Is the land of the free and the home of the brave sliding towards dictatorship?

How can the United States, of all places, be vulnerable to despotism?

It would no longer be sensible to deny the danger, and not only because of Donald Trump. The former Land of the Free now has a government capable of trampling people’s rights in ways big and small and a populace in a state of mutual hostility and loathing not seen since the runup to the Civil War.

Is it ripe for a man on horseback and, if so, what nation is safe?

For most of its history any sane person would have said America was the last place that could become dictatorial; its government was too small, its powers too separated and constrained, its people too devoted to freedom.

Concerns about tyranny are not new, of course. There was paranoia about the “slave power” before the Civil War and about bankers and plutocrats in the late 19th century and so on. People said the most extraordinary things about Richard Nixon, a man who as I have argued in the Dorchester Review was possessed of outsized virtues and outsized vices. But he was no Henry VIII including in the threat he posed to liberty. The American system even then simply did not permit it. The legislature was too independent of the executive, and the judiciary of both, and Americans were jealous of their liberty.

Today many people are not so sure.

As The Economist recently editorialized:

“Feckless war-making, a financial crisis and institutional rot have let loose a ferocity in America’s politics that has given presidential contests seemingly existential stakes. Americans have heard their leaders denounce the integrity of their democracy. They have seen fellow citizens try to block the transfer of power from one administration to the next. They have good reason to wonder how much protection their system guarantees them against the authoritarian impulse rising around the world.”

Institutions that no longer work

Actually a great many Americans no longer think their system protects them. They think it oppresses them. And with some reason.

As in Canada, a former night-watchman state whose purposes and procedures were very much in keeping with the popular mood and understanding now often resembles an occupying force, imposing an endless array of stupid regulations with heartless and inefficient ruthlessness, and worse besides, including on COVID. (To give one trivial example, I recently got a photo radar ticket for going 61 in a 50 zone. Robert Peel’s citizen police would never enforce such a thing. Today’s courts tell me bluntly I may not challenge it – on Charter of Rights grounds.)

In America today the prosecutorial juggernaut is a horror story. Ask Martha Stewart or Conrad Black, not to mention the millions every year bullied into pleading guilty by the tyrannical piling on of charges. Its legislature is a mess, incapable of fiscal responsibility. And its executive branch is massive, arrogant and inept, spewing regulations in quantities that violate John Locke’s maxim that:

“freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.”

Nearly everything about the modern American state violates Madison and Hamilton’s warning in number 62 of the Federalist Papers that:

“It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.”

An expanding state

To put such powers in the hands of Donald Trump may well be called madness. But the problem is not the man. It is the powers – and those who celebrate them while lamenting the danger that someone not of their sort might somehow wield them.

The roots of the problem lie in the massive expansion of the state, in terms of ambition, powers and money. In America, clever men in the 20th century undid what wise ones had created in the 18th century. This happened in two main waves, in the 1930s and the 1960s. Bent on giving the government power to do good, they did not reflect that a government big enough to give you whatever you want is also big enough to take whatever you have. Or in some cases they did, but not in a good way.

As The Economist observed in its feature lamenting the current situation:

“For most of the first century of presidenting, the idea that one man could rule the country seemed absurd. The office was too weak for that. Under Washington the entire executive branch consisted of four cabinet secretaries and five actual secretaries. It was not until after the first world war, when the federal government had grown dramatically and fascists and communists were taking over European democracies, that the question started to seem relevant and the idea even vaguely plausible. By the end of the second world war the number of federal employees had increased to 2.5m.”

Here let me quote a leading exponent of constitutionalism that his was “A land, perhaps the only one in the universe, in which political or civil liberty is the very end and scope of the constitution.” As I try to baffle my students by revealing, this author was not American but British, the great commentator William Blackstone, writing a decade before the American Revolution – which was staged by people who considered themselves British and wanted their traditional British liberties.

That America was dictator-proof. And its founders, great and small, were neither fools nor sentimentalists, including in their reading of history. Britain really was the “Mother of the Free” that Land of Hope and Glory proclaimed as late as 1902, with an amazingly small and effective government well into the 19th century. To verify this claim, I invite sceptical readers merely to peruse the Sherlock Holmes stories to see how casually characters put privately owned handguns in their pockets.

