During a lively conversation over dinner the other night, a friend asked if any of us thought that it would be possible for a dictator to gain power in the U.S. This question was in the context of our discussion about the Bush administration and FSA spying activities on U.S. citizens. The consensus was that our Constitution has mechanisms and structures to prevent such a take-over.
But the question got me thinking. What is a dictator, and how does one get into power? Could it happen here (in the U.S.?)
The Wikipedia definition of "dictator" contains the following:
In modern usage, dictator refers to an absolutist or autocratic ruler who governs outside the normal constitutional rule of law.
Dictators often acquire power in a coup d'etat, or by suspending the existing constitution. Ordinarily democratic nations may temporarily give dictatorial power to leaders during a state of emergency.
In states with democratic traditions, dictators frequently emerge in times of war, or during an economic or social crisis. Most notably, Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitlar in Germany, achieved office by democratic means and once in power gradually eroded constitutional restraints.
While I don't think George Bush is a Dictator, I do think there are imaginable scenarios within which he, or a future President, could assume such a role. Consider the following:
1. The last two presidential elections in this country, particularly the 2000 election, left many citizens wondering if the election was really "stolen" through questionable balloting and voting tactics (e.g. Florida), and legal manuevering in the State and Federal courts. While not exactly fitting the definition of coup d'etat, the 2000 election was a constitutional crises of major proportions.
2. The recenly exposed spying by the NSA on U.S. citizens, conducted outside the legal framework of the Foreigh Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), is being defended by President Bush as within the executive powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief. Many legal scholars and government officials, including Republicans, do not agree with Bush on this legal point. In essence, Bush is saying that the constitutional protections do not apply in his War on Terrorism.
3. President Bush took the United States to war (invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation) based on lies, and there is strong evidence (the Downing Street Memo) that the decision to invade Iraq was made first, and the intelligence information ginned up to support the decision.
4. President Bush, as Commander-in-Chief, has supported the torture of prisoners, holding of prisoners, including U.S. citizens without due process, the transporting of prisoners to other countries for torture. All of these actions are done under the cover of the "War on Terror" and protecting U.S. citizens from terrorists and "evildoers."
5. The Bush adminstration has paid journalists to publish or "report" government propaganda.
6. In December 2005, the Congress passed an anti-torture amendment, which President Bush reluctantly signed. At the same time, however, Bush specified, in an e-mailed "signing statement" that he would construe the law "in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president to supervise the unitary executive branch and as commander in chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on judicial power" with the objective of "protecting the American people from further terrorist attack." In other words, Bush will ignore the law if he sees fit to do so.
So, does all of this mean that George W. Bush is a dictator? No. But it gives us a glimpse of how a President can erode the authority and protections of the Constitution of our country and usurp a greater amount of power than we might want him (or her) to have.
And what will happen the next time there is a terrorist attack in the United States? What if terrorists set off a nuclear device, or unleash a chemical or biological weapon that results in very wide-scale loss of life and tremendous economic disruption? The President might declare a state of emergency in such a situation, declare martial law, suspend specific constitutional rights, etc., all in the name of protecting us from further terrorist attacks.
We are inching in that direction. It could happen here.