Many people make the mistake of thinking that dictators or tyrants always came to power illegally, through some coup or some other extra constitutional manner. Of course that is sometimes true. Both Mao and Fidel Castro fomented and then won revolutions which put them in power. But more often tyrants and dictators come to power perfectly legally.
Take Adolf Hitler as example. While Hitler was a miscreant and led a group of violent thugs in Weimar Germany, he is not guilty of a palace coup. In 1930 his Nazi party won 18% of the seats in the Reichstag and became the 2nd largest party in Germany. Two years later, building on the violence in the streets – much of which they incited – the Nazis became the largest party in government. On 30 January 1933 President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor and not long thereafter the Nazis began twisting the Constitution, suspending civil liberties and eliminating opposition. By August of 1934 Adolf Hitler was the dictator of Germany.
Hugo Chavez took a similar path. A lifelong military man, in the early 1990s he was a participant in several attempted coups d’etat. Each failed, with Chavez ending up in prison once and forcibly retired from the Army after another. In 1998 Chavez ran for and won the presidency and immediately set about rewriting of the constitution. Empowered by a constitution that eliminated the senate and strengthened the presidency, Chavez would eliminate almost all political opposition, put a stranglehold on the press and purge opponents from the military and courts. He died in 2013 having spent a decade and a half in almost complete control of every aspect of Venezuela, having nationalized most of the once productive economy and leaving in his wake a failed state.
And then there is Chavez’s contemporary, Vladimir Putin. In 1999 Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin Prime Minister. Later he would make Putin acting President. In 2000, on a backdrop of terrorism, crime and economic malaise, Putin would win the presidency with 53% of the vote. Thus began a period oppression of the opposition, intimidation of the media and constitutional gymnastics that would keep Putin with a steel grip on Russia that he maintains today. Along the way he has accumulated $200 billion in personal wealth and turned the Russian economy into an ATM for favored businessmen while leaving the average Russian living near poverty.
All three of these men used populist movements against state dysfunction to legally step into power. Once in power they all moved to eliminate virtually all opposition and take total control. Political opponents were often intimidated by supporters and sometimes simply thrown in jail. Opposition or objective newspapers and television stations were either closed or taken over. Economic rivals had their property taken and or found themselves in jail. Citizens voicing opposition often found themselves in the same place or worse.
Under the veneer of official authority a would-be tyrant’s power is almost absolute. Whether that power is backed up by partisans terrorizing citizens in the street, badged stormtroopers kicking down doors or bureaucrats using regulations to outlaw everything and everyone who might pose a threat, legislatures and courts are rarely a match for a determined would-be dictator. Such men rarely seize absolute power by overtly eliminating competing power centers, but rather usually couch the takeover in trumped up charges that lead to arrests or calls for equality of one sort or another. Under the cover of such populist movements properties are seized, businesses are closed and opponents are arrested. With the façade of legitimacy intact dictators then portray themselves as the heroes just doing what is necessary to defend the nation and the people.
So why does any of this matter here? Because in January we may well find ourselves inaugurating a man who could very much move down that road of tyrants. Barack Obama has already mainstreamed the idea of an extra constitutional presidency. From appointing members of the NLRB outside of the Constitution’s framework to rewriting his own Obamacare via executive fiat to nationalizing auto companies, he’s already laid the groundwork for a banana republic like strongman president, and that is exactly what Donald Trump would be. As a citizen Trump sought to use bankruptcy laws and the government’s eminent domain powers to threaten, intimidate and coerce opponents. He has threatened to use the courts to punish journalists who dare to write unflattering pieces on him. Prior to Ted Cruz exiting the race, Trump threatened violence if he was not handed the nomination, even if he hadn’t won. He has threatened corporations with bills of attainder for escaping the US’s confiscatory tax rates and suffocating regulations. Add to that the fact that he has made a career out of demonizing and making viscous personal attacks against real and perceived opponents, and it becomes clear that things might not look good for those who choose not to get on board the Trump Train.
The office of President of the United States is the single most powerful position in the world. That power would be intoxicating to the most level headed of people. Put it in the hands of the man with perhaps the biggest ego since Napoleon Bonaparte, and it could make for a toxic and tragic combination. We’ve heard Donald Trump tell us for a year that he will get things done, that he will make America great again, and that he will revive the American economy. As he pursues those things and figures out that it takes more than bluster and intimidation to “get things done” in Washington and on the world stage, it’s difficult to imagine he won’t pick up on Barack Obama’s success in implementing extra constitutional actions and decide that he can do the same, only bigger and better. No doubt it will be a HUUUUUUUUUGE success.