Britons launched the industrial revolution, imposed Pax Britannica and created a culture that included everyone from Hogarth to Elgar to Dickens, not to mention having a professional novelist as Prime Minister (Benjamin Disraeli) who was also a master of the insult, without so much as compulsory schooling let alone a welfare state. Then came Labour with its politics of envy and the UK declined into economic, cultural, and military squalor. The United States is doing likewise, and as it does so, it is losing all that made it exceptional, including its resistance to tyranny.

If America is to be exceptional, it must be as the Home of the Free. And if it is not the Home of the Free, it will not be exceptional – including in its resistance to tyranny. To a remarkable degree American exceptionalism has long consisted of a ferocious devotion to liberty, even among people who agreed on little else from religion to cuisine. And they did not fight with reckless passion to dominate the state – because it wasn’t worth dominating.

That compact has since been broken. And not by Republicans or at least not primarily, though many are now thoroughly at home in the swamp. Remember words from Barack Obama early in his presidency when asked by a British journalist, “could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it?” Without hesitation, Obama replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

To Obama America was just one nation like any other, neither more admirable nor more free nor less parochial. Many Americans both hate this view and feel helpless before it. Many liberals seem to forget that eight years of Obama-style hope and change had so upset their fellows that they elected Trump. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. But if America is not exceptional, why should it be exceptionally tyrant-resistant … and how?

The United States still is not Iran or Russia. But one even fears that the exceptional political vigour of the United States would make tyranny there more dangerous because it would be more effective than in, say, Italy or France. Certainly the many virtues of German culture did not mitigate but amplified first autocracy and then evil tyranny. Even Bismarck once decried the lack of civic courage among his countrymen. And we all paid dearly for it.

Let’s talk about Joe

Here a curious danger is all those people who will neither shut up about Trump nor speak up about Biden.

I yield to no one in my dislike of “The Donald”; I have said since he first became a serious political threat in 2016 that he was unsuited to the Presidency temperamentally, intellectually and morally. And he certainly has not grown better since then.

But I also consider Biden to be not only senile but also dishonest and his VP is, as one Australian commentator put it, a “cackling nincompoop”. If you didn’t like Spiro Agnew next in line for “The Button”, what about Kamala Harris?

Those pundits who seem to think that negative comments on Biden must be avoided lest they help Trump are showing a perilous lack of civic courage. And often snobbery, and I’m not just thinking here of David Frum and Andrew Coyne. But given the fault lines that are giving rise to populism, this is reckless. As I’ve been saying all along, Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.

And to deny the validity of the question is to invite disaster. Why are they willing to? Why can’t the Democrats get rid of Biden and Harris? And what ever became of liberty on the left, civil or otherwise? How did the Democrats become the party of bigger and less constrained government on every issue – only to howl when someone else got astride the monster they had created?

In this regard I dispute part of what the Economist said next:

“if Americans believe that their constitution alone can safeguard the republic from a Caesar on the Potomac, then they are too sanguine. Preserving democracy depends today, as it always has, on the courage and convictions of countless people all across America – especially those charged with writing and upholding its laws.”

In my view this claim, too, overemphasizes the state and its power to shape culture. It is not legislators who are the mainstay of resistance to political chicanery or worse. It is “We the People”. If they are determined to become a mob like that of so many other countries, legislators cannot stop them. And if they are determined not to, legislators cannot make them.

Remember the famous quotation, at least famous in part, from the preposterously named Judge Learned Hand in a 1944 speech “The Spirit of Liberty”, namely that “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”

Again I think his final sentence overstates it. In our fallen world, even the noblest of sentiments must be incarnated in institutions, as the progression from Magna Carta to the United States Constitution shows. But he continued: “And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow.” And indeed a society where liberty has become licence, and an angry demand that the state force everyone to validate their self-image, is one that cannot but descend into “a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few”.

Liberty and licence

Well, if liberty has become licence, whose fault is it? Not, surely, the party of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater nearly so much as that of Edward Kennedy and Bill Clinton. And while The Economist worried about, among other things, the powers the President may assert by declaring an emergency, the big problem isn’t what the Constitution grants to a leader in a crisis. It’s whether a populace will demonstrate civic courage to resist or will acquiesce in their unjust use – as many Canadians did when Justin Trudeau spuriously invoked the Emergencies Act to deal with a vaguely unruly protest.

