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A Comparison of FDR and Trump: Dictatorial or Democratic Presidencies?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

The ascendancy of Donald Trump into the United States presidency has not proven to be a simple change of administration, but the equivalent of political midlife crisis for the collective American psyche. The arrival of Trumpism has many fearing that the United States has ceased to be the global bastion for liberal democracy and descended into a form of competitive authoritarianism. I disagree with this assertion and tend towards the perception that President Trump, despite his strongman politics, is simply acting within his presidential powers. By way of comparison, I would argue that the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) did not result into American despotism but would be open to the same assertions of competitive authoritarianism. The current state of affairs is not indicative that the Trump Administration represents a permanent change of US affairs towards despotism but is actually a presidency comparable with other presidencies such as that of President Roosevelt.

In order to understand to what extent we can define the Trump presidency as authoritarian or despotic, or simply working within the constitution and traditions of the office, this paper will adopt the methodology of an overtime comparison by looking at the political decisions of Presidents Roosevelt and Trump within their own contexts. Although I am not submitting that there is a direct contextual equivalence between the two presidents and presidential eras, I do argue that despite the unique contexts that they both operated under, there are parallels to their eras that produced similar policy outcomes. In particular, although FDR presided in much more isolated world, he still had to deal the Great Depression and World War II. While Trump has come to power within a globalized world and has been charged with a duty to respond to the issues of the demise of American global economic dominance and the spectre of Islamic terrorism. Accordingly, this paper has three sections: firstly, an investigation into how the American Republic theoretically operates in terms of democracy and thus how the US has arrived at its current circumstances where the Trump presidency is seen to be authoritarian and unilateral. Secondly, I will offer an analysis into the questionable nature of the Roosevelt Administration, which sought to pack the Supreme Court and the issue of the forced internship of Japanese-American citizens during the early parts of the Second World War. And finally, an examination into the short history of the Trump Administration, which has already overseen the return of economic nationalism and the Muslim Travel Ban. I conclude with a short synthesis of the comparison to bring out the argument that both Presidents were working within constitutional boundaries that nevertheless, stretched the meaning of democracy as it is ideally understood.

The United States of America as the Ideal Democracy

Inspired by Enlightenment idealism, the early American worldview was an essential disavowal of the beliefs of the Old World of statism, mercantilism, classism and the noblesse obligeof a monarchy so as to embrace the principles of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and capitalism.[1]There was the deep fear of creeping governmental centralization and that made the Founding Fathers, along with their successors, produce a vigilant system of government that guarded against the possibility of a demagogic tyranny taking hold over the United States. It was this fear that contributed to the type of governance that characterized the American democratic republic. This initial system saw the American Constitution and the later Madisonian system of separation of powers, checks and balances and the representation of the democratic will of the people had functioned well in preventing the type of government overreach, the rise of tyrants and political infighting that was known to destroy previous democracies.[2]This history upheld American democracy for many years instilling the belief that Americanism could naturally hold back any tide of authoritarianism.

The Slow Erosion of Ideal Democracy? 

However, as explained by Steven Levitsky’s How a Democracy Dies, such self-assurance is not guaranteed as all democracies can be eroded over time. As Levitsky goes on to explain, the ways of death for a modern democracy are no longer achieved by the hard power tactics of violent revolution, but are now attained by soft power of anti-Liberalism cloaked within the democratic process itself. This newfound method of anti-liberalism allows the manifestation of a veneer of democracy,such as the existence of constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions, the ability to vote to operate, behind which the evisceration of liberal-democracy takes place so as to accumulate more power to usually the centre or to elites.[3]If an authoritarianism emerges, the nation faces a crossroads: either the democratic system will stifle the autocratic leader or the autocratic power will subvert the democratic institutions. If the latter prevails, institutions becomes political weapons by packing the courts and other agencies, buying or bullying the media and the private sector and rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage their rivals.[4]Furthermore, there is also the demonization of partisan rivals by no longer accepting their existence as legitimate opposition, but as enemies or traitors and by doing so, the use of constitutional power to undermine the spirit of opposition.[5]

