media frenzy, then did nothing whatsoever to follow through. It always ended up being a more unnerving version of “Dude: Let’s buy Greenland!” It wasn’t like it was ever going to happen. Then came the pandemic, a workable excuse for a presidential power grab if ever there was one. 

The modern imperial presidency had been forged in three great crises: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Here was a national emergency that, in terms of lives lost and economic damage, rapidly eclipsed the two prior crises of the 21st century: 9/11 and the financial collapse of 2008. This was one of the rare occasions where some Hamiltonian “energy in the executive,” intelligently directed, could have been welcome. It’s hard to imagine any of the available alternatives from the 2016 race standing up a gimcrack testing program and hammering the U.S. “curve” down to South Korean levels, but a replacement-level president might have had the decency not to make a terrible situation worse. Instead, President Trump spent his time jawboning the stock market and 26 FEBRUARY 2021 downplaying what he privately knew to be a “deadly” plague. As the gravity of the situation became undeniable, Trump tried to model bold leadership in the only way he seemed to know how: uncorking a series of proposals from the dictator’s playbook. In late March, he threatened to impose an ALL-CAPS federal “QUARANTINE” on New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut— something that would almost certainly require U.S. military boots on the ground and guns turned on American citizens to enforce. Two weeks later, at his daily coronavirus briefing (“great ratings”), Trump claimed “the ultimate authority” to force state governors to reopen their economies. 

That was Monday; during Wednesday’s show, he threatened to forcibly adjourn Congress if the Senate wouldn’t confirm his nominees. Maybe it was sweeps week. But once again, you’d have been a fool to take the president seriously, let alone literally. Almost immediately, Trump backed off his threat to build a wall around the Tri-State Area, opting for a “strong Travel Advisory” instead. It took him 24 hours to climb down from his claim of “total” power over the states, and his threat to prorogue the legislature was quickly forgotten. You almost got the impression that the only “ultimate authority” that interested Donald Trump was full-spectrum dominance of the news cycle. It clearly wasn’t self-restraint or constitutional fidelity that held Trump back from acting on his worst threats. A more likely explanation: Implementing these schemes would have been hard work and not strictly necessary to the performance. “Before taking office,” The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reported in 2017, “Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.” In the end, he wasn’t a dictator: He just played one on TV. TRUMP’S (FEW) DANGEROUS INNOVATIONS WITH THE POWERS of the modern presidency, though, you needn’t be a dictator to get away with murder. The night before the election, ex-Republican Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) unleashed a tweetstorm about Trump’s “appalling” record of expanding federal power. Among other offenses, the 45th president had “launched attacks in multiple countries without congressional approval,” vetoed legislative efforts to limit U.S. support for the criminal Saudi regime and to roll back America’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war, and signed legislation extending federal surveillance powers. 

All true, and all good reasons, as Amash argued, for libertarians to renounce Trump and all his works. Still, most of the items in Amash’s bill of particulars were the sort of fare you’d expect any Republican commander in chief to serve up. What, if anything, has our 45th president added to the executive arsenal that’s genuinely new and dangerous? For a self-styled businessman president, Trump wasn’t terribly entrepreneurial when it came to devising new ways to expand presidential power. But he did come up with a few genuinely dangerous moves that will be studied and emulated by future presidents. 

Though public policy mostly seemed to bore Donald Trump, he did have a longstanding interest in two areas, trade and immigration, which is where he made some of his most aggressive executive power grabs. In March 2018, he hiked tariffs on steel and aluminum, invoking a little-used provision in a Kennedyera trade law allowing the president to restrict imports based on the claim that they threaten “national security.” In February 2019, he declared a national emergency in order to “build the wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, diverting billions of dollars to a pet project Congress had refused to support. Trump also seized dangerous new ground in January 2020, when he used the targeted-killing machinery set up by George W. Bush and perfected by Barack Obama to eliminate Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. That move was too “over the top” even for uber-hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.), who, according to Bob Woodward’s Rage (Simon & Schuster), tried unsuccessfully to talk the president down over golf. 

The Soleimani hit was something new under the sun: It marked the first time an American president publicly ordered the assassination of a top government official for a country we’re not legally at war with. It was also a major usurpation of congressional power: Killing a senior government figure with a drone-fired missile is something every country on earth would consider a declaration of war, and under our Constitution, the president doesn’t get to make that call by himself.