Opinion

Donald Trump's impotent tyranny

How the president's pandemic orders paradoxically mix overreach and impotence

Everything is a show with Donald Trump.

He was never really a successful businessman — he just played one on TV. Now, as president, a similar pattern has emerged: Trump wants to perform the role of autocrat in front of TV cameras, but cannot or will not act effectively to protect the country from the economic and health challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. He's a Potemkin strongman.

The latest example of this phenomenon came over the weekend. With the House and Senate hamstrung on a pandemic relief bill, President Trump announced he would act unilaterally — signing executive orders to extend unemployment benefits, continue a moratorium on evictions, defer payroll taxes, and pause student loan payments.

"I'm taking executive action," he said. "We've had it. And we're going to save American jobs and provide relief to the American workers."

Trump's executive orders combined two paradoxical elements: overreach and impotence.

Let's take overreach first. As The Washington Post noted, Trump's orders "attempt to wrest away some of Congress's most fundamental, constitutionally mandated powers — tax and spending policy." The Constitution plainly gives Congress, not the president, taxing and spending power. One Republican senator called Trump's orders "unconstitutional slop."

But this isn't the first time Trump has tried to usurp the legislative branch's financial prerogatives: After his failed government shutdown at the start of 2019, he signed an emergency decree diverting defense funds to build his border wall with Mexico. That is plainly unconstitutional, but the courts have so far let him proceed, drifting leisurely toward a final question on the matter. Their failure to act in due haste has given the president an opening for additional transgressions.

Perhaps the sidestepping of Congress and the Constitution would be understandable if Trump's acts would actually help Americans trying to survive the pandemic and its economic fallout. After all, President Lincoln disregarded habeas corpus during the Civil War, and Americans mostly love him.

Then again, Lincoln won the Civil War. Trump is losing the pandemic. And his executive orders probably won't help him win it. There is less here than meets the eye. Let's take them one-by-one:

  • Most unemployed Americans probably will not see the extended benefits. The president announced they would get an extra $400 a week — but that money would be paid under a formula in which the federal government will provide $300 if individuals qualify for an extra $100 from their own states. But states are facing their own financial problems, and observers say implementing that formula is a logistical nightmare. "There are so many problems with people getting a benefit under this," one expert told CNN.
  • There are several problems with the payroll tax deferral. First, it only applies to Americans who are still working — if you're unemployed, the cut won't put any extra money in your pocket. That makes it largely ineffective as a stimulus. What's more, workers might enjoy having slightly larger paychecks now, but they will still owe that money at the end of the year, unless Congress chooses to forgive the deferred taxes. Despite his claim to act on his own, Trump needs legislators to make the payroll holiday stick — and he is willing to play chicken with workers' income to do so.
  • And, oh yeah: Payroll taxes are what fund Social Security and Medicare. "These systems, which have helped generations retire and live, are already underfunded," Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted Sunday. "Cutting the payroll tax without replacing the funding is the same as getting rid of them." Trump is creating a bigger problem than he is solving.
  • The eviction moratorium is also problematic. As Politico reported, "the ban itself shields barely a quarter of the nation's 44 million rental units — only residents of buildings that have federally guaranteed mortgages." That leaves tens of millions of Americans vulnerable. The deferral of student loans is also flawed: It excludes nine million borrowers whose debt is held by private lenders.

All of this means that President Trump is undermining the constitutional order — again — but will probably have little to show for it.

This is in keeping with his now-tedious habit of prizing appearance over substance and ratings over effective action, his love of claiming "total authority" while often leaving states and cities to their own devices as they battle the coronavirus. Trump's attempts at tyranny do nothing to solve the country's problems, but they do compound the crisis of American democracy.

It's the worst of both worlds.

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