Dictators, Plural

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders gives a response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in Manchester, N.H., February 4, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

On CNN this morning, Joe Walsh suggested that Bernie Sanders would be preferable to Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. “I would rather,” Walsh said, “have a socialist in the White House than a dictator, than a king, than Donald Trump.”

I don’t care how Walsh votes in 2020. I don’t care, either, whether he thinks that Bernie or Trump would make the better president. But, as someone who devoutly wishes to see a reduction in the power of the presidency, I find his reasoning intensely annoying.

For a start, Walsh was quite literally talking about which of the many candidates on offer he intends to vote for in the coming election, the assumption being that the person he prefers could win, and would take office if he did. On its own, this makes the use of the word “dictator” rather silly. People who live under actual dictatorships do not sit around discussing which of their fellow citizens they hope will beat the incumbent at the next regularly scheduled plebiscite.

Perhaps Walsh meant something else? Perhaps he meant that, even though Trump is obliged to fight for a second term, he is in practice a “king” or a “dictator” because his own party has proven itself unwilling to check his excesses. If so, one has to ask how exactly Trump differs from his predecessor — or, indeed, how he differs from any president in the modern era. In 1998, the Democratic Party in the Senate uniformly refused to convict Bill Clinton after he was impeached. Did that make Clinton a “dictator” who had been accorded a “license to perjure”? How about Barack Obama, who, in 2012, took unilateral action on immigration that he had previously argued was not only illegal, but that, if taken, would make him a “king” or an “emperor” or a “dictator” who was refusing to “execute the laws.” When, having taken exactly those actions, the Democratic Party lined up behind Obama, did it make him a “dictator”?

As someone who has spent a good deal of time lambasting both Trump and Obama for their excesses — and, by extension, lambasting their parties for acquiescing to those excesses — I am open to the idea that the answer to this question is “yes.” But, if it is, it has to apply to all modern presidents, not just to the ones we personally dislike. The aim here should be to build a sizable coalition in favor of reducing the power of the executive. It should not be to pretend that the problem is personal, rather than systemic, and that it can therefore be undone be a single virtuous election. Especially given that the alternative mentioned in this case has also promised to jettison the safeguards should he be elected.

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