Tuesday, January 08, 2019


Ed Kilgore and BooMan worry that President Trump could use an emergency declaration to take on dictatorial powers. Kilgore cites this Atlantic article by Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center. Goitein writes:
The moment the president declares a “national emergency” — a decision that is entirely within his discretion — more than 100 special provisions become available to him. While many of these tee up reasonable responses to genuine emergencies, some appear dangerously suited to a leader bent on amassing or retaining power. For instance, the president can, with the flick of his pen, activate laws allowing him to shut down many kinds of electronic communications inside the United States or freeze Americans’ bank accounts.
She imagines a scenario in which Trump saber-rattles himself to the brink of a war with Iran, after claiming that Iran is trying to interfere with the 2020 election. She writes that this could happen:
Proclaiming a threat of war, Trump invokes Section 706 of the Communications Act to assume government control over internet traffic inside the United States, in order to prevent the spread of Iranian disinformation and propaganda. He also declares a national emergency under the [International Emergency Economic Powers Act], authorizing the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of any person or organization suspected of supporting Iran’s activities against the United States. Wielding the authority conferred by these laws, the government shuts down several left-leaning websites and domestic civil-society organizations, based on government determinations (classified, of course) that they are subject to Iranian influence. These include websites and organizations that are focused on getting out the vote.
She imagines the Supreme Court agreeing that Trump can do this.
In a 5–4 opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, ... the Court holds that the First Amendment does not protect Iranian propaganda and that the government needs no warrant to freeze Americans’ assets if its goal is to mitigate a foreign threat.

Protests erupt. On Twitter, Trump calls the protesters traitors and suggests (in capital letters) that they could use a good beating. When counterprotesters oblige, Trump blames the original protesters for sparking the violent confrontations and deploys the Insurrection Act to federalize the National Guard in several states. Using the Presidential Alert system first tested in October 2018, the president sends a text message to every American’s cellphone, warning that there is “a risk of violence at polling stations” and that “troops will be deployed as necessary” to keep order. Some members of opposition groups are frightened into staying home on Election Day; other people simply can’t find accurate information online about voting. With turnout at a historical low, a president who was facing impeachment just months earlier handily wins reelection—and marks his victory by renewing the state of emergency.
But that's not Trump's style.

He's sounded like an incipient dictator on a fairly regular basis, but it's clear that he'd rather get into the kind of confrontation you have in Midtown Manhattan when a cabbie nearly hits you in a crosswalk than the kind of confrontation that leads to widespread loss of civil liberties or institutions of civil society. He doesn't shut down CNN -- instead, he gets chesty with Jim Acosta, has him kicked out of the briefing room, then accedes when Acosta is reinstated by the courts. He pursues petty changes in Amazon's shipping rates, but he doesn't shut down The Washington Post or have Jeff Bezos arrested or poisoned, the way his pal Putin would. He has kind words for racist thugs in Charlottesville, but he's never taken steps to establish goon squads under his administration's command. And, of course, he tweets a lot of complaints about Robert Mueller, but he still hasn't shut down Mueller's investigation.

Don't get me wrong: Trump is the worst president we've ever had. But he just doesn't have enough knowledge of history to grasp what he could really get away with if he pursued dictatorial power single-mindedly. He likes to fight -- but he likes it so much that he seems as if he'd rather fight than crush his opponents. The power of the presidency is ripe for abuse -- it certainly was when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, with an unswerving loyalty to Trump -- but he never pushed the limits.

I worry that some young dictator-wannabe is watching Trump and taking notes on all the opportunities missed. But I don't think Trump will ever abuse power in quite the way Goitein imagines. He just doesn't have the imagination or the knowledge of history to realize what he could get away with if exercised the will.

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