By Dr. Jennifer Mercieca
“They wanna call you a dictator,” Sean Hannity said to Donald Trump in an interview taped in Davenport, Iowa. “To be clear, would you in any way, have any plans whatsoever, if reelected president, to abuse power, to break the law to use the government to go after people--”
“You mean like they’re using right now?” Trump interrupted. His live studio audience laughed and clapped. One woman behind Trump can be seen vigorously nodding her approval as Trump used a strategy known as “accusing the accuser” (tu quoque), accusing his Democratic Party opposition of using the political system to attack him.
Trump used his tu quoque strategy to give himself permission and as justification. Politics is war, and the enemy cheats, Trump claims. Trump would be justified if he abused power because they have already abused power. The nation needs a dictator, not a president.
Hannity tried once again to get Trump to promise that he wouldn’t become a dictator, framing it as “the media attacking you” with an unfair or exaggerated accusation. “Under no circumstances,” asked Hannity, “you are promising America tonight you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?”
“Except for day one,” Trump said as he held up his index finger, and the studio audience laughed and clapped again. Then Trump underscored that he really meant that he plans to become a dictator as he narrated the conversation for the audience: “I love this guy,” Trump said. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, other than day one. We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.’”
Dictators don’t typically self-limit their own power to two issues and then give up power, but Trump would like his followers to believe that he would be a special, one-day-only, limited-time dictator. Trump makes jokes about being a dictator, but he’s not joking. Trump is not running for president; he’s running for dictator.
Trump likes to say shocking and outrageous things to attract attention and control the news cycle—and, as I’ve explained, he would rather be seen as a supposed “strong man” like Hitler than as a loser. And so, it’s easy to dismiss Trump’s embrace of dictatorial power as hyperbole, but don’t. He’s telling us quite clearly that he will not follow the rule of law—he wants unlimited power. No one who follows the rule of law would joke about being a dictator.
One important indicator scholars use to gauge democratic backsliding is whether or not political leaders violate democratic norms and the rule of law. That’s because democratic stability requires clear laws with predictable consequences. Democracy requires that those laws are followed and enforced both for citizens and officials. When political officials are held accountable to established law, that’s called democratic “rule of law”—the thing that Hannity asked Trump if he would violate.
But Trump, like all dictators before him, claims that the other side has already broken the rule of law—that the rule of law doesn’t exist because his political enemies are cheaters. That claim gives him permission, like all unaccountable leaders before him, to argue that the nation needs a “strong leader” like him who will rid the country of supposed ‘lawlessness.’ Trump would rid the nation of ‘lawlessness’ by assuming uncontrollable power.
Would-be dictators don’t want to be held accountable to the rule of law themselves because, obviously, the rule of law restrains their power. Dictators want the law to be arbitrary; they want to have the power to decide which laws will be enforced and who is subject to enforcement and who is not. When political officials apply the rule of law as it suits them and to advance their own interests, that’s called autocratic “rule by law.”
You might think that American government institutions are strong enough to hold Trump accountable to the democratic rule of law but don’t be too sure. The goal for any authoritarian is unaccountable power; the path to that power is to purge the government of officials who will follow and enforce the rule of law and replace them with officials who will follow and enforce the rule of the autocratic leader. The former are loyal to the law; the latter are loyal to the autocrat.
This is exactly Trump’s plan. Of course, Trump doesn’t say outright that he wants the power to “rule by law,” instead, he deploys a conspiracy theory about the “Deep State” that is supposedly corrupting the government and the “rule of law.”
According to public policy professor Donald P. Moynihan, Trump, and Trump-loyal political groups are already working to flood the government with 20,000 Trump loyalists who will replace those who currently enforce the rule of law. “They will be placed in every agency across government,” explained Moynihan, “including the agencies responsible for protecting the environment, regulating workplace safety, collecting taxes, determining immigration policy, maintaining safety net programs, representing American interests overseas, and ensuring the impartial rule of law.”
Flooding the government with people who are extreme loyalists to a person, party, or political program instead of the constitution or government or rule of law is how democracies die. Wannabe dictators like Trump normalize fascist ways of thinking about politics and society by disciplining political thought and action with loyalty tests.
There's a democratic way of thinking about power and the “rule of law” and a fascist way of thinking about power and “rule by law.” Trump's goal is to purge people who think within a democracy framework. People who think within the fascist framework will willingly create and execute his fascist policies.
At his first presidential rally on March 25, 2023, in Waco, Texas, Trump framed his whole campaign around this goal: “Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state,” Trump bellowed. His supporters should give him power so that he can destroy their enemies: “Justice will only be done when we have drawn this repulsive political class that hell out of office. We have to get them out. In 2016, I declared I am your voice. And now I say to you again tonight: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And—I took a lot of heat for this one, but I only mean it in the proper way for those who have been wronged and betrayed, of which there are many people who have been wronged and betrayed—I am your retribution.”
Will Trump’s followers elect a dictator? Yes. “So what if he’s a dictator?” they’ll ask. “Maybe we need a dictator?” they’ll wonder. “Trump is our dictator!” They’ll think when they vote.