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The Presidency is Dead. Long Live Dictatorship?

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Elizabeth Olsson | 31 January 2020

An Inconceivable Legacy

It’s time to reconsider Trump’s legacy. Pundits have been predicting the Trump administration’s political impact since Trump launched his presidential bid in June 2015. One forecast, which has been realized repeatedly over the last three years, was linguistic. As Katy Waldman aptly pointed out in 2016, “Vast swaths of Americans find themselves in Trump’s verbal thrall, nodding along as his mind empties its baleful, inchoate contents out through his mouth and into the world.” We have witnessed Trump’s verbal thrall on Twitter as well as during press conferences and political rallies. Through his early morning rants and public addresses, he has made an indelible mark not only on the words we ascribe to politics but the permissible limits of political communication. And, as we know now, there are no limits to what a U.S. president can get away with saying on social media, including witness intimidation, the disclosure of state secrets, and unmitigated threats.

Commentators also conjectured that Trump would destroy U.S. foreign policy. Eliot A. Cohen explained in early 2019, “The president has outlined a deeply misguided foreign policy vision that is distrustful of U.S. allies, scornful of international institutions, and indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the liberal international order that the United States has sustained for nearly eight decades.” This prediction has rung true again and again. Even if we have not yet felt the full effects of some of Trump’s most deleterious actions, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and Trump’s maverick maneuvering in Iran, the stage is set for diplomatic disaster.

But there is one prediction that pundits did not make about Trump’s legacy. Either because it was too far-reaching or just unthinkable, virtually no one averred that Trump would destroy the foundations of a democratic presidency. The worst-case scenario was that the U.S.— and the world— would suffer through two terms (eight years) of egotistical shenanigans before returning to the pre-Trump status quo. Yes, wars would be waged abroad, and minorities would be imperiled at home but, really, nothing significant would change. It’s here that we were wrong. As we saw during the Senate Impeachment Trial, Trump has effectively assassinated the U.S. presidency, installing in its stead the figure of a benevolent dictator entirely above the law.

The “Dershowitz Doctrine”

At this point, you’re probably wondering if I am a tad histrionic, but I assure you, I am not. In a stunning reversal of 232 years of constitutional law, Trump's defense team made a series of startling claims during two days of Q&A on the Senate floor. The first claim was made in response to a softball question lobbed by Republican Senator, Ted Cruz, who asked, “As a matter of law, does it matter if there was a quid pro quo?” In what is now being dubbed the “Dershowitz Doctrine,” Trump’s defense lawyer and constitutional scholar, Alan Dershowitz, adamantly replied, “If a president does something which he believes will get him elected in the public interest that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” In other words, Trump’s interests are the public interests and, in pursuing them in Ukraine or elsewhere, he was representing the interests of U.S. citizens. Moreover, since the president’s job is to enact public interest, he can neither be prosecuted nor removed from office for taking action to secure public interest through his re-election.

The day after Trump’s defense team dispatched the “Dershowitz Doctrine,” another of Trump’s defense lawyers, Eric Herschman, expanded on this audacious line of reasoning. In response to a question of whether Trump was acting for personal gain, Herschman proclaimed that it didn’t matter because Americans are happy. Specifically, Herschman argued, “A recent poll shows that the American people are the happiest they’ve been with the direction of the country in 15 years. Whether it’s the economy, security. Military preparedness. Safer streets or safer neighborhoods. They’re all way up. We, the American people, are happier.” If we follow the “happiness defense” to its logical conclusion, as Trump and his supporters undoubtedly will, high approval ratings preclude impeachment. That is if a president is popular, he can do no wrong.

If the circular claims championed by Trump’s defense team sound familiar, that's because you've heard them before. They are the constant refrain of dictators the world over: I am in power to secure my people's interests and that places my actions above national law, international agreements, and all other decrees issued by the unknowing masses. It is also reminiscent of Nixon's statement, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Trump's actions and his lawyers’ "constitutional” defense of those actions have all but slain the figure of a democratic U.S. president, begging two troubling questions: 1) How did this happen? And, more importantly, 2) what are the implications for "democratic" governance?

Populism, American-Style

The “Dershowitz Doctrine” is an extension of the wave of populism that Trump rode to the White House in 2016. The latest iteration of American-style populism is rooted in the Tea Party Movement that seemingly swept the US in 2009. I say “seemingly” because the sentiments espoused by Tea Party members were always there. This political movement, principally populated by older white men, gave voice to the underlying currents of racism, xenophobia, and radical extremism that have bubbled under the surface of American politics for centuries.

The election of an African-American president, however, was too much for many conservatives to bear resulting in rallying cries for the drastic reduction of the U.S. government, the abolition of nationalized healthcare, and significant cuts in taxes and social spending.

The popularity of the Tea Party’s political platform was further bolstered in 2012 when Obama was re-elected, and the Republicans lost seats in Congress. At this point, many who had previously occupied an unquestioned position of power and privilege in the U.S. felt marginalized and stood poised to shake up the U.S. government in the 2016 elections.

Enter Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed millionaire who had never held political office. Here was a man that said he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., who force the Mexican government to finance the construction of an impenetrable wall along the U.S. southern border, would fight for” forgotten” blue-collar workers, who would run America like his “successful” businesses, and who would restore America to a mythological position of greatness. Perhaps, most importantly, here was a man who said and did whatever he wanted regardless of the consequences. As he infamously proclaimed in prior to his election, “I could shoot somebody and still not lose any voters.” And so Trump lost the popular vote— after all, the Tea Party and its members have always represented a small minority of US voters— but won the electoral college and became the 45th U.S. president.

Dictatorship by the Book

Now the question is, will Trump also become the first U.S. dictator? This is a serious question when you reflect on the contents and implications of the “Dershowitz Doctrine.” In his defense of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, Dershowitz presented a textbook definition of a benevolent dictator. A dictator, as you may recall from history class, is an authoritarian ruler who exercises absolute power. A benevolent dictator, however, either claims or is perceived to exercise absolute power in the interests of the people. In other words, the interests of the benevolent dictator are, ostensibly, the people’s interests and, in pursuing those interests, a benevolent dictator is above the law. A benevolent dictator cannot be questioned. A benevolent dictator cannot be impeached. A benevolent dictator cannot be removed. And, when you put like that, the “Dershowitz Doctrine” and Trump’s inevitable acquittal in the Senate is nothing short of validation that Trump, and any future president, really can do and say whatever the hell they want. After all, if Trump engaged in an egregious abuse of executive power and obstruction of Congress and gets away with it, then all legal checks on presidential actions are, effectively, dismantled.


Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. She was born and raised in the United States and studied U.S. politics at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1998-2002. She relocated to Sweden permanently in 2007.


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