Isn’t it amazing how some mainstream pundits can easily recognize dictatorial actions of foreign leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, and the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte but then go blind when it comes to similar-type actions by President Trump.
A good example is Trump’s unilateral imposition of tariffs on Europe, Canada, China, and Latin America and, for that matter, his unilateral imposition of sanctions on Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba.
What is a dictator? A dictator is a ruler who dictates. He issues orders and decrees. He commands. Everyone is expected to obey.
A dictator is like a general in the army. Everyone else is like a private. Of course, we would expect the president to issue orders to his staff or subordinates, just like a general does with people under his command. In that sense, it is entirely possible that a president can be dictatorial to those within the government who are working for him.
But that’s not what we ordinarily mean when we refer to a dictator. What we ordinarily mean is a ruler who is issuing commands to people outside the government or unilaterally adopting policies and practices that affect people outside the government.
What is the opposite of a dictator? It’s a ruler whose powers are limited. He doesn’t wield the power to issue commands, orders, and decrees to people outside of government. His powers are limited to enforcing laws that have been duly enacted by Congress.
Of course, it’s possible for Congress to enact a law that gives a ruler dictatorial powers. That’s what the German Reichstag did with the Enabling Act. With a vote of the majority, the Reichstag gave Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers.
That’s also what Congress did with respect to tariffs.
It is Congress’s job to decide whether tariffs should be imposed against a certain country. If Congress enacts a tariff law, then the president’s job is to enforce the law by imposing the tariff.
But that is clearly not what is happening. Congress has not enacted any laws requiring the imposition of tariffs on Europe, Canada, China, or Latin America. Instead, it is Trump himself who is unilaterally imposing tariffs on whatever country he wants and to whatever extent he wants. That is classic dictatorial conduct.
So, how did Trump acquire this dictatorial power? Congress delegated it to him, just like the Reichstag delegated dictatorial powers to Hitler. Congress enacted a law that gave Trump the power to impose tariffs whenever he deemed it in the interests of “national security.”
Guess who decides whether a tariff is in the interests of national security. Yep, Trump does! The result was predictable. Whenever Trump imposes tariffs, including on partners and allies of the U.S. government, he naturally says that he’s doing it in the interests of “national security.”
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the Framers never intended to bring into existence a president who wields dictatorial power. If the American people had believed that that was what the Constitution was bringing into existence, they never would have approved the Constitution, which means we never would have had the federal government.
The Constitution gave Congress the power to enact laws. Equally important, it also did not give Congress the power to delegate its legislative powers to the president. Thus, Congress has no legitimate authority to delegate to the president the power to impose tariffs or sanctions on any country, not even with the nebulous and meaningless term “national security.”
Some people would say that it is illegitimate to refer to a U.S. president as wielding dictatorial powers, given that Trump was democratically elected. Latin Americans would disagree. They have become accustomed to electing their dictator every four or six years. That’s because even though they have the right to vote for their ruler, they understand that whoever is elected is going to wield dictatorial powers. It’s what might be called a democratic dictatorship.
As any reputable economist will attest, protectionism is highly destructive to economic prosperity. As any libertarian will attest, protectionism also destroys the economic liberty and private-property rights of the citizenry. Unleashing the president to impose tariffs and sanctions on his own adds a taint of dictatorship to the mix.