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Stopping Dictatorships—On Day 1 and Every Day
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Stopping Dictatorships—On Day 1 and Every Day

To keep authoritarianism at bay, take care of the institutions of government.

Former President Donald Trump departs during a break in the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, at the New York State Supreme Court in New York City on December 7, 2023. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (excluding any of you who can’t see the irony in “ceasefire” menorahs),

Lest you think I’ve had some sort of epiphany or brain injury, let me roughly paraphrase Mark Antony and declare at the outset that I come not to praise Donald Trump, but to bury, well something. 

Let’s set aside the more sober musings on the possibility that Trump would be a “dictator” in his second term, and instead focus on one of the more enjoyable moments in partisan, sycophantic, journalism in recent memory. 

At a town hall earlier this week, Sean Hannity, as is his wont, set out to do vital comms work for the former president. 

“They want to call you a dictator,” Hannity said in a reference to those aforementioned sober musings. “To be clear, do you in any way have any plans whatsoever, if reelected president, to abuse power, to break the law, to use the government to go after people?”

“You mean like they’re using right now,” Trump shot back before airing his familiar grievances. 

Undeterred in his desire to help Trump, Hannity returned to his campaign work. He asked again, “Under no circumstances — you are promising America tonight. You would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?”

To which Donald Trump responded: 

“Except for Day 1.”

“Except, what?” Hannity asked, clearly flustered that Trump wasn’t going to help Hannity help him. 

Trump enjoyed Hannity’s consternation. Turning to the audience while pointing at Hannity, he said, “He’s going crazy. Except for Day 1.”

“Meaning?” Hannity asked.

“I want to close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill,” Trump responded.

“That’s not retribution,” Hannity said.

“I love this guy,” Trump said, again talking to the audience as he relished making Hannity’s water-carrying more burdensome. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator are you?’ I said, ‘No, no, no, other than Day 1.’ We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.” 

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think any president, ex-president, or presidential candidate should ever say they plan on being a dictator, even for a day. 

Moreover, I have no objection to the press making a big deal about a former president who routinely lavished praise on dictators and often talks like he’d like to be one, saying that he will be a dictator on Day 1. The fact that Hannity pitched his softball like a loving dad standing 3 feet away, hoping his asthmatic kid would knock the stuffing out of it, makes it all the more grotesque that he refused to take the issue seriously. There’s just something fundamentally, recklessly unpatriotic about responding to widespread—and well-founded—concerns about your authoritarian tendencies that, in fact, you will be a “dictator” on the first day of your presidency. Whether you think it’s just cutesy trolling or not, this is not the way American leaders are supposed to talk, which is why I also think it’s dumb politics. But here we are. 

All that said, there’s something to appreciate about the answer. 

In my gunnysack of mewling pet peeves, one of the biggest is the habit of presidential candidates to promise all sorts of outlandish things that they will do on “Day 1” of their presidencies. My objections to this habit have more facets than a disco ball. But I’ll focus on just a few. First, the underlying assumption seems to be that we elect a monarch or, to be more charitable, a prime minister in some sort of parliamentary system. Kings and queens can do what they want, obviously. But prime ministers also have enormous power because, depending on the specific system, they combine both the executive and legislative powers. We don’t do that. In short, there are all sorts of things a prime minister (or monarch) can do on “Day 1” that presidents cannot do. 

This has gotten muddied over the years because the executive branch has grown so large and the administrative state so intrusive, that presidents can do all sorts of things by executive order. And, because of hyper-partisanship and the self-gelding of the legislative branch, members of the president’s party invariably hail these executive orders and members of the opposing party decry them as undemocratic and even, on occasion, dictatorial. Putting the palpable hypocrisy aside, the parties out of power are usually right. More on that in a moment. But first, let me offer a small smattering of examples of what I am talking about.

In the second debate of the 2020 Democratic primaries, Kamala Harris said, “And on Day 1, I will repeal that tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in America.” In the third debate, she said, “I plan on shutting down for-profit prisons on Day 1.”

In the final debate, between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator said, “And furthermore, on Day 1 as president, I would restore the legal status of the 1.8 million young people.”

Tom Steyer (remember him?) told Vox that, “On my first day in office, I will declare the climate crisis a national emergency and use the emergency powers of the presidency to implement a plan to build a safer, more sustainable world, with or without Congress.” He said it again in several debates. 

Republicans have been guilty of this stuff, too, but to a lesser extent from what I can tell. In 2016, Scott Walker said he’d repeal Obamacare on Day 1. But most of their 2016 Day 1 talk was about ripping up the Iran deal, just as the most ubiquitous Democratic Day 1 promise was to reenter the Paris Climate Accord. 

