Donald Trump’s first State of the Union was a deeply dangerous speech.
It was deeply dangerous because he finally followed in the footsteps of European leaders like Hungarian President Viktor Orban who have long ago learned to give an attractive look to authoritarian populism.
Like them, Trump eschewed openly racist remarks in his speech, even emphasizing how much he (supposedly) cares about the fate of Latinos and black Americans. Like them, he called for economic policies, like paid family leave, that would actually benefit ordinary people. And like them, he then cast himself as the only man willing to prioritize the interests of his supporters over those of foreigners and political elites.
It was Bannonism without Bannon’s penchant for shock and awe. And it played shockingly well.
But Trump’s speech was also deeply dangerous for an even more important reason: Under the cover of his soothing rhetoric about unity and bipartisanship, Trump called on Congress to give him unprecedented and unquestionably antidemocratic powers: “Tonight,” he said, “I call on the congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
By design, it is easy to overlook the true significance of the second half of that phrase. But dwell on it for a moment, and imagine what this would actually look like in practice. Under Trump’s proposal, any Cabinet secretary could decide that, say, a law enforcement official investigating the president had “undermined the public trust” or “failed the American people”—and fire him on the spot. In other words, Trump is calling for an end to any semblance of independence for the IRS, the FBI, the Department of Justice, or any other federal agency.
To be sure, such legislation is unlikely to pass. While the constant standing ovations for Trump from the Republican benches demonstrate the degree to which the GOP has now embraced the president, they are not yet at the point of dismantling the rule of law quite so brazenly; even if they did, the Supreme Court would be very likely to strike such a law down as unconstitutional.
But the fact that Trump’s authoritarian demand is unlikely to be realized anytime soon does not make it unimportant. In his first State of the Union, the 45th president of the United States asked Congress for the authority to end the rule of law. And that—not Trump’s supposedly unifying policy proposals, much less his supposedly presidential ability to read a speech off a teleprompter—should be the headline of every newspaper tomorrow.
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