It’s a small leap from a “state of emergency” at the border to martial law throughout the country.
The Republican Party, since its takeover by Reaganauts in the 1980s, has long favored shrinking the federal government to the point at which it can be “drowned in the bathtub,” to use Grover Norquist’s colorful phrase.
Tax cuts reduce the federal budget. Budget cuts weaken social programs. Even cutting remarks have their effect. Ronald Reagan got plenty of laughs when he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help.’”
With the partial shutdown of the federal government entering its third week, Americans are learning that the nine most truly terrifying words in the English language are: I’m the president and I’m here to help… myself.
Donald Trump isn’t content to use the executive office to enrich himself and his circle. He’s warping national policy to serve his own interests as well. Trump believes via Fox News that his presidency is doomed (and his second term nipped in the bud) if he doesn’t fulfill his signature promise of building a wall. The government shutdown is all about Trump and his self-serving impulses.
To that end, Trump has threatened to extend the shutdown as long as it takes in order to squeeze funding out of Congress for his cherished wall. And why wouldn’t he? He’s got the bathtub ready and a funeral oration already written.
Shutting down government won’t lose any votes from furloughed federal workers (the vast majority of whom already despise him). Yes, the shutdown is unpopular, but the president’s base of support is delighted to see even a partial draining of the swamp. And shutdowns, as FiveThirtyEight concludes from an admittedly small sample, don’t seem to have long-term impact on public opinion.
But the truly frightening part of this standoff between Trump and the rest of government is his threat to invoke a state of emergency so he can direct the US military to build his wall.
The president admires autocrats who can just get the job done. Rule by decree is the first stepping stone to transforming democracy into dictatorship. Declaring a state of emergency would be Trump’s desperate attempt to hold onto and ultimately expand the power that is slipping through his fingers in the aftermath of the midterm elections.
CHANNELING THE FASCISTS
Rule by decree has an undistinguished, undemocratic parentage. In the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and 1930s, the German Constitution contained the controversial article 48, which granted the president the right to rule by decree in the case of a national emergency. German leaders invoked this right several times between 1930 and 1933.
But the most momentous decree came in the wake of the Reichstag fire, six days before German elections in 1933. Adolf Hitler, already appointed chancellor at that point, persuaded German President Paul von Hindenburg to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree. No doubt inspired by Benito Mussolini and his use of emergency powers to establish fascism in Italy in the 1920s, the Nazis then took full advantage the authority granted them by Hindenburg’s decree to remake Germany into a dictatorship.
Modern democracies retain a certain echo of this tradition of decrees. In the United States, for instance, presidents can issue executive orders without having to declare a state of emergency.