Of course, the annoying thing about both the Iran deal and the Paris Accord is that these were de facto treaties designed to avoid Senate approval as the Constitution requires. Again, Congress has made itself a constitutional court eunuch on so many fronts. But even the most hackish partisans and congressional geldings understand that the president cannot “repeal” legislation on the first day in office—or any day after. 

Now, I really could go on. But I think you get the point. This leaves out countless Day 1 promises that at least acknowledged the would-be president would first try to get Congress to do X or Y. But many of them, particularly Kamala Harris, said that if they couldn’t get the legislation they demanded in their first 100 days, they’d just go ahead and issue executive orders to get it done.

Just to be very clear: If a president can’t get Congress to agree to a major policy change, he or she is not supposed to just do it anyway by executive order. Again, it’s possible to write some executive orders to make them lawful, regardless of how offensive they are to our constitutional system. But as we saw with Trump’s attempt to illegally fund the border wall or Biden’s repeated attempts to forgive student loan debt, or suspend evictions, the causality is often all messed up. They issue a lawless executive order, and then hope they can sneak it over the plate of the courts. If they succeed, “Yay!” If they lose, “vote for my party to get good judges who care about you on the court.”

From the vantage point of a constitutionalist, Donald Trump’s vow to be a dictator on Day 1 in order to close the border and “drill, drill, drill” really doesn’t look very different than any of this other stuff. You may not like the policy or the language, but on the substance, if a president has the power to stop drilling on Day 1, the president has the power to start drilling on Day 1. 

Ideally, the response to Trump’s Dictator-for-a-Day soundbite would cause people to realize this. It can’t be that Trump’s idea is outrageous because he admitted it’s dictatorial but all of these other ideas aren’t dictatorial so long as you don’t describe them that way. 

At the height of Watergate in 1973, then-Sen. Alan Cranston of California had a bit of an epiphany: “Those who tried to warn us back at the beginning of the New Deal of the dangers of one-man rule that lay ahead on the path we were taking toward strong, centralized government may not have been so wrong.” Would that Democrats today were capable of a similar insight.

You know what would be really useful in keeping Trump from acting like a dictator? A real consensus about the limits of executive power. That consensus is impossible when each party thinks those limits are legitimate and valuable only for when the other party is in power.

Dictatorial musings.

So what about the larger question of whether Trump would be a dictator? I have to say I’m torn about the whole debate. I agree with many of the concerns voiced by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post and the various writers in The Atlantic. But I worry that the dictator-talk—from the sincere and cerebral to the cynical and sensational—suits Trump’s purposes. Politics isn’t perfectly—or, sometimes, remotely —rational. If you took a survey of liberal and left-wing America in 1997, it would be reasonable to think that if a sitting president got caught playing Baron-and-the-Milkmaid with an intern, the Democratic Party would turn on Bill Clinton thanks to the demands of consistency. In, say, 2015 if you surveyed conservative America, you would think they’d never go for Donald Trump. 

If on January 6, 2020, a year before the Capitol riot, you had 100 percent accurately predicted how Trump would handle the election and its aftermath, nearly all of his biggest fans would say you were suffering from Trump derangement syndrome. But if you said to them, “Hypothetically, let’s say I’m right. What would your reaction be?” I suspect a great many of them would say, “Obviously, that’d be the last straw.” They’d favor impeachment or at least never voting for him again. But then it happened and they reacted very differently. Similarly, if you predicted that Trump would mishandle classified information the way he did, many of the people most passionately defending Trump would have had a very different reaction to the hypothetical.  

Heck, if you surveyed conservatives today, you’d be hard-pressed to understand why so many love Donald Trump. Conservatives still talk about how much they love the Constitution and traditional values; what many of them are blind to is how Trump and Trumpism is antithetical to such convictions. So when you talk about him being a potential dictator, it sounds super-persuasive to the people who are already persuaded. But for a lot of other people it sounds like a desperate effort to change the subject from Biden’s failings. I’m not saying that’s necessarily correct—though it’s obviously true to some extent for some people. I’m saying I don’t think this conversation is likely to yield the results those most committed to having it desire. Rhetorically, it’s analogous to the various legal campaigns against Trump. I think Trump is guilty of most of the charges against him—putting aside for the moment whether the prosecutors can prove every one of them. But it’s indisputable that Trump has benefited politically from these prosecutions. That’s not an argument for not prosecuting him on any of the charges, it’s merely an observation that in politics unintended consequences are common.

