My Turn: America’s emperor presidents

  • President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/6/2017 12:15:04 AM

Donald Trump is not a fallen Valar wizard. He is just a loud, empty suit, an opportunistic demagogue. (A Valar wizard would have been able to beat the S&P 500 index for investment returns, which Trump failed to do even with his huge inheritance and political connections.)

The reason that Trump is a threat to the peace of the world is the same reason that presidents since 1913 have been a threat – we have let our presidents become figurehead emperors.

The Constitution of the United States copied some ideas from the Swiss Confederation. One of those concepts was checks and balances, which the Swiss still take seriously and we do not.

To this day, the Swiss president can’t unilaterally order a war on Libya, or ship weapons to a dictator or terrorist group. The result is that the Swiss have been at peace for over 200 years. (And thus, you have never heard of Doris Leuthard, or Simonetta Sommaruga, or the two other female Swiss presidents from the last 10 years – because they didn’t launch any fame-boosting wars.)

All the major political catastrophes in history grew from the centralization of power. The crimes of Mao, Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot, FDR, Johnson, Nixon – all happened without oversight or transparency. Could Mao have killed 60 million Chinese if they had had a say in the matter? Could Nixon have carpet-bombed all the backwoods towns in Cambodia (thus creating the birth conditions for Pol Pot’s death cult) if the public and Congress had known what he was doing?

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t permit presidents to unilaterally launch a standing army of praetorians into imperial wars. Yet the last time a U.S. war went through Congress for a legal declaration was in 1943 (against the minor Axis powers). Every war and proxy war since then has been an imperial campaign, outside the laws of the Republic.

Unchecked power doesn’t make for good economies. Look at a satellite picture of North Korea vs. South Korea. The god-emperor’s area is starving in the dark, the Korean Republic is vibrant and alive.

One person cannot make the day-to-day decisions for hundreds of millions of other people. One old human being can’t have the information, the processing power and certainly not the right incentives. Whether it’s Trump, Stalin, FDR or Obama, top-down control doesn’t work.

However, the kind of people who choose political careers are always ready to give orders. And even if they wanted to choose the Taoist restraint of one of the better Tang emperors, the bureaucracy won’t let them. Thus Obama’s disasters in Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc., driven by the 17 intelligence agencies and the “military-entertainment complex.”

Trump is simply taking orders from the same bureaucrats – foreign policy has not changed since his inauguration. He is still sword-dancing with the Saudis, giving them high-tech weapons and U.S. surveillance assets to expand their Wahabi empire into Yemen. If this policy were being discussed in Congress, would the public support this alliance with a police-state theocracy?

Speaking of avoidable disasters, the U.S. spent billions building and repairing dams around the world. (Google “Mosul dam” for a tragicomedy that may kill half a million people, a disaster which thanks to our intervention we now “own”.) Yet we couldn’t afford to fix the dikes around New Orleans, or the flood-control dams upstream of Houston. This is yet another result of giving all the power to Mordor-on-the-Potomac, whose eye is always looking outward for more power, not inward to fix state or city infrastructure.

The solution to any political or economic problem is not a “better emperor.” Even an AI cannot have the local knowledge to run an economy, and not even an AI can be trusted with unchecked power over nuclear weapons. (Sorry, Skynet.)

We must move power down to the lowest level; wherever possible, decisions (e.g. about schools, health care, drug use) should be made by individuals. Decisions about war and peace must be made in public, by our elected representatives.

The U.S. already has political decentralization – written on old parchment. But the words don’t enforce themselves. It is up to us to resist when presidents make themselves into emperors, when wars are started in secret, and whenever anyone tries to monopolize power into the one ring, er, Beltway.

The solution to Trump, and to any other president who trespasses beyond constitutional limits, is to “throw him down, and have no one in his place.”

(Bill Walker works for medical-imaging database company M2S in West Lebanon.)

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