President Trump is not a dictator, but he has the rhetoric of one.
In a recent press conference, the president expressed admiration for the strength of Kim Jong Un’s leadership and stated “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”
Of course, the strength of the Kim regime rests on the threat of force. Doubtlessly one sits up and cheers enthusiastically when failure to do so is likely to result in being sent to a gulag.
But this is not a positive, nor is it a genuine expression of respect and admiration for Kim’s governing style. And for the president to express a desire to see the trappings of absolute power emulated in America is truly disturbing.
The basic framework of American government still functions, if imperfectly. Except in very limited areas, Trump does not have the authority to, on nothing but his say so, codify his will. Even those areas where he has done so, namely in the arena of tariffs, are not power the president has Constitutionally, but represent a default of Congress on their powers and an erosion of the proper balance of powers.
Nevertheless, Trump’s affinity for the strong-arm tactics of dictators and his repeated expressions of desire to be able to command absolute power and loyalty are deeply disturbing. The president, for good or ill, is the head of American government, both symbolically and, in arenas such as diplomatic relations, and functionally. That the head of the country is so woefully uninformed about the basic principles upon which American government is founded as to long for behaviors that are in direct contradiction to them bodes ill for the culture of government.
Regardless of whether Trump in speaking of “my people” means those who serve in his cabinet or the American people writ large, this comment is wildly inappropriate as it is based in the idea that loyalty is owed to him. The sole legitimate font of American government is the people, and not the people and their desires per se, but the sovereign rights individuals retain even though they live under the laws of the United States. Government’s actions are oriented around protecting the ability of individuals to freely exercise those rights.
However, there is a pernicious strain of thought, which the president’s policies embrace, in modern politics that proclaims liberty to be a condition of security. As the security of knowing one has the space, free from fear of intrusion of others, to exercise natural liberties only when law codes exist to ensure offenders are punished, there is a notion that the stability of nations outweighs individualistic concerns about despotic laws. This is certainly a strain of thinking implicit in the president’s trade protectionism: tariffs, which raise the price of domestic goods and impact the ability of many to do business on their own terms, are seen as ultimately in the benefit of those whose choices they impinge. This requires viewing the American polity as a collective: even if one’s individual short-term interests are damaged, the fact that one is a citizen of the nation, which is ostensibly benefited in the long-term by policies that bolster the national security, overrides any personal grief.
Such thinking is, of course, fallacious. It is impossible to do good to the whole when any of its constitutive members are harmed. But, more than that, such thinking also violates the most basic principles of American government. It paints government as the guarantor of freedom, both theoretically and functionally. As government creates the conditions under which individual ability to pursue freedom, the state ultimately controls freedom. Of course, what it gives, it can take away, hence the brushing away of short-term harm done to individuals by policies such as protectionist tariffs and the painting of those who complain about abuse as anti-patriotic.
But though such an approach to governance claims to protect citizens and their freedom, it ultimately benefits only government and reaffirms its powers.
When the ultimate level of a society’s power is given absolute discretion in making value judgments, the state is enervated with consciousness, giving it a survival instinct. It, like the individual, now must look to its own continuance and the strengthening is position. It is now a creature subject to the basic tenets of natural law: survive then thrive. Whether power is invested in the hands of one man, a troika or even a large representative body, the nature of its power is that of a living, breathing organism. And its decisions will always be for its own welfare. Even its compassion comes at the expense of others. Given consciousness and a survival instinct, the absolute state has a perverse sense of righteousness to its actions, as does any other individual who commits atrocities in the interest of his continuance. But, unlike the individual, the absolute state and those who wield its powers are not limited by their form. Unrestrained by any higher power and able to command vast resources and forces, it cannot be stopped. This is the morality of barbarism.
Freedom is possible without government actively pursuing policies that create a stable framework in which individuals have space to act of their own volition. Left to their own devices, individuals who love their own freedoms will behave in a manner that respects similar rights in others. Long-term self-interest mandates that the pursuance of individual betterment not alienate one’s neighbors who one day be imperative to survival. Each person is held in check by fear of righteous vengeance sought by the party they wronged with the help of the state. This fear is aided by the reflexivity of rights, for each man can imagine that the anger he would feel should someone injure him is mirrored by his neighbors who value the same rights. In the same way, society is held in check by fear of uprising from the people should it wrong them.
When government intrudes into this relationship, it distorts it and insulates men from their own bad actions, the negative consequences of which provide the best illustration of why men should root their actions in a code of conduct that respects the rights in others they most love in themselves.
Also published on Medium.