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The American fear of a dictator

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From the beginnings of our country, Americans have feared dictatorship, and with good reason. They fought the Revolution to free themselves of a despot, King George III. Why then replace one dictator with another?

In Philadelphia, during the hot summer of 1787, when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention got around to defining the kind of leader they wanted, they moved warily. One suggestion, from Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, for “a vigorous executive,” resulted in “a considerable pause,” in James Madison’s version. “There was menace in the words; some saw monarchy in them,” writes Catherine Drinker Bowen in her 1966 book, Miracle at Philadelphia. “[A] single executive for the national government conjured up visions from the past—royal governors who could not be restrained, a crown, ermine, a scepter!”

Thus Article II of the Constitution was adopted, after considerable debate, providing for “a President of the United States of America,” with a four year term of office. Although the framers put no limit on the number of terms a President could serve, they built into the Constitution the Separation of Powers that would keep any President in check; and the foreknowledge that the first President was going to be George Washington—the most revered man in the nation—reassured them that here was no budding dictator.

Still the specter of an authoritarian ruler hovered constantly over the Republic, especially during times of crisis. During the Civil War, there were constant cries from his critics that Lincoln was “becoming a tyrant.” After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, these cries increased in fury. “The time is brief when we shall have a DICTATOR PROCLAIMED,” thundered the Columbus, Ohio “The Crisis” newspaper. Even today, some historians, such as the rightwing blogger, Michael Hutcheson, still insist that “Lincoln was the greatest tyrant and despot in American history.”

The fear of dictatorship again surfaced when America’s strongest President since Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, was elected to a second term, in 1904. “The President is distinctly tending—or trying—to make a ‘court,’” Henry James confessed to his diary, dubbing Roosevelt “Theodore Rex,” a nickname Roosevelt’s Pulitzer prize-winning biographer, Edmund Morris, would resurrect as the title of his 2001 book.

Perhaps the most strident talk of a dictator-President arose during the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, particularly during the debate about a third term, which no President had ever dared attempt. Even FDR’s then-sitting Vice President, John Nance Garner, saw “dangerous precedent” in the possibility. “The Boss could never be a dictator,” he mused to James Foley, the head of the Democratic National Committee, in late 1939, “but someone could come along who might be.”

And now, here we are. There hasn’t been much if any worry about a tyrannical President since FDR’s day—until now. There’s nothing specific that Donald J. Trump has said to cause concern. But there’s plenty in what he has done, and moreover in his temperament and character, that increasingly brings on the old fear of an American dictator. I would put, as the top five reasons why this fear is legitimate,

  1. Trump’s disrespect for history and American traditions
  2. his lust for unbridled power
  3. his blatant attacks upon all three branches of government (the Courts, the Congress and his own Executive, in the form of the F.B.I. and Department of Justice)
  4. his attempts to besmirch and undermine a free press
  5. and, of course, the profligacy of his lies.

Currently—as of this day—we don’t have to worry. Trump is effectively constrained for now, if not by the Republicans in Congress (who are so derelict in their duties), but by public opinion, which the Framers themselves celebrated in the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence (“Out of respect for the opinions of mankind”).

Public opinion is drifting against this President, rightfully and thankfully. But the nature of would-be dictators is not to respect the opinions of mankind, but to transgress them. That Trump is capable of being “a royal governor who could not be restrained”—that he is desirous of becoming one—is beyond doubt, in my judgment. All the more reason to be on our guard, at all times, for the slightest movement towards tyranny, and to scream bloody murder when he does so—by, say, firing Robert Mueller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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