This is not the kind of work that Trump enjoys. At a March press conference on the coronavirus, he complained, “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work … The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”
Even worse, if you wield actual authority, you become accountable for outcomes. The nature of executive power—embedded in the word “executive”—is that it is the power to do things: not to vote or to appropriate money or to deliberate, but to actually do. And if a leader does things, it follows perforce, particularly in an electoral system, that he can be held accountable for the things he did, or didn’t do, or did badly. Trump hates accountability beyond all things. This is the man, after all, who said only a few weeks ago of the federal government’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Traditionally, the idea of dictatorship was linked with responsibility for the public welfare. The term “dictator” comes from ancient Rome, where it referred to an office explicitly designed to respond to crisis. In a recent episode of the Talking Politics podcast, Lea Ypi of the London School of Economics explains that the modern understanding of dictatorship as something harmful “confuses the category of the dictator with the category of the tyrant”—the latter being someone “who uses power in nonaccountable ways, who is violent.” A dictatorship, in contrast, was an office that came into existence to guide the Roman republic during crisis; a dictator would be expected to abdicate when the crisis was over, usually within six months. The whole point of the office was unity of power and command in the crisis—and therefore accountability for that command. When the Romans had a dictator, they knew who was responsible.
The framers of the American Constitution were keenly aware of this history in designing the presidency. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton’s famous defense of executive authority in “Federalist No. 70” makes explicit reference to it. The reference, notably, appears immediately after the essay’s most quoted passage, which celebrates “energy in the executive”—the ability of the president to take quick and decisive action. Hamilton wrote, “Every man the least conversant in Roman story, knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of Dictator, as well against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasions of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.”
But Trump is not acting like a dictator—neither in the Roman sense nor in the modern sense. He likes to make noise about how much power he has, while he remains shy about using any of it. Instead of drawing on his authority under the Defense Production Act to force companies to manufacture ventilators and protective equipment, for example, he’s made a lot of noise about invoking that authority while declining to use it aggressively. He’s perfectly content to give daily press briefings while governors decide how to handle the situation in their states. He then criticizes them, both on behalf of those disgruntled by the measures themselves and for not making the virus go away faster.