In regard to the America brand of authoritarianism, it is important to note that it is not akin to the type that visited Germany in the form of Nazism, but the more subversive brand known as competitive authoritarianism that as mentioned emerges from within the demoractic liberal system itself. Competitive authoritarianism combines the two systems of democracy and full-scale authoritarianism. For instance, the characteristics of the universal franchise is allowed to exist, such as the election of representatives and the regime is not under any outside influences like the military.[6]But the authoritarian aspect restrains the development of a true open society by covertly violating the democratic rules, like repressing the media, the likely use of bribery, collusion, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behaviour from opponents and critics.[7]

When applying these concepts to the Trump administration, Levitsky has stated that no other major-party Presidential candidate, except Richard Nixon, met one of the abovementioned criteria. Although the US has not has followed the footsteps of Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, he asserts that the Trump Presidency does possess authoritarian tendencies. Although Trump has attempted to undermine democratic institutions and governmental referees such as the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community, the news media and the opposition party, the American constitution has managed to stifle his power. However, the gradual undermining of such democratic norms and treating any resistance to his programs as being an enemy of the US gives rise to the accusations of authoritarianism.[8]Although I agree with the assertion that the American system has restrained the power of the Trump presidency it needs to be seen in a comparative light with other Presidencies to really gauge the extent of authoritarianism. To this end I compare Trump with the Presidency of FDR who also possessed authoritarian tendencies but like Trump was working within constitutional boundaries however elastic. Furthermore, American democracy has manged to recover from his decisions and still remain the champion of freedom and liberty. I claim that we are not seeing the slow erosion of American democracy under the Trump Presidency but rather two Presidencies that had to deal with crises, and extraordinary domestic and international denouements.

A New Deal for America 

The argument that FDR, the man who oversaw the US recovery from the Great Depression and the defeat of Nazi Germany, being an advocate of authoritarianism may be considered controversial but I argue that following the very same abovementioned fears and concerns that have afflicted to the Trump administration can be recognized within the FDR Presidency. For instance, the two major examples brought forward to argue that FDR’s America was momentarily operating under a form of competitive authoritarianism was the combination of manipulating the Supreme Court with his plan of court-packing and the internment of Japanese-American citizens.

Arriving to his 1933 inauguration, Roosevelt faced the challenge of not only national economic recovery, but the restoration of hope and confidence to American idealism and thus a positive alterative to the seduction of authoritarianism that was offered from Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.[9]It is my argument that in pursing such causes, FDR had operated within the context of his times and that those required appropriate policy actions that may not have been relevant at any other time.

By condemning the ‘money changers’ as being responsible for the economic breakdown FDR declared that America required a ‘New Deal’ to oversee the restoration of social values over profit.[10]In doing so, FDR saw seen as ‘a traitor to his class’ due to belonging to the wealthy, political Roosevelt dynasty.[11]Despite any contradictory nature, his initial First Hundred Days saw his New Deal program provide relief, recovery and reform. This took the form of the Emergency Banking Act that saved and strengthened the nation’s private banking system, the Agricultural Adjustment Act that supported farmers and the National Industrial Recovery, Farm Credit and Railroad Coordination Acts, all aimed to rehabilitating these economic sector and group interests with direct government aid.[12]It was during this period of time that Roosevlet could be considered to be yet another President, albeit highly proactive and these policies addressed the crises the nation was facing. However, it was when his program encountered not only criticism, but resistance that the arguable authoritarian side of his administration began to reveal itself.

Packing the Courts

Due to the centralized nature of the New Deal, the economy was not only restarted but the very functioning of the entire American system came to be reformed. Prior to Roosevelt’s agenda, the traditional role of the federal government was to mostly regulate the economy but the Roosevelt administration these responsibilities had become significantly enlarged.[13]In response to this outcome, the conservative US Supreme Court declared that Roosevelt had extended his power beyond his proper jurisdiction by enhancing presidential power, furthering legislative control over the economy and the granting of discretion to administrative agencies.[14]

In attempting to counter such judicial opposition, FDR began to develop a plan to nullify the resistance of the Court by threatening its institutional integrity and thus force its compliance. Although he had the options of seeking a constitutional amendment that expanded the commerce clause or seeking the decrease of the judicial authority by obtaining two-thirds majority of the Court to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional, FDR rejected these options as he felt an amendment would take too long to pass and was not confident it would pass both chambers of Congress.[15]Instead, after attaining a landslide win in the 1936 re-election, FDR sought to pack the court. Taking advantage of use of the Office of President to reorganize the Supreme Court, he increase its size with six more justices, although he sought to appoint up to the maximum allowed total of fifteen with ideological sympathetic justices, thus ensuring the halt of any legitimate resistance to his programs.[16]

