We hear dire warnings these days about Donald Trump (with guidance from dark angel Stephen Bannon) intending to subvert our democracy and set himself up as a dictator in an authoritarian regime. Trump’s blatant disregard for the well being of anyone but himself and his need to suck all of the air out of any room he’s in, suggest he sought the presidency mostly for personal gain and self-aggrandizement.. But is he really an authoritarian, in the most sinister sense of the word?
I recently came across the story of the world’s first war crimes trial in England in 1649. The defendant: Charles I, King of England. The trial, as it played out in a society already experimenting with democracy, showed Charles to be an unrepentant authoritarian, unwilling to be counseled or disciplined by his nation. I think there are striking parallels between Charles’s behavior and Donald Trump’s that bring Trump’s authoritarian tendencies into better focus.
Parliament charged Charles I with treason, after he waged two wars against the English people, that claimed the lives of many thousands of English citizens. He was, according to the indictment, “guilty of all the treasons, murders, [property seizures], burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and commtted in the said wars…”
Trump and Bannon went to court after a federal judge suspended a travel ban they imposed (mostly targeting Muslims). Opponents of the ban accused Trump of intentionally causing significant inconvenience, stress, and disruption of life for thousands of people—US residents and refugees, alike. The ban may have contributed to the death of an elderly Iraqi woman, who held a green card and had lived in the US since 1995, but was nonetheless turned away as she was returning to the US for medical treatment. She died in Iraq, not her new homeland.There are many stories of hardships suffered by those refused entrance when the ban was suddenly imposed.
Charles I was unapologetically haughty and authoritarian from the moment his trial began. When Solicitor General John Cook stood to read the charges against him, Charles whacked him on the shoulder with his cane and ordered him to stop. Cook continued, and Charles, furious that his order was not being obeyed, slammed his cane down so hard on Cook’s shoulder that the silver top broke off. Cook finished reading. Given the opportunity to enter a plea, Charles refused, insisting that he ruled by divine right, and a divinely ordained ruler could do no wrong, therefore, he had committed no crime. Parliament’s attempts to hold him accountable were, he argued, illegal.
When a federal judge temporarily suspended Trump’s travel ban, Trump publicly condemned the judge and his ruling.Trump told Americans he was dealing with a “so-called judge,” and he couldn’t “believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and the court system. People pouring in. Bad!” Trump wasn’t finished. He came perilously close to accusing the judge of treason: “The judge opens up our country to potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests at heart. Bad people are very happy!“ Hours later, Trump, still furious, tweeted, “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” You get the impression Trump would have clobbered the judge with a silver-topped cane, if he’d had the chance.
Trump and Bannon (a principal author of the ban) obviously appealed the suspension of the ban. As they did so, and in the true, totalitarian spirit of Charles I, they let it be known that they questioned the legitimacy of the entire judicial system. After the appeals court heard oral arguments in the case, Trump told a law enforcement conference: “I watched last night in amazement [when the court heard oral arguments], “and I heard things that I couldn’t believe. I don’t ever want to call a court biased, so I won’t call it biased, and we haven’t had a decision yet. But courts seem to be so political, and it would be so great for our justice system if they would read a statement and do what’s right.” Taking another big swing with his cane, Trump impugned the courts authority and qualifications: “If you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.” He then tacked on another of those incredibly ignorant and arrogant comments we’ve already seen and heard too many of, “I was a good student. I understand things. I comprehend very well, O.K.? Better than, I think, almost anybody. And I want to tell you,” he continued, condemning the American court process in triplicate, “I listened to a bunch of stuff last night on television that was disgraceful. It was disgraceful. It was disgraceful because what I just read to you [an excerpt from his Executive Order] is what we have. And it just can’t be written any plainer or better, and for us to be going through this.” Like Charles I bitterly complaining that Parliament had no authority to put him on trial, Trump‘s resentment was clear, as he whined, like a six year old, about how offensive it was “for us to be going through this.” His protestations confirmed that he and Bannon clearly saw themselves above the law and the courts.
Trump and Bannon made that point again—that the President wields power alone and above America‘s democratic system of checks and balances and also above the American people— in their argument before the appeals court. Their brief contained not one glimmer of acknowledgment that the US government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They showed no awareness that our government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, something any fourth grader would know, because they’re smart, some of them maybe smarter than anybody. Those fourth graders also know that Presidents do not get their power through the divine right of kings.
Trump and Bannon’s argument for authoritarian rule, as summarized by the appeals court in its ruling, was that “the district court lacked authority to enjoin enforcement of the Executive Order because the President has ‘unreviewable‘ authority to suspend the admission of any class of aliens.” “The Government [Trump and Bannon],” the judges reported, “does not merely argue that courts owe substantial deference to the immigration and national security policy determinations of the political branches—an uncontroversial principle that is well-grounded in our jurisprudence… Instead, the Government (Trump) has taken the position that the President’s decisions about immigration policy, particularly when motivated by national security concerns, are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.” How much more authoritarian can you get? Trump and Bannon are essentially eliminating the judicial and legislative branches of the US government. “The Government indeed asserts,” the court reported, “that it violates separation of powers for the judiciary to entertain a constitutional challenge to executive actions such as this one.”
In the case against Charles I, John Cook appealed to the Magna Carta, the laws of nations, and the Bible to support charges that Charles had murdered thousands of his own people and denied them civil and religious liberties. Charles, much like Trump and Bannon, was outraged at being put on trial by the people, but he offered no plea nor defense. The court interpreted no plea as an admission of guilt and executed him.
The US appeals court did not order Trump and Bannon to the guillotine, but they soundly rejected the idea that a President is above the law. They wrote, “There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.” The court accused Trump and Bannon of arguing, against the US Constitution, that refugees and visitors could not petition for redress of grievances under US law. On that point, the court schooled the man who “comprehends things better than almost anybody,” saying, “The Government argues that most or all of the individuals affected by the Executive Order have no rights under the Due Process Clause.” That, said the appeals court, is “demonstrably false. Indeed, the existence of such persons is obvious.” Non-citizens do have rights in the US, and courts have long recognized that, whether Donald Trump recognizes it or not. In this country, the king cannot wave a hand and make anyone go away.
Can we conclude from this comparison that Donald Trump aspires to subvert our system of government and engage in authoritarian rule? The parallels to a true tyrant seem pretty clear. And we’re only a couple of weeks into his presidency.
The battle against authoritarianism in England did not end with the death of Charles I, but the Parliamentary court‘s willingness to bring down a despot struck a blow for a more democratic government in Great Britain in the years to follow. Will the appeals court ruling against Trump’s unconstitutional travel ban force him to change his ways? Not immediately, I suspect, but it should serve to put Trump and anyone else plotting to “take over” America on notice that the system, of, by, and for the American people, still works, and the American people will be vigilant in protecting and preserving it. The immediate impact of this first clash with Trump and Bannon, it seems to me, has been merely to deepen the ranks of those willing to stand against them as they attempt to run rough-shod over us and our way of life.