The Guardian Trump's entire presidency to date has sacrificed the means of democracy to preserve his personal power, and the shutdown over the border is no different "I have the absolute right to do national emergency if I want," Donald Trump told reporters on Wednesday.
The wonderful thing about Trump's presidency (I never thought I'd begin a sentence this way), is he brings us back to basics. The basic difference between a democracy and a dictatorship comes down to means and ends.
Democracy is about means, not ends. If we all agreed on the ends (such as whether to build a wall along the Mexican border) there'd be no need for democracy.
But of course we don't agree, which is why the means by which we resolve our differences are so important. Those means include a constitution, a system of government based on the rule of law, and an independent judiciary. A dictatorship, by contrast, is only about ends. Those ends are the goals of the dictator at a minimum, preserving and accumulating personal power. To achieve those ends, a dictator will use any means necessary. Which brings us back to Trump. The conventional criticism of Trump is that he is unfit to be president because he continuously breaks the norms of how a president should behave. Trump's norm-breaking is unsettling, to be sure, but his more fundamental offense is he continuously sacrifices means in order to preserve and accumulate personal power. He thereby violates a US president's core responsibility to protect American democracy. A president who shuts down government in order to get his way on a controversial issue, such as building a wall along the border with Mexico, offering to reopen it as a concession when his opponents give in, is not protecting the means of democracy. He is treating the government of the United States as a bargaining chip. He is asserting power by any means possible. This is the method of a dictator. A president who claims he has an absolute right to order the military to take actions in the US that are the subject of intense political debate, and do so without congressional approval, is not acting as the head of government of a democracy; he is assuming the role of a dictator. A president who spouts lies during a prime-time national television address over what he terms an "undeniable crisis" at the southern US border, which is in fact no crisis at all, is not protecting democracy. He is using whatever means available to him to preserve and build his base of power. The real international threat to the US is not coming from the southern border. It is coming from a foreign government intent on undermining our democracy by propagating lies, turning Americans against each other, and electing a puppet president. We do not know yet whether Trump colluded with Russian president Vladimir Putin to win the 2016 election. What we do know so far is that Trump's aides and campaign manager worked with Putin's emissaries during the 2016 election, and that Putin sought to swing the election in favor of Trump. We also know that since he was elected, Trump has done little or nothing to stop Putin from continuing to try to undermine our democracy. To the contrary, Trump has obstructed inquiries into Russian meddling. The overall pattern is clear to anyone who cares to see it. Trump's entire presidency to date has sacrificed the means of democracy to the end of preserving his personal power.
He has lied about the results of votes and established a commission to investigate bogus claims of fraudulent voting; attacked judges who have ruled against him, with the goal of stirring up the public against them; encouraged followers to believe that his opponent in the 2016 election should be imprisoned; and condemned as "enemies of the people" journalists who report unfavorably about him, in an effort to fuel public resentment perhaps even violence against them.
To argue, as some Trump apologists do, that whatever Trump does is justified because voters put Trump in power, is to claim that voters can decide to elect a dictator. They cannot. Even if a majority of Americans were to attempt such thing (and, remember, Trump received 3m fewer votes than his opponent in 2016), the constitution prohibits it. The choice could not be clearer. Democracy is about means. Dictatorship is about ends. Trump uses any means available to achieve his own ends. We can preserve our democracy and force Trump out of office. Or we can continue to struggle against someone who strives to thwart democracy for his own benefit. In the months ahead, that choice will be made, one way or the other.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.