This battle of power continued into the following year when the Supreme Court supporting a state minimum wage law and thus ended the opportunity for the president to advance his court-packing bill. However, the authoritarian nature of his actions was not lost on Roosevelt, who felt that he had to clarify his motives by stating: I made it clear that my chief concern was with the objective – namely, a modernized judiciary that would look at modern problems through modern glasses. The exact kind of legislative method to accomplish the objective was not important. I was willing to accept any method proposed which would accomplish that ultimate objective – constitutionally and quickly.”[17]I assert that the act of clarifying his actions, FDR had conceded that he did possess an authoritarian nature and thus offered an excuse for his actions that reflected the sea-change moment in American history.

The Japanese Interment 

With the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, suspicion towards Japanese countrymen became rampant within American society. In declaring war on Japan, Roosevelt went on oversee the forcibly relocation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-American citizens and immigrants. In reaction to the presence of Japanese-American citizens, FDR declared martial law in Hawaii and other areas with large Japanese Americans populations. As soon as this came into effect, the military instituted an immediate curfew and began rounding up ‘suspicious’ Japanese.[18]By signing Executive Order 9066 FDR was responsible for the forcible removal of 120,000 Japanese-American citizens forced to evacuate their homes and settle outside prohibited defence zones. This also saw all adult males of Japanese ancestry to be registered with given numbers and incarcerated into internment camps.[19]Their civil rights were further assaulted by the substandard living conditions of lacking running water, a lack of bathroom facilities and decent schools, within camps that were surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, machine gun installations and guard towers.[20]Although a case for their treatment as Japanese-American citizens was taken to the Supreme Court, it was ruled unanimously in FDR’s favour. One dissenting voice of Supreme Justice Frank Murphy’s stated that the US has for the first time sustained a restriction of personal liberty of its citizens by accident of birth.[21]Once again, the Roosevelt Administration had once again descended into authoritarianism by attacking the civil rights of fellow American citizens but in this period of World War that either testifies to the operability of democracy or the subversion of democracy. It has been my case that these policies and actions testify to the operability of democracy to meet various challenge to the primacy of democracy itself. This view is based on the belief that there is a force that brings the pendulum of democracy back to the centre which is evident in the last one hundred years of American political life.

Making America Great Again 

The world that Trump inherited upon his inauguration was one of economic stagnation and a fear of the dangers of Islamic terrorism. By coming to power under such circumstances Trump, like Roosevelt, also faced the challenge of restoring hope and confidence back into the American system. According to Peter Morici, it was within the aftermath of World War II that the US adopted the concepts of neoliberalism and economic interdependence that would discourage conflict owning to increasing international economic relationships and contain the spread of communism. Once the collapse of the Soviet Empire occurred, the West further encouraged democratic and market-based reforms within the newfound unipolar world.[22]Although this practice saw a vindication for the capitalist system, it also saw the unintended consequences of the US amassing large trade deficits and the offshoring of manufacturing and agriculture jobs from small American communities and the promotion of technologically intensive pursuits overseas. This saw an increase of unemployment, downward pressure on wages and social well-being.[23]These problems were further exacerbated by rising economic powerhouse of China, which operated under its own rules of mercantilism by closing its markets to support industries it wanted to protect and develop, forced foreign companies to transfer technology or steal it outright and has come to account for 60% of the US trade gap.[24]

The incoming Trump Administration has attempted to remedy this situation by announcing a ‘America First’ platform, which embraced economic nationalism and saw the rejection of the established neoliberal consensus. In an attempt to equalize the terms of trade between the US and China, Tump announced a 30% tariff on solar panels and 20% tariff on washing machines, a 25% for steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminium imports. This was followed by a $50 billion tariff on Chinese produces and products after Trump denounced China’s theft of American intellectual property with respect to the technology in flat-screen TVs, medical equipment, airplane parts and batteries. Although China has attempted to counter such measures by applying a $50 billion of tariffs on soybeans, automobiles and chemicals, Trump appeared unrelenting and announced a possibility of an additional $100 billion in retaliatory mercantilist economic policies.[25]

Although the controversial ‘America First’ economic program challenges the neoliberal norm, unlike Roosevelt, it did not challenge the functioning of the government. In fact, the policy of economic nationalism was actually a return to the form of capitalism that was adopted by the American Founding Fathers. What may therefore seem unilateral is in fact an economic policy that is true to America’s isolationist tendencies.

