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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why Republicans are talking about Biden’s ‘dictatorship’

The Capitol in Washington, on May 20, 2024. (Will Matsuda/The New York Times)

By Jamelle Bouie

The United States under President Joe Biden is a “dictatorship,” according to Doug Burgum, governor of North Dakota.

“Under Joe Biden,“ Burgum told Fox News, “we’re actually living under a dictatorship today where he’s, you know, bypassing Congress on immigration policy; he’s bypassing Congress on protecting our border; he’s bypassing Congress on student loan forgiveness; he’s defying the Supreme Court.”

Asked on Sunday to defend his claim, Burgum, who is apparently on the short list of potential running mates for Donald Trump, stood his ground, telling CNN that Biden is “bypassing the other two branches of government to push an ideological view of — whether it’s on economics or whether it’s on climate extremism — he’s doing that without using the other branches.”

It is an odd sort of dictatorship in which the head of state is bound by the rule of law as well as by the authority of other constitutional actors, one in which the dictator’s critics can organize to defeat him in an election without intimidation, penalty or threat of legal sanction — and in which he will leave office if he loses. If nothing else, it is hard to imagine a world in which Biden is both a dictator and someone who would allow Burgum, a regime opponent, to speak freely on national television as he works to defeat Biden at the ballot box.

In fairness to the North Dakota governor, he was trying to make a point about a perceived double standard, in which Trump and not Biden is blasted as an authoritarian for his use of executive orders. But even this is misleading, because the issue with Trump is not the use of executive orders per se. Instead, it is his demonstrated contempt for democratic accountability — he does not accept the right of an electorate to remove him from office — his desire to use the instruments of state to inflict punishment and suffering on his political enemies and his efforts to transform the office of the presidency and the broader executive branch into instruments of his personalist rule.

(That said, there is a conversation for another day about the overreliance on executive orders by presidents of both parties as a symptom of congressional weakness and a product of long-running structural transformations in the nature of the presidency, tied specifically to the growth and preeminence of the national security state.)

Burgum is obviously wrong about the idea that Biden is a dictator. But he is not the only Trump ally to speak in such dire terms about the United States. As Politico’s Ian Ward noted, Sen. JD Vance of Ohio — another Republican hoping to stand with Trump as his second — believes that “the United States is on the verge of going up in smoke” and that “electing Trump represents the only hope that Americans have for getting off the path to literal civilization collapse.”

And Russ Vought, former budget chief in the Trump administration and one of the architects of the former president’s second-term agenda, believes that Americans are living in a “post-constitutional” moment that justifies the radical use of executive power to quash protesters with the military, the gutting of the federal civil service in favor of a spoils system for Trump loyalists and the seizing of the power of the purse from Congress. He urges his comrades in arms to “cast ourselves as dissidents of the current regime and to put on our shoulders the full weight of envisioning, articulating, and defending what a Radical Constitutionalism requires in the late hour that our country finds itself in, and then to do it.”

Just as Americans are not living under a Biden dictatorship — in which the watchful eye of Dark Brandon prowls the nation in search of malarkey — the United States is also not on the verge of collapse. Our economy is the envy of the world, we remain the preeminent military power, and for all of its serious problems of representation and inclusion, our political system is still capable of handling at least a few of the major issues that face the nation. It does not downplay the challenges we confront to say that we have the capacity and the resources to meet them head on. That, if anything, makes it all the more frustrating that we have not yet secured decent housing, health care, child care and education for everyone in this country. None of these things are beyond our material ability to accomplish — far from it.

Of course, even mentioning the reality of conditions in the United States is a bit beside the point, because the breathless catastrophizing by Trump and his allies is not an expression of ignorance as much as it is a statement of intent. Rhetorically, the MAGA political project of personalist rule in support of social hierarchy, unrestrained capital and the destruction of public goods depends on the conceit that the nation exists in a state of exception that demands extraordinary — and extreme — measures to resolve.

The cultivation of this notion of a state of exception, of a sense of emergency, is the overriding aim of MAGA political messaging. The targets change — in 2020 it was leftists and protesters, this year it is migrants and refugees again, as it was in 2016 — but the goal is always the same: to designate an enemy, to label that enemy an urgent threat to society and to try to win power on a promise to destroy that enemy by any means necessary.

Embedded in this maneuver is a radical claim of sovereignty. The so-called enemy is whoever Trump says it is, and once designated, the entire political system must bend to his will on the notion that he, alone, can fix it.

Sovereign power of the sort that Trump and his allies gesture toward does not exist in the American system as traditionally understood, and there is no provision in our Constitution by which the executive can set aside the rule of law to deal with threats and emergencies. But the point of this rhetoric of exception is to set the conditions for doing just that — for creating an actual state of exception in American politics.

Put another way, if we are on the verge of civilizational collapse, if we are in a post-constitutional moment, if we are already in a dictatorship, then anything is permitted in defense of the old order. And if democracy should stand in the way of recovery and restoration, then democracy should, perhaps, be set aside.

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1 Comment

Jean Arenas
Jean Arenas
Jun 29

Reading this content, propaganda seems to be the nature of its classification. Shame.

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