It was left to Washington DC’s Judge Florence Pan to ask the question heard round the world.“Could a president order SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival?” It was asked in response to Trump’s claim of more or less absolute Presidential immunity—in order to exonerate himself in his numerous criminal trials. Receiving a non-answer from Trump’s lawyer, that verged on a “yes,” Pan was left to conclude, “you’re saying a president could sell pardons, could sell military secrets, could order SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival.”
Startling stuff. But immensely meaningful. Here we have laid bare, for the first time, so explicitly, Trump’s theory of the Presidency. And what it amounts to is…dictatorship. That matters. Trump himself proudly flaunts the line of being a dictator now, and yet rhetoric is one thing. To see an actual theory of politics and Presidency revealed as dictatorship is another. In other words, this side isn’t kidding around about dictatorship at all.
Later that night, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert cracked jokes which were funny precisely because they cut to the heart of the matter. Kimmel joked that under such a theory, Trump had better watch out for “Bazooka Joe.” Colbert said he just wanted to live to see the next Avatar movie, as in, please don’t kill me. Witty—but precisely because the joke is that it isn’t much of a joke.
If we take this theory seriously for a moment, let’s examine the consequences. The political assassinations that Kimmel and Colbert joked about, and that Pan asked seriously about. But much, much more than that. A President with absolute powers would be above the law—all of the law.
If a President enjoys absolute immunity, any of the following are possible. That means that he or she could, for example, take anyone’s home, possessions, and assets. That’s called “expropriation,” and it’s a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. That they could take command of the national treasury, and basically pilfer the nation’s coffers—that’s called “looting,” and it’s another hallmark of authoritarian regimes. They could also, for example, single out anyone for any level of retribution they liked, which goes by many names, from intimidation to persecution.
All of that is what dictatorship is. Trump’s crackpot theory of the Presidency matters because it lays bare, with crystal clarity, the dictatorial impetus, impulse, and agenda at work here. Far from being mere rhetoric, a slogan, an in-joke for the MAGA masses—a political theory is far more dangerous, because it can be used legally, administratively, and socially.
It should go without saying that a democracy in which the head of state is literally above the law isn’t one, because of course then it can’t be one. But to really help you understand how authoritarianism works, let’s take the theory one step further—the places it usually goes. And before I delve into that, let me note: this is precisely how authoritarians come to power.
What do I mean by that? Here we have a particular claim: a head of state is to enjoy not just extra-judicial but super-judicial privileges. Extrajudicial usually means that heads of state are to be tried by parliamentary bodies, or special systems of justice. But superjudicial, in this context, means that a head of state is simply above the law—it isn’t to apply to them, period, full stop.
If that claim is established, what tends to happen next? Something like the following: it doesn’t end with the head of state. Because they’re now above the law, enjoying superjudicial privilege, they can of course argue that their subordinates now also enjoy such privileges. The precise line of argument isn’t really the issue, but it’s easy enough to see: if I’m above the law, then I have the power to make anyone else I like above the law, too.
This is often the crossing point between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Imagine that a demagogue then empowers his subordinates to be above the law, too. Now cabinet members, ministers, secretaries, all enjoy superjudicial privileges. They can abuse, intimidate, harass, hector, destroy, ruin, pilfer, loot, expropriate, anyone or anything they like.
What usually happens as a result of that? This minister seizes control of this major company, and declares it all his own—oligarchy. That secretary decides to prove his loyalty and worth to the demagogue by putting themselves in charge of punishing the impure and faithless, and terror campaigns begin. This figurehead decides they’re going to control the education system, for notions of purity and piety. That one raids the homes and people the demagogue doesn’t like, and seizes them. On and on it goes. Before long—in a matter of months, usually—a society goes into a kind of numb paralysis of shock.
This sort of claim, then, is incredibly serious. Yes, it’s a crackpot idea. But it’s also how authoritarianism descends on a society, in an almost textbook way. Often, incredibly enough, and sadly enough, it’s captured judiciaries who stamp their approval on superjudicial powers. That’s because they themselves have been beaten, intimidated, harassed, into submission.
It’s also incredibly revealing, this claim. It teaches us that Trump and his team aren’t merely toying with the idea of authoritarianism—they’re wedded to it, as a theory, that they hope to use to justify its eventual arrival.
If Americans are foolish enough to vote Trump into office, as they appear to be at this moment, then we now have a very clear picture of what awaits. A President claiming—and receiving—superjudicial powers, which will trickle down. Now marry that with the 1000 page plan to purge government, and replace it with loyalists. Many of whom themselves will then enjoy superjudicial powers—enforcers who’ll be immune from prosecution, for example, or secretaries who’ll be immune from oversight. What’s that a picture?
Authoritarianism becoming totalitarianism. That is the danger here. Often, authoritarianism takes time to harden into totalitarianism. Take the Soviet Union—it took decades for Stalin to come to power, as a simple example. But in this case, Trump and his team and side have a sophisticated, organized, careful plan and strategy to turbo-charge American collapse—taking it from authoritarianism to totalitarianism at light-speed, installing a puppet government which will be able to claim immunity, descended from the absolute power of the dictator. And when the then-purged government is in the hands of authoritarian fanatics, who’s going to prosecute in the name of democracy, anyways?
America risks all this, and yet it doesn’t seem fully aware of, cognizant, awake to it. Instead, beset by financial and economic woes, overwhelmed by a descent into downward mobility, ravaged by despair and hopelessness, enough of society appears to be hungering for a strongman to put it all right. Alas, history teaches us: never once has that happened. Demagogues don’t restore the fortunes of societies: they use them for their own ends, and ruin them, for generations to come.
Trump’s theory of the Presidency is a lot of things. Funny and foolish. Lunacy, writ large. But it’s also, at this moment, something we should all pay attention to, and think about carefully. Once this line is crossed—absolute power, concentrated into the deadliest poison, in the hands of a society’s most ruinous, malicious, and cruel—there’s usually no going back.
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