Some people think that the United States is safe from dictatorship because the country is a democracy. It’s only in totalitarian countries, they hold, that people are subject to dictatorship.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Such people are confusing how a ruler gets elected with the powers that the ruler has after being elected. A democratically elected ruler can wield and exercise dictatorial powers.
Case in point: President Donald Trump. He is the democratically elected president of the United States. He also wields and exercises dictatorial power over the American people.
The system of government that the Framers established with the Constitution provided for three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial. The Constitution delegated certain powers to each branch. The legislative branch was charged with enacting laws, including laws that imposed taxes on people. The executive branch was charged with enforcing the laws. The judicial branch was charged with interpreting the laws and, if need be, declaring them unconstitutional.
In a dictatorship, the dictator doesn’t have to concern himself with legislation or judicial interpretation. What he says goes. When he issues a dictate, it automatically becomes set in stone as the law.
Trump’s conduct in his trade war with China confirms how far the United States has gone in the direction of a democratically elected dictatorship.
Notice that Trump initiated his trade war all on his own, by unilaterally raising tariffs on products that are imported from China. He didn’t go to Congress and seek a law that raised tariffs. He just issued the dictate that raised tariffs.
That is classic dictatorship. The ruler issues an order, which automatically becomes law. And keep in mind that a tariff is nothing more than a sales tax on foreign goods. The people who pay that tax are Americans who purchase Chinese goods. Therefore, under the dictatorial system under which modern-day Americans live, the democratically elected dictator wields the authority to levy whatever amounts of taxes he wishes to collect from the American people.
Over the weekend, the American people received another stark example of Trump’s dictatorial conduct. Angry over the fact that China hasn’t bowed to his demands and instead is retaliating with its own tariffs on American products, Trump declared, “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China including bringing …your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.”
That is an incredible command. Did you ever think live in a country where the ruler could issue orders to private individuals, as though they were in the army? A necessary feature of a free society is that people are required to answer only to duly enacted laws, not to arbitrary and capricious orders and dictates of their ruler. Trump clearly doesn’t get that. He thinks that because he is “commander in chief” of the armed forces, that makes him the commanding officer of the American people.
Congress isn’t innocent in this process, for it is Congress that has enacted laws delegating to the president the authority to issue these types of dictatorial decrees. The Framers, however, never intended for one branch of government to delegate its powers to another branch of government.
Where is the federal judiciary in all this? Isn’t it their job to declare laws that violate the Constitution unconstitutional. That’s the way it used to be. For example, in the 1935 case of A.L.A. Schechter v. United States, the Supreme Court declared the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s fascist National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. The Court’s reason?
The law improperly delegated congressional power to enact laws to the president and, therefore, had to be declared unconstitutional.
So, why hasn’t the U.S. Supreme Court done the same with respect to the laws on which Trump is relying? Two reasons:
First, shortly after President Roosevelt came out with his infamous “court-packing” scheme, which would enable him to pack the Court with cronies who would uphold his socialist and fascist programs, the Court made it clear that it would never again interfere with congressional enactments relating to economic activity. The Court has followed that policy ever since.
Second, the laws on which Trump is relying enable the president to cite “national security,” the most important and meaningless term in the American political lexicon. All that Trump has to do to justify his dictatorial orders, decrees, edicts, and dictates is declare “‘National security is at stake.” At that point the issue is settled. That’s because after the federal government was converted to a national-security state after World War II, the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that it would never second-guess any action of the president, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA that is based on “national security.”
That’s how America has ended up with a democratically elected dictator. But hey, let’s look at the bright side: At least Trump is not as bad as Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the unelected conservative military dictator who the Pentagon and CIA installed into power in Chile back in the 1970s. Like Trump, he too loved issuing decree-laws, without interference from a legislature or judiciary.