American Autocracy

This week: conversations with Gary Hart, Martha Minow, and Masha Gessen about presidential emergency powers and potential for dictatorship. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

When presidents declare a national emergency, they’re also given exceptional authority that can, if a president chooses, facilitate tyrannical abuse or the pursuit of some personal ambition way beyond the public’s well-being. President Trump has declared seven national emergencies so far. On July 23rd, Gary Hart, former U.S. senator from Colorado, sounded an alarm in the New York Times about such power that might spell doom for the republic. “We have recently come to learn,” Hart wrote, “of at least a hundred documents authorizing extraordinary presidential powers in the case of a national emergency.”

On this week’s show, Gary Hart joined us to elaborate on the danger of these extraordinary powers:

They were first concocted during the Cold War, in the Eisenhower years, under the remote possibility that we might be subject to a nuclear attack. And the question was, who governs America, and under what conditions? So proclamations and executive orders and instantaneously passed legislation set up a situation that is virtually a blueprint for dictatorship. And those powers have been expanded in every administration since then.

Gary Hart.

These powers make it remarkably easy for a president to pursue fulfillment of strongman wishes. Hart tells us:

All the president has to do is declare a national emergency. This president has declared seven national emergencies. But the secret powers provide that if a president declares a national emergency, all these powers are available; now based upon research done by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, these include: suspension of habeas corpus, a centerpiece of all democracy; searches and seizures without a judicial warrant, as required by the Fourth Amendment; mass arrests for no declared reason (and we began to see that in Portland); and declaration of martial law unilaterally. So it’s virtually a suspension of the Constitution.

Gary Hart set the tone for an hour of conversations about the dangers exceptional executive powers pose to all other institutions. Living in a republic, as Hart tells us, requires continual participation, continual efforts by citizens to maintain and improve institutions.

Martha Minow. Credit: Harvard University.

Martha Minow, professor at Harvard Law School, spoke further about those institutions, and about just how far reliance on the Constitution will get us:

The Constitution creates a set of complicated structures that allow ambitious people to pursue good in their own minds and then counterbalance one another. Ambition should counteract ambition, was James Madison’s conception. And that’s the separation of powers in the federal government. And that’s the federalism, the relationship between the national government and the states.

But none of it works if there isn’t a spirit of liberty and a defense vigilantly defended by the people, none of it works. And in their recent major book, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson do a survey of nations across time, across societies, and find that constitutions per se are only one part of the equation. If you don’t have an active civil society — including protests, including journalists, including people who demand the enforcement of rights and their respect — doesn’t matter how beautiful the document is.

Masha Gessen. Credit: Lena Di.

Masha Gessen, staff writer at the New Yorker, inspired this week’s show with lucid explanations of mafia-like autocratic regimes. You can find that explanation in Gessen’s book, Surviving Autocracy:

On our show, Gessen pointed out that maintaining the opposite of autocracy means that we can’t simply outsource democracy’s maintenance to institutions or some mysterious other force; we have to do that maintenance:

Americans have an almost religious faith in our institutions. And by that I mean that we imbue them with some magical qualities. We imbue them with the quality of self-repair. And of course that’s not how institutions work. They’re not self-repairing and they’re not independent. And they only work in as much as we enable them to work and have a shared understanding of how they work. Which is what’s made it so easy for Trump to trample them, to diminish them, and in some ways to just ignore them. And I think that perhaps if we do vote him out of office, as we enter a post-Trump future, we should take away the lesson that we have to reinvent ourselves all the time.

That’s what democracy is. Democracy is not a thing that you build and inhabit. Democracy is an aspiration. It’s a negotiation. It’s an invention. It’s a way to constantly keep coming up with ways to actually create a government of the governed. That’s work that we haven’t done in a long, long time. And it’s way over overdue.

It’s a kind of democratic participation and civic involvement invoked in Barack Obama’s funeral oration for John Lewis. You can find that speech’s transcript here.

Support Us on Patreon and Hear Laila Lalami

This week over on our Patreon, you can hear Pulitzer-finalist Laila Lalami talk to Adam Colman about the conditional nature of citizenship in the U.S., where the same freedoms aren’t evenly distributed to all its citizens. It’s a conversation about immigration and the ongoing history of racism and xenophobia in U.S. policies (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and, recently, Trump’s Muslim Ban.) And it all leads to Lalami’s reflection on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract in light of our own social and political failings.


Get Ready: Moby-Dick

We’re also thinking about the great American novel of tyranny, disaster, strange obsession, and democratic possibilities in spite of it all: Moby-Dick. On the way are conversations with novelists and scholars and prophets. Stay tuned. And get reading! Here’s a head start:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

You can also sit back and listen to the entire book, too.

Listen: Led Zeppelin’s Moby-Dick Exegesis

The drum solo.

Get Ready for This Too: Wagnerism

We’re also reading New Yorker critic Alex Ross’s long-awaited book about the effect of Richard Wagner’s music on all kinds of historical developments—influencing both humanity at its worst and some of history’s major artistic and intellectual breakthroughs. Ross writes: “Wagnerisms are at the heart of my story; socialist Wagner, feminist Wagner, gay Wagner, black Wagner, Theosophical Wagner, satanic Wagner, Dadaist Wagner, sci-fi Wagner, Wagnerismus, Wagnerismo, Wagnerisme…Writing this book has been the great education of my life.”

This Week’s Ephemeral Library

On the obvious “inadequacy of school reopening plans.” Dickens in Brooklyn. Katrina Forrester on Bob Dylan. The Unraveling of America. How the Pandemic Defeated America. Darryl Pinckney: We Must Act Out Our Own Freedom. Why is Joe Kennedy Doing This?

Illustration by Susan Coyne

That’s all for this week; we’ll be re-running our show with Josh Cohen about casino gambling next week while we finish reading Moby Dick and get caught up on some other production. Hit the beach, folks (not really). See you in two weeks.

The OS friendly autocrats.




An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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