There is a common assumption that Adolf Hitler was elected to the position of Chancellor of Germany. That isn’t strictly correct. In 1933, the Nazi Party held the most seats in the Reichstag (although not a majority) and traditionally that meant the president appointed its leader Chancellor. However, President von Hindenburg didn’t much like him. Nonetheless, a group of industrialists and conservative politicians changed the president’s mind.

The industrialists and their political allies thought (correctly) that Hitler would be useful to them in suppressing the left, and also thought (incorrectly) that they would be able to control him.

Exploiting his position as chancellor, and ruthlessly applying political manipulation and brute force, by mid-1934 Hitler had elevated himself to Führer.

Does this piece of old history have anything to teach us today? I believe it does. In fact, at the risk of stretching an analogy, I believe we see something with disturbing similarities happening south of the border.

America’s resident fascist, Donald Trump, is busily planning his comeback, and a reading of a recent article in The New York Times, suggests if he makes it, he and his allies will re-make the US government to suit his narcissistic designs.

His first term established his fascist credentials. He manifested a complete contempt for the institutions and the norms of democracy. Furthermore, he illustrated a ruthless willingness to use both political manipulation and brute force to hold on to power.

Now he and his allies are planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power over the government should he be re-elected in 2024. According to The Times, they intend to increase “the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.”

They would put independent agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission directly under under the president’s thumb. Considering the former makes and enforces the rules for television and internet companies, this is especially worrisome. Trump’s control of the latter, which enforces antitrust and other consumer protection rules against businesses, would be highly satisfying to his business supporters.

He plans to remove employment protection from thousands of civil servants, allowing him to reach deep into agencies and departments such as the FBI and the CIA, to say nothing of the State and Justice Departments, to remove those that don’t support his agenda, those he calls “the sick political class that hates our country.” He will, of course, pardon his January 6th storm troopers, their usefulness by no means exhausted.

The current norms and rules are not at all to the liking of Trump et al. The president has the authority to nominate the governing personnel of both executive and independent agencies who then must be confirmed by the Senate. He also has the authority to fire agency leaders, unlimited for executive agencies (those part of his administration) but subject to specific rules for independent agencies.

To give key personnel some independence, individuals are often given staggered terms longer than the president’s 4-year term. Thus the president cannot appoint the entire leadership of an agency at one time. Furthermore, legislation often requires that boards or commissions of independent agencies include individuals from outside of the President’s political party.

While the president is free to fire individuals from executive agencies, there is often limits on his ability to fire members of independent agencies. Congress may, for instance, pass legislation requiring proof of incapacity, neglect of duty, malfeasance, or good cause before the president can remove an official. 

All these limits on his power frustrated Trump during his first term. He and his allies are determined that there will be no such frustration if he gets a second chance.

When he was elevated to the presidency in 2016 (despite more Americans voting for Hillary Clinton), many were greatly surprised, possibly including the president-elect himself. He entered the presidency essentially on his own and then spent four years trying to bend the government to his will, largely unsuccessfully.

People he installed in key roles often, instead of going along with his foolishness, told him that his radical ideas were either unworkable or illegal. John Kelly, Trump’s second White House chief of staff, said about his boss’s program, “It just simply would be chaotic, because he’d continually be trying to exceed his authority but the sycophants would go along with it. It would be a nonstop gunfight with the Congress and the courts.” As his term expired Trump complained bitterly about being constrained by his subordinates.

If he’s elected in 2024, it will be very different. This time he will have the full force of the Republican Party behind him along with a battery of other influential organizations, including the intellectual and financial powerhouse the Heritage Foundation. And they will come prepared, with plans in place.

The American government will be transformed into a presidential instrument, the finished product an illiberal regime at best, an autocracy at worst. Some Americans may be wondering why they just didn’t keep their king 250 years ago.

We all have a lot at stake in 2024.

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