In other words, I am very much open to (some of) the arguments that he could be a dictator. Moreover, I don’t think you have to be remotely certain about it—I’m not by any stretch. I have enough faith in this country and some of its institutions—the courts and the military chief among them—that I think his path would be far steeper than many suggest. But if you think there’s a 50 percent chance—or a 10 percent chance—that alone is a good enough reason not to nominate him. Jeez, I think if there’s no chance he becomes a dictator there’s plenty of reasons not to nominate him. If he tried and utterly failed to be one, that would be terrible for America, conservatism, and a lot of other things. Or even if he didn’t try, and he just amped up his abuses and demagoguery, that’s ample reason. Look, I have so many reasons to pelt this guy from the public stage I don’t need to even discuss the word dictator because when it comes to my view of Trump the “tator” is silent. 

From where I sit the real problem isn’t Trump so much as the connection that Trump has with his fans and with the larger universe of conservative institutions and the way Democrats think they have no obligation to deal with that problem other than to shout “dictator” and “threat to our democracy.” 

On the first point, I highly recommend Nick Cattogio’s newsletter on the difference between big-A and little-a authoritarians, a subject I’ll be returning to I’m sure. Trump has plenty of capital-A authoritarians in his orbit. They love to go on niche podcasts and cable shows and talk about rounding up the vermin and arresting the whole “Biden Regime” and dismantling the “Deep State” and talk about how they know what time it is. But most Republicans, even the most ardent Trumpists, don’t process this talk the way the rest of us do. They either dismiss it as entertaining chatter or they have such unassailable faith in Trump that they assume he’d never do such things, or only do them when warranted. They don’t want authoritarianism but they have a hard time seeing anything that would make them worry about it. And Nick is right, that capital-A authoritarians fail without the support of the lowercase ones. People forget that fascism was very, very, popular. That doesn’t mean everyone who loved Mussolini agreed with all the doctrines of Italian fascism (not least because there were so many and they kept changing). They just loved Mussolini. When Il Duce asked for help from Italians after the country was sanctioned for its invasion of Ethiopia, millions of women sent him their wedding rings to be melted down, a quarter-million from Rome alone.

On the second point, I’ll just refer you back to the beginning of this “news”letter. If you want to keep authoritarianism at bay, you need to take care of the institutions of government in such a way that you don’t provide permission for the other side to take advantage of the precedents you set. If Democrats don’t want Republicans to use executive orders like fascist diktats, don’t use executive orders like fascist diktats yourself. If you don’t want white Christians to get drunk on illiberal identity politics, don’t create a massive identity politics industrial complex that makes white Christians feel like they have to play the same dumb game. I agree entirely that Trump is primarily a problem of the right, but the right’s problems—just like the left’s—are not self-contained. They are American problems. When one side talks about segments of America as sinister internal enemies—as the left has for decades—you shouldn’t be surprised when the right does the same thing (which in fairness it has a long history of doing as well). Because the rhetoric always gets ratcheted upward. 

I detested the way Trump referred to his political enemies as “vermin,” but the far more dangerous rhetoric preceded his use of the word when he said, “the threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.” I could agree with that if Trump were talking about ideas. But he doesn’t care about ideas. He was talking about people. The threat from within for him is always about people and institutions that stand in his way. And no one running for president should talk about classes of people that way, because presidents are supposed to serve all Americans, not just the ones who’d consider melting down their wedding rings for him. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Kirsten took a great pic of Z&P with some friends and I asked (X)Twitter followers to title the album cover. We got some fantastic replies. I particularly liked “Quadrupedia.” Also, the artwork for “The Bark Rangers” is just fantastic. Zoë has been in a perpetually good mood since recovering from her dental surgery, which makes me incredibly happy (we’ve even found new treats, “Stella and Chewy’s”—thanks to a Dispatch reader—that she can chew/inhale). Pippa’s demands for belly rubs in exchange for going out in the dark have only intensified, but as luck would have it, I overslept this morning and she was ready to go, full of vim and vigor. Another trend that has intensified is her determination to roll in foulness as a form of protest for being bathed, which of course invites more bathing. It’s a vicious cycle. One consequence of this is that the Dingo gets overtaken with schadenfreude about this cycle. For some reason, people like to point out that the girls get more excited to see TFJ than me. This is true. I have never denied it. I’ve occasionally resented it. But it is what it is.

An additional note: At the request of many, particularly David French, I’m trying to get the hang of Threads. I will try to use links to that site more in the future. Some habits are hard to break, and a lot of folks still appreciate the dog content on that other site.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.