Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason




Like fellow opinion writer John Ashbaugh, I also like to take another look at some of our history's heroes and to challenge some popular perceptions.

The May 18, 2024, issue of The Economist reflected upon the vulnerability of the United States to becoming a dictatorship. But while the writer's focus was on another Donald Trump presidency, I think our closest encounter with dictatorship was in our not-so-distant past.

A "dictator" is defined as a leader who has absolute power, who may rule in an authoritarian manner, and who is unconstrained by any effective constitutional restrictions. In the U.S., we rely upon the Constitution, political norms, and three co-equal branches of government to protect us from rule by an omnipotent dictator.

Predictably, The Economist, and most liberals, see Trump as the potential dictator. The always-thoughtful Trump did little to dispel such thinking when he promised to "not rule like a dictator after his first day in office." The Jan. 6 Capitol riot was cited, despite the fact that this harebrained scheme had absolutely no chance of ever succeeding. Even had it succeeded in momentarily preventing the certification of the vote, there is no constitutional "route" that could have led to recognizing the current president as somehow proceeding to another term. Neither the military, police, nor any branch of the government would have recognized or obeyed such a facially invalid power grab. We might have had chaos, but we wouldn't have had Trump as president.

To find our closest encounter with a dictatorship, we need to go back to liberal icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first two terms as president.

At that time, the U.S. was in the throes of the Great Depression, and people were growing increasingly desperate and willing to support radical measures. Roosevelt enjoyed vast popular support, total control of both houses of Congress, and passed a series of radical measures over the objections of the Republicans. Such measures included Social Security, the FDIC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Work Progress Administration, National Recovery Administration, new regulations on employment, banking, and the stock market, and lots of spending on public works. Prior to the 22nd Amendment in 1951, there was no limit to the terms a president could serve, and the charismatic Roosevelt managed to get elected to an unprecedented four terms.

The only resistance to Roosevelt's aggressive agenda came from the Supreme Court, which found that some of his legislative programs unconstitutionally delegated excessive power to the president. Frustrated, and following his landslide reelection in 1936, FDR threatened to "pack the court"—that is, to use his control of Congress to add more justices to the court and provide him with enough extra votes to approve his agenda. Intimidated by this threat, the justices reversed their stances and approved Roosevelt's agenda.

Voilá! We had a situation in which a single charismatic leader had assumed effective control of all three branches of government by threatening the Supreme Court, and he was using his power to further expand the powers of his office. Roosevelt was effectively functioning as a dictator. Eleanor Roosevelt even opined that we needed a "benevolent dictator."

Roosevelt was also not opposed to extralegal authoritarian measures, such as imprisoning hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent merely upon a presidential decree. This blatantly unconstitutional act was approved by a now "tamed" and compliant Supreme Court in the 1944 Korematsu ruling.

I recognize that much of FDR's legacy and agenda remains popular and is often credited with lifting the U.S. out of the Great Depression. Still, there is no reason why a dictator cannot enjoy popular support and produce successful policies. Remember, Mussolini famously "made the trains run on time," and Hitler restored power and pride to a defeated Germany, both rising to power through popular support.

In echoes of the past, we again are hearing calls to "pack" the Supreme Court, as well as witnessing a liberal campaign against the conservative justices who frustrate the progressive agenda. The doctrine of a "living constitution," which can be interpreted as needed to accommodate a popular agenda, further weakens the ability of our Constitution to protect us. The erosion of political norms in stunts to achieve momentary political advantage, such as Harry Reid's "nuclear option" or the attempts to disqualify Trump from the ballot, further weaken our institutions.

My point? A future dictator need not be a brutal ogre, at least not initially, and may be someone you really like and to whom you are happy to give unlimited powers to advance some desired program. He may be remembered favorably, as the victor gets to write the history.

While Trump might eagerly assume the role of dictator if he could, his support is far too weak, and his institutional opposition too pervasive, to be a much of a danger. Progressive "rock star" FDR took us far closer to a dictatorship than Trump could ever dream of. Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach, who is collecting gold braid and epaulets for his uniform in his coming installation, er, "inauguration." Send comments to the editor at [email protected].

Comments (28)

Showing 1-25 of 28

Add a comment

Add a comment