Mussolini in the Mirror: The President Declares He Has 'Total Authority'

By Jeff Robbins

April 21, 2020 5 min read

"Democracy is beautiful in theory," wrote Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. "In practice it is a fallacy. You in America will see that one day." The fiery fascist did not have a perfect score in the prognostication department. For example, his decision to ally with Adolf Hitler worked out poorly for him, and he ended up summarily executed by a countryman and hung upside down in a town square.

Still, on whether Americans' commitment to preserving our democratic character would last forever, Mussolini appears to have a point, and President Donald Trump punctuated it again last week. Since it has always been Trump's position that he is free to do as he pleases without consequence, his claim that he has the power to do whatever he wants as president was unsurprising. "When someone is the president of the United States," he proclaimed, asserting that he could "open" or "close" states as he wishes, "the authority is total. And that's the way it's got to be. It's total. It's total."

As usual, the president was just making stuff up. "What provision in the Constitution gives the president the power to open or close states?" wondered one curious reporter. "Numerous provisions," jabbered Trump, who, like everyone else watching, knew that he had no idea what he was talking about. "We'll give you a legal brief if you want," he added. It's been a week, and we are still waiting for that legal brief. Don't hold your breath: The Constitution was actually written to guard against dictator wannabes deciding they are king. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution expressly contradicts Trump's claim to absolute authority, stating, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Prevailed upon by aides to lighten up on an unfortunate totalitarian look, the president backpedaled the next day, allowing that the states actually get to decide what is necessary to keep their citizens from dying. But he was soon back at it, threatening "close-downs" of states that acted more vigorously to protect their people than he thought necessary. Asked what in the world he meant by a "close-down," the president once again made it up, sounding one part autocrat, one part buffoon. "We have the right to do whatever we want," babbled Trump, "but we wouldn't do that, but no, we would have the right to close down what they're doing if we want to do that, but we don't want to do that, and I don't think there'll be any reason to do that. But we have the right to do that."

The president has made a near fetish out of self-regard and seems determined to demonstrate it. He arranged to have his name appear on the "memo" line of emergency checks mailed to American families suffering from the economic meltdown, angling to take personal credit for funds appropriated by Congress. In the category of "Why should this day be different from any other?" he then lied about it. "Mr. President, why did you add your name to the coronavirus relief checks?" asked a reporter last week. "I don't know too much about that," replied Trump. "I don't understand how my signature got on the relief checks." But he offered that Americans would be relieved to see "Donald Trump" on the check. "I'm sure people are very happy to get a big, fat, beautiful check with my name on it," said our president, layering eye-popping personality disorder upon simple mendacity.

American democracy has endured quite a stress test these past three years. November's election will test just how much we have absorbed from civics lessons and 4th of July speeches. And it will determine, perhaps conclusively, what Americans see when we look in the mirror.

Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

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