Step into my time machine. We’re going back to 2009, when we were facing the H1N1 flu epidemic. President Obama has declared a national emergency. His measures get pushback from several states. Determined to do whatever is necessary to save lives, during a press conference he explains the extent of his powers: “When somebody is the President of the United States,” he says, “the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s total.”
Republicans, predictably, lose their minds. Ted Cruz tells every camera he can find that Obama has apparently never read the Constitution. Chuck Grassley tweets out the full text of the 10th Amendment. Rush Limbaugh spends a full week expounding on the war we fought to rid ourselves of a king. Bill O’Reilly does an explainer on federalism. A Facebook post suggesting the President should retake middle school civics goes viral. Gadsden flags sell out on Amazon. Sean Hannity spontaneously combusts.
I’m sorry; I forgot to mention that this is my “What if Obama had done it?” time machine. I’ve used it a lot since 2016. And it’s the darnedest thing: stuff that would have had Republicans rioting in the streets, incandescent with rage, demanding impeachment if Obama had done it, elicits the gentlest reproaches—or more often, silence–when it comes from Trump.
And to be clear: if President Obama had made that statement, Republicans would have been justified in losing their minds. The idea of one person ruling with absolute power is the most undemocratic, anti-American concept possible. We did fight a war to rid ourselves of a king. It is blatantly unconstitutional. Anyone making that statement does need to retake middle school civics.
Yet Trump did say it.
He’s displayed an authoritarian streak throughout his presidency that is the antithesis of conservatism. But Republicans who have dared to speak out against this most recent example (Rand Paul, Liz Cheney) have not mentioned the President by name. (The threat of retaliatory Presidential tweets looms large over Congressional GOPers.) Most ignored it.
In contrast, when President Obama famously (infamously?) coined the phrase, “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” meaning that he would use executive orders to act alone when Congress was deadlocked, Republicans were not so accommodating. Jeff Sessions called him “The Emperor of the United States.” Ted Cruz quoted Cicero at length on the floor of the Senate: “When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?” Marsha Blackburn called him “King Obama.” Karl Rove said, “We are not a monarchy, we are not an empire where the president sits on some throne in Washington, DC.”
But when President Trump insists—in defiance of the Constitution—that he has the power to shut down and reopen states, that governors can only make decisions with his say-so, that his power as executive “is total,” we get crickets.
A few short years ago, I could never have imagined any President—let alone a Republican—making such a claim. It was unthinkable.
Now, the unthinkable happens on such a regular basis we’ve become numb to it.
We shouldn’t be. Presidents should understand the separation of powers. They should have better than a grade school familiarity with how the federal government works. They should understand their own job. They should never for one second believe their power is total.
Every American, especially conservatives, should feel insulted and threatened by this claim. It’s hard to think of a more dangerous attitude for a President to have.
If you’re a Republican who thinks this is acceptable behavior, I’d be interested to hear your rationale. Please leave a comment, email, or Facebook DM.
If you’re a Republican who thinks this is not acceptable behavior, why not speak up? Why not demand better? If for some reason you’re afraid to speak up, or believe you shouldn’t, why is that? I’d love to hear from you, too.