Trump’s authoritarianism has always been peculiarly weak-willed. He admires dictators, but he lacks the interest and attention span to break down the real legal limits on his power. Instead, his preferred method is to locate the spaces in which he is least constrained to begin with, then exert as much force as he can. The most consistent example throughout Trump’s presidency has been his actions concerning immigration—a realm where both the courts and Congress have historically granted the president great deference.
His crackdown in D.C. offers another example. Trump’s deployment of military and law-enforcement officers was frightening in part because it was so familiar. On one level, the sight of law enforcement attacking peaceful protesters to clear the way for a presidential photo op—not to mention the armed troops at national monuments, the police officers refusing to identify themselves, the helicopters using the battlefield maneuver of hovering low over city streets to intimidate protesters—was alien to American democracy. On another level, Trump’s spectacle looked like something that Americans know quite well from foreign news reporting. Trump brought into the United States capital a vision of power more at home in an occupied territory or a collapsing state. The New York Times compared the barricades erected around the White House to Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Simon Barnicle: The 53-state solution
D.C.’s lack of statehood, and its unique relationship with the federal government, made this cartoonish show of force possible. Unlike state National Guards, which usually report to their governors, the D.C. National Guard is commanded by the president. Thus Trump could send troops into the district’s streets without having to invoke the Insurrection Act, the controversial legal authority he would have needed in order to call up the guard elsewhere in the country—and without requiring the city’s consent. The president’s control over federal law enforcement also enabled him to deploy heavily armed officers from various agencies across the city—again, without consulting local leadership. The Washington Post reported that the White House even considered seizing control of the D.C. police force, before deciding against it. Trump found in the capital a place that had no recourse against the expansive authority already granted to him and asserted that authority with the delight of a bully.
Again and again, in trying to understand the president’s approach to his office, I’ve returned to the concept of the “state of exception”—an idea central to the thinking of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. In a moment of unforeseeable emergency, he argued, any constraints on power give way and the leader may act with all the force of legal authority but without restriction. Even in a liberal democracy characterized by limitations on authority, Schmitt says, this wormhole to absolute dictatorship will always exist.