Dictatorship: Trump plans imperial presidency should he win next year
Then-President Donald Trump, flanked from left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and then-Vice President Mike Pence, speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Jan. 9, 2018. Trump and his close circles say that in a second term he will seek blatantly dictatorial powers for the presidency. | Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

WASHINGTON—Trump and his inner circle are not at all shy about saying he will move to assume the role of a dictator should he be elected in 2024.

Back in 1973, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote The Imperial Presidency, a book focusing on how presidents used wars to steadily expand their powers at the expense of Congress and the courts. Watergate, which broke at the time and eventually evicted Richard Nixon from the White House, put a temporary stop to that, but now Donald Trump wants to go far beyond it. He has already taken care of the Supreme Court with the right-wing appointments he has made.

In position papers published on his campaign website and several speeches, the former Republican Oval Office occupant, currently the overwhelming front-runner for his party’s nomination next year, envisions total presidential control of government.

“Congress? What’s that? Who cares what they say, especially after I win the White House and order the Justice Department to drop all its prosecution of me?” is Trump’s mantra.

About the only statement missing from Trump’s objectives is the one from Nixon’s then-Counsel John Dean, saying the president could use the federal government “to screw our political enemies.” Watergate stopped that scheme, too.

Trump’s expansion of presidential power, beyond what chief executives used wars to grab, shouldn’t be a surprise. Trump himself telegraphed it in a 2019 stump speech: “I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Article 2 of the Constitution says “The executive power of government shall vest in a president of the United States.” There are limits, but they are few.

Trump wants none. That makes his potential win next year a threat to small-d democracy and small-r republican form of government.

A so-called think tank, headed by one-time Trumpite regime officials, is working on details of his “takeover”—the title of a 2008 book by political scientist Charlie Savage about the recurrence and extension of Nixonian imperialism, adding domestic policy to wartime powers expansion.

Trump’s biggest power grab would be truncating Congress’s “power of the purse,” rendering the legislators’ spending decisions null and void, and moving money around to achieve his aims and whims.

Trump would do so by restoring the president’s power to “impound”—refuse to spend—funds Congress allotted. Nixon was impounding funds all through his term, until Watergate led to various curbs, including a statute outlawing that.

“For 200 years under our system of government, it was undisputed the president had the constitutional power to stop unnecessary spending through what is known as Impoundment,” Trump said in a June 20 speech at his New Jersey golf club.

“Very simply, this meant if Congress provided more funding than was needed to run the government, the president could refuse to waste the extra funds, and instead return the money to the general treasury” and “maybe use it to lower your taxes.”

“I will use the president’s long-recognized impoundment power to squeeze the bloated federal bureaucracy for massive savings.”

Other Trumpite steps to the imperial presidency include, in his own words:

  • “We will put unelected bureaucrats back in their place…I will bring the independent regulatory agencies…back under presidential authority, as the Constitution demands. These agencies do not get to become a fourth branch of government, issuing rules and edicts all by themselves. And that’s what they’ve been doing. We will require they submit any regulations they are considering for White House review.”

Read “burial” for the word “review.” That diktat would put National Labor Relations Board pro-worker rules under the Trumpite death sentence, for example.

The New York Times reported former Trump administration officials forecast a Trump “legal challenge to the limits on a president’s power to fire heads of independent agencies.” The Supreme Court upheld those limits, twice. But the last time was in 1988, long before Trump packed the court with right-wingers.

  • “I will require every federal employee to pass a new civil service test demonstrating an understanding of our constitutional limited government.

“This will include command of due process rights, equal protection, free speech, religious liberty, federalism, the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure–I know all about that at Mar-a-Lago, don’t I–and all the other constitutional limits on federal power.”

“Religious liberty,” is Trump’s code for protecting evangelical white Christians. “Federalism” is code for the old racist “states’ rights” policies of the Jim Crow era.

  • The Muslim ban: “Under the Trump administration, we imposed extreme vetting and put on a powerful travel ban to keep radical Islamic terrorists and jihadists out of our country. When I return to office, the travel ban is coming back even bigger than before and much stronger than before,” Trump said in a July 7 stump speech in Iowa.
  • “Surge prosecutors and the National Guard” into the nation’s cities, which Trump calls “high-crime communities,” supposedly to keep order. In reality, the promise is a dog whistle against communities of color.

“We don’t want people blowing up our shopping centers,” Trump said in Iowa. “We don’t want people blowing up our cities, and we don’t want people stealing our farms. So it’s not gonna happen.”

  • Trump’s platform also promises to “revitalize police departments and reclaim safety, dignity, and peace for law-abiding Americans…strengthen qualified immunity”—a court-blessed concept which lets cops kill unarmed civilians and suffer no punishment—“and put violent offenders and career criminals behind bars.”
  • End due process and protections from political interference for career civil servants, thus returning to the spoils system which flourished under presidents until curbs began in 1883.

Trump tried that with an executive order at the end of his prior term, setting up a “Schedule F” in the civil service and planning to shove tens of thousands of career workers into it. After an uproar led by the Project on Government Accountability and the Government Employees (AFGE), Democratic President Joe Biden speedily threw Trump’s order out.

“Normal due process safeguards ensuring termination for cause would no longer apply and these positions could be filled with handpicked and potentially unqualified individuals,” their letter said. “If government employees owe their jobs more to personal or political allegiance rather than merit, they will be more beholden to the party in power instead of the law of the land.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.