Thursday, March 19, 2020

Day 7 of National Emergency: Does a Wartime President Have the Power to Delay Elections?


Our fearless, fearful, fear-mongering draft-dodger leader now embraces a self-proclaimed title of “wartime president.” 

As comically absurd as that moniker sounds, it is true, to the extent that we and the world are at war against the coronavirus. So let’s consider what qualities we might want our president to have.

According to UShistory.org, the website of the Independence Hall Association, some common leadership qualities that good presidents appear to have include: 

*A strong vision for the country’s future
*An ability to put their own times in the perspective of history
*Effective communication skills
*The courage to make unpopular decisions
*Crisis management skills
*Character and integrity
*Wise appointments
*An ability to work with Congress

We want someone with character and integrity who can instill in us trust and confidence. Sadly, from day one of his presidency Trump has spouted falsehoods (let’s call his pre-election humdingers as campaign rhetoric) that undermine any hope we might believe him when it matters. 

Wednesday he promised big news from the Food and Drug Administration. Thursday he said the FDA greenlighted a malaria drug for treatment of COVID-19. But shortly thereafter the head of the FDA had to correct him. The drug had been approved for limited usage and further study as it has severe, sometimes fatal, side effects (https://mol.im/a/8131613).

We’d want a leader who can inspire us with calming, motivating oratory, much like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did during World War II. Or how Obama comforted the nation after several mass shootings. Trump’s communication skills when he isn’t riffing on his standard rally speech are pathetic. He has a hard time reading prepared text, which in itself is anything but inspirational. At the beginning of his presidency Trump made a big to-do about installing Churchill’s bust in the Oval Office. Inspiration is not transferable from a slab or marble. All the more reason to be disappointed by his failure to express compassion for those ill or now unemployed. He is heartless.   

In a crisis we want a leader who recognizes his or her limitations, who can acknowledge his/her imperfections, who can accept the advice of experts, be they generals, scientists or doctors. Trump rated his pandemic response performance a “10,” rejecting his earlier dismissal of the coronavirus as anything more troublesome than the flu. He has repeatedly undercut expert advice. Here are several comments he made about the viral outbreak over the last several months:

“There’s nothing to worry about”
“It’s a Democratic Hoax”
“It'll be over by April”
“It’s a pandemic”
“I take no responsibility”
“I always knew it was a pandemic”


Hail Caesar: Of all the deaths to be lamented from the pandemic, the most tragic may well be to our democratic republic.

I do not mean to be histrionic. But Trump may as president be able to postpone or cancel next November’s election as part of his emergency powers.

I, along with other commentators, have long opined that Trump would not go lightly from the Oval Office if he loses the election. It doesn’t take a genius to reason out his possible move to negate the election if his polling numbers plummet and he and his hard-core advisors believe he has no way of winning November 3.

The COVID-19 disaster provides the “perfect” shield for a power-grabbing play. Though The New York Times last week said it would be near impossible to postpone the election (https://nyti.ms/2U6p3n5 ), it might easily pass constitutional review given the composition of the Supreme Court.

In the midst of wars and economic depressions no president has invoked emergency powers to deny the American people the right choose their leader every four years. But no president has been like Trump. He has upended norms both domestically and internationally. Moreover, he has cowed the Republican Party into such deep submission that it is doubtful any but a handful of elected GOP officials would object to his postponing an election that might very well cost them control of the Senate and with that future federal court nominations. A sign of their anxiety was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s overture to elderly Republican federal judges to retire so Trump would have the chance to fill their seats with conservative judges. 

Around the world we have seen juntas and strongmen dissolve duly elected governments, proclaiming they did so in the interests of national security and even of democracy, couching their treachery with a vague promise of conducting elections when the emergency has passed. Of course they define when that time arrived, if ever.

Trump has acted like a banana republic president. He has teased about serving beyond the constitutionally mandated two terms. A national emergency declaration abolishing the November election would enable his dream to become a reality.     

The rise of an American autocrat would not occur in a vacuum. Trump has witnessed, envied and even lauded Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, India’s Narendra Damodardas Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

He feels more comfortable with foreign strongmen than with any of his recent predecessors who valued America’s leadership and moral standing throughout the world.

How ironic that an acknowledged germaphobe might achieve his ultimate coronation because of a pandemic. 

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