The Coming Presidential Tyranny: Maybe Trump, Maybe Later, but Coming Ever Closer

This screed is a response to a friend’s Facebook post. He linked to the article The Republic Conquered: On America Entering the Post-Democratic Era, with a warning to conservatives to set down their coffee while reading it “unless you enjoy irrigating your sinuses,” and a friend of his replied, “OMG, more proof that liberalism is a mental disorder.”

But there is more to this than liberalism vs. conservatism. Indeed Trump, a populist bridge between liberal and conservative concerns, is the perfect avatar of the real problem, which is the people, as embodied in the president, against the constitutional order. And so, my response.

[The post-democratic era] probably won’t happen, but Trump is more likely than any president we’ve ever had to make it happen, because nothing matters more to him than satisfying his ego. The man is a slave to himself on a level we have not seen since Nixon, and Nixon had the counterbalancing quality of understanding world affairs better than most and a drive to reduce the threat of nuclear annihilation. Trump knows less of foreign affairs than any post-WWII candidate  (and given we’ve elected several governors to the job, that’s saying a lot), and is more interested in dominance than peace.

If Nixon made a dramatic  (albeit, ironically, unnecessary) attempt to subvert democracy, we can hardly expect Trump to be much better.

And the stage has been set by previous presidents for efforts to rule unilaterally, without consent or reference to Congress. Whoever among all the candidates became our next president was going to have those tools at their disposal, but Trump more than the others expects to get his way — it’s part of his extreme narcissism. All presidents see themselves as the embodiment of the will of the people , and who dares stand against the will of the sovereign people? That’s enough to go to any person’s head, so how must it affect the extreme narcissist?

And the political climate is right for such an effort, a climate of which you and Bob are both part. “Liberalism is a mental disorder,” is a perfect example of how both sides demonize each other. It’s on par with claims that all conservatives are racists, or bitter people clinging to guns and religion, or deplorable.

When politics is beyond mere disagreement, at the point where disagreers are seen as mentally deranged, barely more than animals, we begin to gravitate toward populist candidates. Not just Trump, but Sanders as well on the other side. And populists don’t believe in constitutional constraints; they believe only in the will of the people, embodied, of course, in themselves. And no political niceties can get in the way. Think of Huey Long, in Louisiana.

What most people are missing is that this is not about liberal vs. conservative. Both sides are following this pat. Trump is indeed the ideal embodiment of this tendency, because he’s neither liberal nor conservative. He has been both a Republican and Democrat, as well as an independent. This is about the populist fantasy of a political savior, a man into whom we pour all our political hopes and dreams, creating expectations that could only begin to be met through the smashing of all checks and balances.

I have been warning for years now that the presidency has set us on a path toward tyranny, raking steps forward toward that end with each succeeding presidency, as each one’s innovation in power becomes normalized by their successors. Eight years ago I warned liberals that Obama would disappoint them in their hopes of rolling back the power gains of the Bush presidency. Their only comfort to themselves has been “Bush did it first.” Likewise, conservatives who have complained about Obama’s unilateral governance will comfort themselves in the Trump administrator by saying, “Obama did it first.”

If not Trump, some future president will kill off American democracy, doing so as the Tribune of the People themselves. And while I would wager against that happening in the Trump administration, because our other institutions are not quite yet dead, the one who does will almost certainly be a man similar to Trump in his degree of narcissism, his need to get his own way, and his desire to not just win but to humiliate his enemies.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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8 Responses to The Coming Presidential Tyranny: Maybe Trump, Maybe Later, but Coming Ever Closer

  1. lancifer666 says:

    Unfortunately the presidency has always had the potential to go out of control. Lincoln was, arguably, the first “Imperial President” as outlined in Arthur M. Schlesinger’s, 1973, book of the same name. Maybe we were lucky he was, maybe we weren’t.

