Despite accusations that President Trump is a wannabe dictator or fascist, his actions as president could be seen as a systematic dismantling of the era of the imperial presidency. The US Constitution, and its separation of powers, was specifically design to prevent authoritarian or dictatorial rule. However, over the past several generation the presidency has grown in power in several ways leading to what has been called the Imperial Presidency.
To understand President Trump’s actions and the accusation being made against him, it is important to define these terms.
Fascism /ˈfæʃɪzəm/ is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and control of industry and commerce that came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe. Wikipedia
While President Trump’s Make America Great Again and America First agendas can definitely be characterized as nationalist, the key distinction would be whether it is radical, authoritarian or dictatorial. While he has actively pushed back against his opposition, again the key here is whether it has been forcible suppression. Lastly there is the issue of control of industry and commerce. Fascist regimes typically implement government control of private business and commerce.
Before we get into what fascist tactics President Trump is guilty of, if any, we need to define this thing called the imperial presidency.
Imperial Presidency is a term used to describe the modern presidency of the United States. It gained popularity in the 1960s and served as the title of a 1973 book by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The Imperial Presidency.” It’s based on two concerns: that the US presidency was uncontrollable and that it had exceeded its constitutional limits.
In the 1930s, the president had few staff, most of them based in the US Capitol. The Oval Office is still used when the president is in the country and not traveling, though most often for ceremonial occasions. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, presidents were more regularly based there with a small staff. Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the Great Depression and World War II, changed the presidency. The new age of electronic media, the growth of executive agencies under the New Deal, his “Brain Trust” advisors, and the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939 led to a transformation of the presidency.
Modern presidents now have a large, unelected and largely unaccountable executive staff. They are crowded into the West Wing, the basement of the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building beside the White House which is also used by the Departments of Defense and State. The overcrowding in the West Wing led President Richard Nixon to convert the former presidential swimming pool into a press room. Wikipedia
This growth of presidential staff, departments and agencies, as well as the use of Executive Orders, has elevated the position of the President to unprecedented, unintended and arguably unconstitutional levels. The American Presidency Project publishes a table of Executive Orders: Washington to Present, with FDR leading the pack having issued 3721 Executive Orders, averaging 307 a year over his 12 years in office. With Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover rounding out the top five. In fairness, not all Executive Orders are power grabs by presidents, many are used to relinquish power or deregulate.
With that in mind, what has President Trump done in his first 10 months in office? In the realm of executive staffing, the president has had some turnover and has thus far been thwarted by the Senate on many of his nominations. He has not made any moves to reduce the staff or Cabinet that is associated with the imperial presidency, but his proposed budget seeks to eliminate 62 agencies and programs. Rather than consolidating power in the Office of the President, his actions to date have been more of a divesting of power. Likewise his Executive Orders have been primarily used for deregulation and shifting power away from the presidency and back to Congress.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, is a prime example. President Obama enacted DACA by Executive Order despite his own admissions that he did not have the constitutional authority to do so. President Trump rescinded it via Executive Order and put it back in Congress. The Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare”, is another example. President Trump put the onus on Congress to address it and only when that failed did he take executive action. Rather than take action for “control of Industry and Commerce,” his Executive Order removed government controls, mandates and subsidies. His most recent actions related to the “Iran Deal,” again, remove power from the presidency and place it back in Congress.
So far, in terms of both fascism and imperial presidency, President Trump’s actions stand in stark contrast to the accusations against him. But what about his rhetoric? Let’s look at his recent dust up with the NFL. Many criticize his rhetoric as racist, trying to “silence his opposition” and his “calling for firings” as dictatorial. To those who use such language, I would recommend looking up the definition of authoritarian and dictatorial. There is a difference between expressing an opinion that someone “should be” fired and using the power of the presidency to “forcibly silence” dissent. I will concede that President Trump’s rhetoric, use of Twitter and often blunt, arguably childish, comments are not typically “presidential” compared to past presidents. That being said, though unconventional, they are still a far cry from authoritarian or dictatorial.
When taken as a whole, and with only 10 months on-the-job, President Trump’s actions and rhetoric cannot be characterized as fascist by any legitimate standard. In fact, quite the opposite, making a substantial argument in support of the President’s deconstructing of the authoritarian power of the modern imperial presidency. Despite the rampant use of -isms and -phobias (fascism, racism, sexism, islamophobia, etc) used against the President, an honest review of the facts of his presidency thus far reveals what may well be an end of the era of the imperial presidency. A decentralization of power and a spotlight placed on Congress to fulfill their constitutional role as the representatives of the people. Accusations of fascism, publicizing discord and dissent may make for “good TV,” but in the end the facts and the truth are what is important.
An intellectually honest review of the facts reveals an unconventional President with an obvious populist nationalist agenda, but no evidence of fascistic tendencies. In a more CEO-like manner, President Trump seems to be more intent on making government work than making himself more powerful.