The Oxford English Dictionary defines dictation as “authoritative utterance or prescription . . . the making of a pronouncement. . . command.” It defines dictatorship as “A system of government by absolute rule of a single individual; a state ruled by a dictator.” Both words derive from the Latin word dicere, meaning “to say” or “to speak.” A dictator rules by edict; the dictator’s word is law.
It is well known that there is no person whose word simply prevails by virtue of its being uttered. Such power might be a megalomaniac’s aspiration. It might describe dictatorship as an ideal type. It might describe a would-be dictator’s dream. But it describes no actual human being. In the Biblical book of Genesis, the commandments of God bring the world into existence. “And God said let there be light, and there was light . . .”
This past Wednesday morning at 5:55 am, Donald Trump declared via Twitter that there shall be no transgendered individuals in the US armed forces. “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
By all appearances the declaration came completely out of the blue. It shocked those in and close to the national security establishment. It generated immediate outrage from people who care about LGBT rights in particular, civil rights in general, and the future of constitutional democracy.
The shock and outrage were not due to the words themselves, nor to the sentiments behind them, as objectionable as they might be. They were due to the fact that the words were uttered by an individual, Donald Trump, who occupies the office of U.S. President, and is thus both Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. government. By edict, it appeared, Trump had proclaimed, declared, dictated a new (discriminatory, cruel, and stupid) public policy.
Then an interesting thing happened: serious news outlets began reporting that Trump’s announcement had in fact taken “his” generals and military experts by complete surprise, that they had not been consulted, and that they were deeply disturbed by both the form and the substance of the announcement. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said that he had received no “directives on implementation” for a ban, and learned about the President’s decision through the media. “We will work through the implementation guidance when we get it and then we’ll move from there,” he added. And General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that there will be “no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines . . . In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect . . . As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.”
A number of days have now passed since Trump Tweeted his pronouncement.
It is clear that the pronouncement has generated outrage and pushback. It is not clear that it has had any policy effect, except perhaps to reinforce the more inclusive current policy that Trump wished to repudiate.
What is going on here?
This past June, now-deposed and humiliated White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared at a daily press briefing that Trump’s tweets are official statements: “The President is the President of the United States, so they’re considered official statements by the President of the United States.”
But what does it mean to say that the Tweets are “official statements?” At stake in the current brouhaha over Trump’s transgender Tweet is a fundamental question at the heart of a liberal, constitutional democracy: what is law, and is it something that can simply be dicated by an individual?
For Donald Trump, it would seem, his words are sufficient unto themselves, and have or at least ought to have the force of law. He wakes up in the morning, decides, for whatever reason—a bad dream, indigestion, his performative failures in bed the previous night—that transgendered people annoy him or that dissing them pleases him, picks up his phone, and Tweets out that there shall no longer be transgendered people in the U.S. military. Period.
But Trump is not the God of Genesis. Indeed, he is no god at all. He is an (insecure and narcissistic) individual human being who happens to live in the White House due to a fluke election (that is indeed currently under Justice Department investigation). What makes his words anything other than the ravings of a mean, ignorant, and thuggish man is the office that he occupies and the constitutional system that empowers that office. And while he and his acolytes may regard his Tweets as “official statements,” this does not mean that these statements have the political force he desires.
The response of “his” generals—who are not “his” generals at all, but career military officers who have taken an oath to protect and defend the United States and not Donald, Donald Jr., and Ivanka Trump—is instructive. Acting in their own official capacity as serious and experienced public servants, they have appealed to a conception of law that is directly counter to Trump’s conception. For them, in order for a pronouncement to have the force of law, it must be issued and communicated through an orderly process that confers legitimacy upon it. Presidents are constitutionally constrained by the U.S. Constitution, by the legislative powers invested in Congress, and by the judicial powers invested in the federal courts. Within those constraints Presidents are empowered to act, including the power to issue executive orders. But even then, their mere words do not automatically compel obedience. For the U.S. government is a complex “machinery,” owned by no one; it requires the collaboration of many individuals and institutions; and there are rules and procedures that govern this collaboration. Thus the generals’ insistence that there will be “no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines,” and on fidelity to “our assigned missions.”
Trump thinks like a dictator. His family, his ever-changing, acrimonious, and back-biting inner circle—including his new attack dog, Anthony “Mooche” Scaramucci—apparently share this belief. Indeed, Trump, enabled by these acolytes, has taken the “logic” of dictatorship to a new level. Whereas other dictators have made decisions and issued commands based on some knowledge of the systems that they lead, and in consultation with other relevant officials charged with carrying out the orders, Trump has reduced this entire process to late-night and early-morning Tweets. He doesn’t even use his phone to talk to those charged with carrying out his orders. He uses it to simply declare his wishes as if they are facts.
These Tweets are typically uninformed, unhinged, cruel, and dangerous. And they have definite political effects, in mobilizing an angry base; intimidating opponents; keeping the public in a state of perpetual suspense; and sometimes laying the foundation for malign actions to come. This is all terrible for constitutional democracy. At the same time, while these Tweets surely display a dictatorial disposition, they do not—at least not yet—actualize this disposition, Trump’s fantasies and delusions notwithstanding. For Trump is not Yahweh, and his words do not automatically bring into existence the things he desires. Because there is an actual world beyond Trump’s limited mind that acts back upon these words, generating unanticipated and negative consequences. And because there is a constitutional system of government that alone makes his words even remotely relevant in a public sense. Trump has no knowledge of or appreciation for this system. And he may yet permanently damage it. But while Trump has made a mockery of this system, it yet persists. And without it, Trump would simply be a miserable, overweight, misanthropic rich man with sleep and obsessive personality disorders, sitting around in his bathrobe with a smart phone that is a lot smarter than he is.
This system is limited, and fragile, and in grave danger. If it continues to persist and perhaps even to improve, it will only be because of the dedicated public servants, unhindered journalists, autonomous civil society, and especially the good, conscientious ordinary citizens who elude, and resist, Donald Trump’s dictatorial mind and his travesty of democratic government.