What, The Economist asked, would happen if a president who had stacked the senior officer corps refused to vacate the Oval Office. As it said: “The United States has 247 years of history, but its constitution was copied by several young Latin American republics in the 19th century and they succumbed to strongmen.”

Here one has only to imagine the fate of a President in days of yore who refused to vacate the Oval Office, especially in a country with more guns than people.

A good test case is, again, FDR, who broke what was not then a constitutional rule but a convention by running for a third term in 1940. That he regarded himself as above George Washington appalled some and amused others. But he did win the 1940 election, even after a damaging clash with the Supreme Court in 1937 when he threatened to “pack” it to undermine its crucial power to rein in legislative and executive encroachment on Constitutional rights. Had he lost, the regular forces would have refused to support a coup backed by a few crooked generals, let alone citizens.

As The Economist noted in another piece, it wasn’t just the Republican fever swamps from which foul-smelling dictatorial bubbles emerged in those days: “In the inter-war years, dictatorship had a certain chic among elite Americans. Eleanor Roosevelt suggested to her husband that the country might need a ‘benevolent dictator’ to drag it out of the Depression. ‘If ever this country needed a Mussolini, it needs one now,’ declared a senator from Pennsylvania. This sort of talk was only silenced by the attack on Pearl Harbour.”

The Establishment

In that piece, The Economist worried a great deal about Trump and his predilections.

But what of Biden? And what of the modern prosecutorial juggernaut? For all his obnoxious qualities, Trump is surely a symptom not a cause, not least because of his notoriously unfocused lack-of-work ethic. And it is not helpful, quite the reverse, that people who get the vapours three times a day about Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election ignore or excuse Hillary Clinton’s precedent-setting claims that the 2016 election was stolen. Not to mention Al Gore’s fancy tongue-work about 2004.

A crucial cause of America’s current trouble, and its vulnerability, is the large number of people who feel that the system is not working for them, despises them, and lies to them. They mostly vote for Trump, of course, because he’s abrasively anti-Establishment whereas Biden is the Establishment.

But every example of the mendacity, hypocrisy, arrogance and abuse of power by Biden partisans drives Trump supporters into a worse frenzy. This includes their refusal to admit that Biden is patently senile.

The Economist also notes two amendments designed to constrain the power of the presidency, the 22nd that limited anyone to two terms after FDR served three and part of a fourth, and the 25th that permits removal of the president if Congress decides he is incapacitated. And it might actually help the Republic considerably if Biden were to be removed, since he is a major argument in favour of Trump and the refusal of his partisans to admit anything, from senility to his entanglement in Hunter Biden’s preposterous business dealings, reinforces the paranoid notion of a “Deep State” and a conspiracy.

But with Kamala Harris waiting in the wings, one can understand the reluctance.

Americans or not, we all have a huge stake in this matter. Twenty years ago, during a State Department-sponsored tour of swing states for the 2004 election, in which we only went to Democratic states and talked to liberals, I had a chat with a woman in Portland, Oregon who pondered whether the US should in fact split. Not violently, as in the 2024 indie film Civil War but peacefully, into the United States of Canada and Jesusland or one of those parody maps. I told her that I found the thought of the 21st century without the power of a united United States terrifying. To my surprise she burst out in gratitude that nobody ever seemed to talk that way.

It is also a back-to-the-wall situation because the centre of Western Civilization has been moving west, as tracked in the Percy Jackson fantasy novels, from Greece to Rome to Britain to the United States and it has run out of room. Or as Joan Didion once put it in Slouching Toward Bethlehem about California:

“Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

Here, too, is where we run out of democracy if we are going to. If not, if America is not to become one more squalid tyranny, it must be because they, and we, stop treating liberty as some embarrassing anachronism and once again hoist and rally to its banner.

Is an American civil war just a preposterous fantasy? Leave your comments below.  


John Robson is the Executive Director of the Climate Discussion Nexus, a documentary film-maker, a columnist with the National Post, the Epoch Times and Loonie Politics, and a professor at Augustine College. He holds a PhD in American history from the University of Texas at Austin. 

EDITORS NOTE: This Mercator column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

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