    Lincoln at least appears, in retrospect, to be a more benevolent emperor than Nixon clumsily tried to be or Trump is likely to be. I don’t think Obama was ambitious enough to do more than tread the shallow waters of signing statements and blatantly political appointments to the federal courts and bureaucracies. I suspect most of his imperial legacy will be swept aside fairly quickly by Trump.

    So long as the Democrats and Republicans hold a two party hegemony over the American political landscape the temptation to see the presidency as the ultimate prize for political domination will likely prove too tantalizing for either party to diminish it’s unconstitutional reach. They like having an emperor in the white house, so long as he is THEIR emperor.

    But, I believe the fact that Trump is an outsider to the Republican power structure will make the party unlikely to do his imperial bidding. Not that he won’t try. And let’s not forget that almost all of the media has criticized his every move even before he has been inaugurated. And, as you have mentioned before, the massive inertia of the vast federal bureaucracy is not likely to immediately turn course to impose his will on the nation.

    As you know, I agree that the presidency has veered of the rails of it’s constitutionally defined mission. I just don’t think Trump has the talents or power base to become the first American Caesar.

  2. It’s worth thinking about what a tyrannical, “post-democratic” America would look like. It probably wouldn’t take the form of an actual suspension of Congress or dismantling of the judiciary. At least I don’t think it would. I believe it would still retain the form of “republican” institutions. Beyond that, I’m not sure what it would look like. I hate to make predictions because I’m usually wrong, but I’d add to Lancifer’s last point and say that not only does Trump (probably) lack the chops to become the next caesar, he might be so inept that his presidency could arrest or delay the trend toward increasing executive power. (Or I might be wholly wrong. Again, I don’t like to make predictions.)

    As an aside, it’s interesting how concerned I am now about executive overreach and how (relatively) unconcerned I was before,under Obama (and looking back, under FDR and TR). I guess the chickens are coming home to roost for people like me.

  3. ppnl says:

    So… what law did they pass to take away congressional power and give it to the president?

  4. James Hanley says:


    It’s not about laws limiting Congress, but about an informal shift of power to the President that Congress is nearly, although not totally, helpless against because it is not a coherent organization — that is, it’s composed of 536 separate interests rather than having the type of structure that could enable it to effectively focus on its institutional interest. This incoherence was the point of critique by Woodrow Wilson in his 1885 work Congressional Governance.

  5. ppnl says:

    Well that was the point of my question. Nothing has really changed in the law. Congress has done it to itself. They have the power. They lack the cohesive will. This is a result of the pointless civil war between the left and right. This is an inevitable result of gridlock.

  6. James Hanley says:

    No, my point is that “Congress has done it to themselves” is the inevitable result of our structure of Congress, where localized interests predominate. Wilson pointed to it in 1885, and we haven’t changed the system since them except to add on direct election of senators which if anything exacerbates the problem at the margin.

    They have the formal power to do something, but that doesn’t mean they’re structurally capable of doing it.

    The split between left and right does also exacerbate it, but that’s been a problem in the past as well. We just had a temporary lull in that for a while as the Democrats were split between a northern wing and a southern wing and the Republicans were largely smack in the middle between those wings. That was a rare situation and it’s not going to return.

    The root of the problem is structural, and you don’t fix structural problems by talking about having more will; you fix them by improving the structure.

  7. ppnl says:

    Well yes I agree about the structural problem. The only thing I would add is this is what Federalists paper #10 was about.

    The point I was trying to make is that gridlock is a bad thing. Yes it is caused by a structural problem but it is the bad thing that is caused by the structural problem.

    Some argue that gridlock is good because it limits government power. And yes there is a danger in a congress able to do stuff but kneecapping government isn’t a solution to any structural problem. It just transfers power to the president and/or crony capitalists or other interests groups.

    The only achievable thing I can think of to fix the structural problem is maybe to dump the electoral college.

  8. James Hanley says:

    But what ultimately has made checks and balances into gridlock? It’s not something any particular person or group has done. Blaming Congress doesn’t do any good; they’re just responding to the incentives of the structure and of their publics.

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