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Make Authoritarianism Great Again?

How the state of emergency defines Trump's presidency and might define our future.
February 19, 2019
Make Authoritarianism Great Again?
Donald Trump in the Rose Garden as he said he would declare a national emergency to build the wall. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

President Trump, in a listless and often incoherent Rose Garden appearance, declared an “emergency” at the southern border on Friday before decamping to his Palm Beach hideaway, leaving the impression of a pathetic and cornered political animal. Strung along and betrayed by his party establishment, and outmaneuvered by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the president appeared desperate for a face-saving retreat. Even more satisfying for Trump opponents was the spectacle of once-committed supporters like Ann Coulter hurling public insults.

But the MAGA right’s disillusionment may be more ominous than it appears. While Trump may have stumbled upon his declaration as last resort, for his supporters, the “state of emergency” is an organizing principle. And if his presidency ends in failure and disgrace, his former supporters will likely blame him for lacking the fortitude to extend the logic of emergency to its authoritarian conclusion.

The necessary precondition for the modern tyrant is a state of emergency, or to put it in Hobbesian terms, a state of nature. What is an emergency, if not the immediate threat of nasty, brutish violence? The authoritarian regime is governance at its most feudal and Leviathan: a lord and his serfs, with a “big, beautiful wall” to keep out the barbarian hordes.

To the extent there was an intellectual case for Trump, it was most memorably articulated by Michael Anton, who described a national emergency in grave and ghoulish detail:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

The essay’s complaints about “32 genders” and “elective bathrooms” weakened the urgency of Anton’s argument, but no matter. “The Flight 93 Election” was consumed rapturously by the pro-Trump right.

You don’t need to read past the headline to see the contradiction. Why would anyone let a popular vote determine their fate in a hijacking or forced gunplay situation? And what kind of extreme measures would be justified to retake the cockpit? Would you violate your own laws, or seek help from a hostile power? Failure is not an option. There’s no loyal opposition to Al Qaeda. “You charge the cockpit or you die.”

Trump’s victory did little to quiet the alarmists, who responded, like typical doomsayers, by moving their apocalyptic forecasts out into the future. A month before the 2018 midterms, Robert Curry of the Claremont Institute analogized the vote to the Civil War-riven campaign of 1864, warning that “a Democrat victory in November threatens to change America fundamentally—and perhaps even more radically than in 1864.” How so?

If a Democrat-controlled Congress can prevent the President from building the wall and keep him tied up long enough for them to get their demographic transformation of America past the point of no return, it might well be game over for the regime of liberty that is the Founders’ gift to us.

Again, the implications of this Fourteen Words variant are left for us to ponder. If America faces an existential crisis not seen since the Civil War, what then must we do? Volunteer an extra shift at the local GOP phone bank?

Other popular pro-Trump voices, while lacking Claremont’s intellectual veneer, have echoed the authoritarian logic of emergency. Federalist contributor Jesse Kelly, best known for fantasizing about scalping liberals and splitting the country in two, tweeted “I couldn’t care less about declaring a national emergency because we’re well on our way to a national divorce anyway.” In other words, the hurricane is just offshore, so why not hit the streets and start looting early?

Townhall’s Kurt Schlichter and Fox and Friends’ Pete Hegseth justified Trump’s executive action as a sort of pre-emptive abuse of power, using what I’d call future-tense whataboutism. The libs are going to do this sort of thing anyway, so better to hit them first. (Schlichter also repeats “liberals want you dead or enslaved” like one of those “every day in every way” mantras. One wonders how far he’s willing to take this.)

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, who boasts 1.9 million Twitter followers and the attentive ear of the president, channeled the spirit of Grand Moff Tarkin in his plea for Trump to stamp out his congressional opposition. “I really believe that the way forward here is for him to declare a national emergency, and simply sweep aside the recalcitrant left in this country. They have — they have obstructed, resisted, and subverted for far too long,” Dobbs editorialized before a national audience.

Some conservatives remain sanguine about the threat of Trump’s executive overreach. Hugh Hewitt tweeted that “action to build border barriers will be reviewed in the ordinary course, and @realDonaldTrump may be in the right. If not, #SCOTUS will say ‘Stop,’ and @POTUS will stop.”

Hewitt might be correct about Trump’s resolve, but even now some on the right are calling on him to forge ahead in defiance of a negative court ruling. Josh Hammer, a former federal law clerk, wrote last month that “It Is Past Time For Trump To Openly Defy A Federal Court.” Others like White House aide Stephen Miller and failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore have decried what they call “judicial supremacy,” which is another way of describing precedent-setting judicial review.

There are echoes of Carl Schmitt in these rhetorical assaults on the rule of law. Schmitt, known to history as Nazi Germany’s “Crown Jurist”, criticized both legislative and judicial restraints on the exercise of constitutional power. He theorized that a “state of exception” (similar to a state of emergency) permits the executive to take actions without regard to law. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,” Schmitt famously declared.

The authoritarian impulse is not a new one in our history, and America has faced true emergencies in her past. Questions about the legitimacy of our courts preceded Trump as well. In 1996, conservative journal First Things published a symposium asking if liberal judicial activism heralded “The End of Democracy” and whether citizens could continue to “give moral assent to the existing regime.”

What makes our current situation different is the manufactured, vague and evolving nature of the emergency, and a savior figure whose cultish appeal is matched only by his inefficacy. Fears of America’s imminent destruction have been stoked, but our leaders, laws and institutions are seen as inadequate to the task. Expectations for deliverance have been raised, but met with dashed hopes and despair. Into the breach could be a greater yearning for a sovereign who will slip the bonds of the Founders’ constraints and rescue the nation by whatever means necessary.

And as the president’s political credit rating approaches junk status, it will be important to distinguish between Donald Trump, disgraced charlatan, and Trumpism, the movement that hungers for a strongman and now reserves judgment on his fitness for the role.

Christian Vanderbrouk

Christian Vanderbrouk is a writer in New York City. He previously served eight years in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: .