Sunday, January 13, 2019


Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the book How Democracies Die, remind us in a New York Times op-ed that autocrats love emergencies:
From GetĂșlio Vargas and other better-known dictators in the 1930s to Indira Gandhi and Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and on to Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan more recently, autocratic-minded leaders have long used national emergencies — some real, some fabricated — to claim extraordinary powers. One of our greatest concerns about Donald Trump’s presidency has always been that he would exploit (or invent) a crisis in order to justify an abuse of power. Recent events have given this concern new immediacy.
They're worried about Trump's threat to declare a national emergency in order to bypass Congress on wall funding. But note that Trump isn't declaring an emergency:
President Donald Trump signaled Friday he's not inclined to declare a national emergency "so fast" ...

"What we're not looking to do right now is national emergency, what we want to do, we have the absolute right to do it, in many ways it’s the easy way out, but this is up to Congress, and it should be up to Congress, and they should do it,” the president said Friday during a roundtable discussion on border security.
Notice that he's threatening not to end the shutdown even if he does issue an emergency declaration because he feels that would give Congress the upper hand:
White House officials are warning congressional Republicans not to expect an immediate end to the government shutdown even if President Donald Trump declares a national emergency at the southern border.

... Trump’s allies say the president is reluctant to hand Democrats a “win” by reopening the government after he’s invoked emergency powers. They claim that in such a scenario, Trump’s political opponents would avoid making a single concession and potentially score a major victory if the administration were to lose in federal courts as many legal experts predict.
This is very different from what Levitsky and Ziblatt fear from Trump based on historical precedent:
National emergencies ... can be fatal under would-be autocrats, for they provide a seemingly legitimate (and often popular) justification for concentrating power and eviscerating rights. Hitler’s authoritarian response to the 1933 Reichstag fire is the most prominent example, but there are many others. In Peru, a Maoist insurgency and economic crisis enabled Mr. Fujimori to dissolve the Constitution and Congress in 1992; in Russia, a series of deadly apartment bombings in 1999 — allegedly by Chechen terrorists — triggered a surge of public support for Mr. Putin, who was then the prime minister, which allowed him to crack down on critics and consolidate his power; and in Turkey, a series of terrorist attacks in 2015, along with a failed 2016 coup attempt, allowed Mr. Erdogan to tighten his grip via a two-year state of emergency.
By contrast, what we're discussing as a possible autocratic power grab by Trump has Trump himself worried that he'll lose in the courts (whose rulings he seems prepared to comply with), with the result that he gains nothing from Congress.

In other words, he's considering a declaration of a national emergency, but he's preparing to use that declaration to seize precisely one power: the power to build the wall. He's not talking about the power to suspend civil liberties or due process otherwise. He's not threatening the courts (he'll do what they say if they rule against him), and he's not threatening to find any other ways to curb the power of Congress -- in fact, he's reluctant to use even this means of sidestepping the legislative branch.

I'll repeat what I've been saying recently: Trump simply doesn't have the instincts of a true tyrant. His vision of a national emergency declaration is just so small -- it's a way of getting one thing he wants when the system won't accommodate him, after which he'll go right back to (in his fashion) allowing the system to continue functioning.

The Trump presidency is horrible, and these temper tantrums are certainly eroding our institutions. But a true tyrant would knowingly launch an assault on those institutions, intending for them to fall. Trump just doesn't have the imagination for that.

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