Two quotes, a month apart, neatly capture the essence of Donald Trump's presidency:
"No, I don't take responsibility at all." — March 13
"When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's got to be. It's total." — April 13
There is something quintessentially Trumpian about the claim of total authority and zero responsibility. He alone can save us, he insists, but don't blame him if he doesn't.
There is something quintessentially Trumpian about the claim of total authority and zero responsibility. He alone can save us, he insists, but don’t blame him if he doesn’t.
So it was perhaps not surprising that the day after he claimed "total authority" over the decisions of state governments, he backed off. Instead, he said Tuesday night, he was "authorizing" the statesto make their own decisions about reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, the states didn't need his authorization, but the appearance of Trump as the man in charge but not responsible had to be maintained.
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For decades, conservatives have pointed to the 10th Amendment as the very essence of decentralized government. "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution," it declares, "nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This is where the states' inherent "police powers" come from, which include the power to oversee public safety during a pandemic.
In a national emergency, presidents do have sweeping powers, but what seems beyond doubt is that the president doesn't have the power to undeclare an emergency or undo public health decisions made by governors. Trump can't order states to reopen, just as he can't compel private businesses to resume operation or private citizens to resume their daily routines.
Until Trump, conservatives understood that. What they believe now seems less clear.
Bill Kristol has dubbed this "performative authoritarianism," which seems apt. Trump plays an authoritarian on television but seems uninterested in doing the hard work that "total authority" would involve. Actual executive action implies accountability. And Trump always wants someone else to blame.
So instead, he has pingponged back and forth from claiming that "I alone can fix it" to "It's up to the governors."
Even so, his assertion for a time on Monday that he had the absolute presidential power to override the nation's governors was striking. This isn't the first time Trump has claimed sweeping powers that don't exist. Back in 2019, when he was complaining about the Mueller probe, he insisted that Article II gave him "the right to do whatever I want as president."
This week his constitutional know-nothingism was again on proud display. When reporters asked Trump whether any governor agreed that he had total authority to countermand their orders, he answered: "I haven't asked anybody. Because you know why? I don't have to." When another reporter asked him to cite what constitutional provisions gave him the power to override governments that remained closed, Trump said, "Numerous provisions," but he didn't name any — because there are none.
He has no such power because the Constitution was explicitly designed to prevent that kind of absolutism. Indeed, that was whole point behind the separation of powers and federalism. James Madison was rather clear on that point, writing in "The Federalist Papers": "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite."
While most Republicans remained in embarrassed silence, it was left to New York's Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, to point this out. "This is basic federalism — the role of the states and the role of the federal government," he said. "We don't have a king in this country. We didn't want a king, so we have a Constitution and we elect a president. … All other powers remain to the states."
It doesn't take much effort to imagine how Republicans would have reacted if a Democratic president, say Barack Obama, had claimed "total authority" over the states. So the silence that greeted his declaration was telling.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was one of the very few Republicans to point out that the power of the federal government wasn't, in fact, absolute.
Instead, conservative media reacted in three ways: pivoting to anti-anti-Trumpism by focusing not on the president's comments but on the alleged obnoxiousness of the media's questioning, ignoring the remarks altogether or arguing that Trump's words shouldn't be taken either seriously or literally.
Fox News' Brit Hume, for example, acknowledged that Trump's claims of absolute power were "constitutional nonsense" but dismissed them as "another of his serial exaggerations." The problem, he tweeted, wasn't the president's claim of vast and total power but rather what he called "the media's insistent focus on the stuff he says, as if that is more important than what he actually does."
In effect, Hume argued, we should pay no attention to "the stuff he says," because the president's words really don't matter.
"He constantly blusters and threatens all sorts of things, most of which never come to pass," Hume wrote. "In this instance, he is claiming supreme executive authority, but there is no sign he will try to exercise it." Trump has, in fact, now backed down from the bluster. At least for now.
And this brings us back to the paradox of Trumpism.
“He constantly blusters and threatens all sorts of things, most of which never come to pass. In this instance, he is claiming supreme executive authority, but there is no sign he will try to exercise it.”
Brit Hume, Fox News
As Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic wrote on Tuesday, "Trump needs the optics of authoritarian assertiveness without any actual responsibility." The result is "rhetorical authoritarianism married with a striking unwillingness to use federal authority robustly."
Windsor Mann makes a similar point. Trump would love to have the sort of extraordinary powers enjoyed by Hungary's authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, But "unlike Orban, Trump is lazy. As much as he would love to have dictatorial powers, he doesn't want to put forth the effort necessary to seize them," Mann wrote. "Just as he inherited a fortune, he wants to inherit an autocracy. To be a successful strongman, you need a strong work ethic. Trump has only weak ethics."
But this is only somewhat reassuring, because there is a real danger in this sort of "performative authoritarianism."
Trump's performative authoritarian isn't the same as actual authoritarianism, but it isn't harmless. Kristol asks: "Can't performative authoritarian gestures lay the groundwork for more thoroughgoing authoritarian actions?"
Over the last few years we have learned that democracy rests on norms that are more fragile than we had imagined. The demagogue raises himself up by tearing down the values that underlie liberal constitutionalism. Authoritarians seize power only after they have changed our expectations and habits. In other words, they transform us rather than themselves.
We have already paid a steep price for Trump's behavior, which, despite what Fox News would like us to believe, isn't simply bluster.
So when a president like Trump declares that he has "total authority," perhaps we ought to take him seriously, before it's too late.