Jacob G. HORNBERGER
After losing his battle against Congress to secure funding for his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, President Trump is declaring that that the congressional rebuff is irrelevant anyway. The reason? Trump is declaring an “emergency” under the “National Emergencies Act,” which, he says, authorizes him to spend U.S. taxpayer money on the wall without congressional authorization. He’s going to have the U.S. military, which will dutifully follow his orders, construct his Berlin Wall.
Trump’s action is the very essence of dictatorship. Check out other dictators around the world — Maduro in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua, Diaz-Canel in Cuba, Kim Jong-Un in North Korea, el-Sisi in Egypt, and Zi in China. They don’t have to jack around with congresses. They have the authority to just act or order. That’s what makes them dictators.
In their customary blind support of their great leader, Trumpistas will say that Trump can’t be a dictator because he was democratically elected. They are confused. Democracy is simply a means by which people place people into public office. Dictatorship refers to the power that the ruler wields after he is put into power.
Thus, a dictator can be democratically elected or take power without having been elected. Gen. Augusto Pinochet was a brutal dictator in Chile who was never elected. So was Cuba’s president Fidel Castro. On the other hand, the new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, was democratically elected but wields dictatorial powers. In fact, Latin Americans have an old saying regarding their democratic systems — that they have the right to elect their dictator every four years.
Trump claims that an immigration “emergency” gives him the power to exercise his dictatorial power. Of course, he’s not the first ruler to cite “emergency” to justify dictatorship. Rulers throughout history have done so. Among the most notable was Adolf Hitler, who cited the “emergency” arising from a terrorist attack on the German Parliament building to convince the Reichstag to give him dictatorial powers. That’s what the Enabling Act was all about.
Trump’s emergency immigration decree, needless to say, is not the only example of dictatorial power wielded by a U.S. president.
The president and his military-intelligence forces now wield the power to assassinate both Americans and foreigners, a power that has been confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal judiciary, notwithstanding the express prohibition in the Fifth Amendment against taking of life without due process of law.
They also wield the omnipotent power to take Americans into military custody, place them into military dungeons, and torture them to their heart’s content. The federal judiciary has confirmed this power as well, again notwithstanding the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments in the Eight Amendment.
They also wield the omnipotent power to prosecute accused terrorists through the use of military tribunals rather than trial by jury, in contravention of the Sixth Amendment.
Trump also wields the omnipotent power to target foreign citizens with death, suffering, and impoverishment with sanctions and embargoes. The most recent example is Iran, where the Iranian people continue to suffer and even die under Trump’s brutal and deadly sanctions system.
He also wields the power to initiate trade wars with foreign nations, again without having to seek permission from Congress.
None of this is compatible with a free society. Dictatorial powers are the opposite of freedom.
When the Constitution called the federal government into existence, it delegated none of these dictatorial powers to the president or to the military. In fact, if the proponents of the Constitution had told Americans that the president and the military in this new federal government would wield such powers, there is no possibility whatsoever that Americans would have approved the deal.
All of those dictatorial powers have been acquired through the time-honored way of using crisis and emergencies to adopt them, just as Hitler did with the Enabling Act after the terrorist bombing of the Reichstag.
A close reading of the Constitution reveals something important: The Constitution does not provide for an emergency exception for the adoption of dictatorial powers. That’s because the Framers didn’t want such an exception. They knew that throughout history rulers had used “emergencies” and crises to acquire and exercise dictatorial powers.
Once upon a time, U.S. Supreme Court justices understood this principle. For example, when President Franklin Roosevelt was using the “emergency” of the Great Depression to convert America’s economic system to a fascist system, the Supreme Court made it clear that an “emergency” does not give rise to dictatorial powers. In the case of A. L. A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, also known as the “sick chicken case,” the Court rightly stated,
“Extraordinary conditions may call for extraordinary remedies. But the argument necessarily stops short of an attempt to justify action which lies outside the sphere of constitutional authority. Extraordinary conditions do not create or enlarge constitutional power. The Constitution established a national government with powers deemed to be adequate, as they have proved to be both in war and peace, but these powers of the national government are limited by the constitutional grants. Those who act under these grants are not at liberty to transcend the imposed limits because they believe that more or different power is necessary.”
The Court in Schechter also declared that Congress lacked the authority to delegate its legislative power to the president, a point that Congress obviously ignored when it enacted the National Emergencies Act in 1976, which delegated the power to declare emergencies and exercise dictatorial powers to the president.
Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans, including the Trumpsters, continue to dutifully recite the Pledge of Allegiance (“with liberty and justice for all”) and incessantly thank the troops for defending our “freedom” by killing ever more people in faraway foreign lands, bringing to mind the words of Johann Goethe: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”