The Muslim Travel Ban 

In light of the success of ISIS in the Middle East, the Global War on Terror, in January 2017 President Trump issued Executive Order 13769 that ordered the banning the entry of nationals from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. It saw to the indefinite postponing of admission of Syrian refugees and gave preference to ‘refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual was within a minority of that person country of nationality, along with suspending the Refugee Admission Program for 120 days.[26]  

The reaction of this decision was one of condemnation.  The travel ban was seen as being xenophobic and a possible violation of First Amendment rights. Many states, such as Washington and Minnesota, challenged it in the US District Court, where it was ruled in favour of the challenges. Unlike FDR, the response of the Trump administration was not to undermine the integrity of the court, but a revision and replacement of the original order that kept the 90 day ban for 6 original counties but removed Iraq and the 120 day-suspension of refuges but removed the indefinite ban of Syrian refuges and specified that it was inapplicable to law permanent residents, persons with valid visas or refugees scheduled for travel to the US before the effective date of the Revised Order and authorise Homeland Security to make case-by-case exceptions to the refugee suspension.[27]

By June 2018 it has been reported that the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision had upheld Trump’s travel ban, stating that it ‘was squarely within the scope of Presidential authority’. Furthermore, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Presidents had that presidential power can regulate immigration and the current president has undoubtedly fulfilled that requirement. Roberts went on to say that President Trump ordered an evaluation of every nation’s compliance with the risk assessment baseline and then issued the findings and thus he found that restricting entry of aliens who could not be vetted with adequate information was in the national interest.[28]

Upon reviewing the decisions and behaviours of the between the two US Presidents, it becomes apparent that the argument that America has descended into competitive authoritarianism is not completely accurate. Although Levitsky was correct that it is possible for a President to be elected to only used the apparatus of government to enforce their will upon the nation, I argue that it is the context of the times that dictate the use of presidential power and this perhaps is one of the strengths of American democracy. For instance, despite being a champion of liberal-democracy, Roosevelt had no qualms about stacking the Supreme Court, as it acted as an obstacle to his path for economic recovery. Ironically it was Trump, despite his heavy-handed approach and rhetoric, that abided by the rules of the Court and altered his Muslim-ban legislation to make it more palatable. Overall, the democratic system of the US carries an elasticity that allows the President to momentarily adopt democratic authoritarianism, but not to the point of transforming the nation into a tyranny.

Conclusion

In conclusion, despite the idealism and the American system of governance of the United States, this paper has shown that Presidents have come to power and have indulged in authoritarian behaviour. However, the strength and ability of American institutions and systems to halt competitive authoritarianism must be acknowledged. Assertions and claims that the Roosevelt Presidency and the Trump Presidency are dictatorial are unfounded. As seen with the two Presidents, they enacted policies within the boundaries of constitutional democracy for their times which were exceptional while simultaneously the American values and the American system came into play and prevented any permanent erosion of American style democracy.

Bibliography 

Arkansas Business, “A Trump Tariff Timeline”, Arkansas Business, Vol. 35, No. 16 (2018) 11.

Jennifer Lee Barrow, “Trump’s Travel Ban: Lawful but Ill-advised”, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy(2018) 691-717.

Jamie L. Carson, A Switch in Time Saves Nine: Institutions, Strategic Actors, and FDR’s Court-Packing Plan, Vol. 113, No. 3/4 (Public Choice, 2002), pp. 301-324.

CBS, Supreme Court upholds Trump Travel Ban, CBS News Online,

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/travel-ban-upheld-supreme-court-decision-tuesday-trump-2018-06-26/

Nicholas Kristof, Trump’s Threat to Democracy, The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/10/opinion/trumps-how-democracies-die.html

Kuznick P (2012) The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books, United States

Lispset, Martin, S (1996) American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Norton & Company, United States.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die(New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), pp. 1-10

Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 3-24.

Peter Morici, How wise is Trump’s economic nationalism?, Dayton Daily News,  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/travel-ban-upheld-supreme-court-decision-tuesday-trump-2018-06-26/

Romasco, A (1983) The Politics of Recovery: Roosevelt’s New Deal, Oxford University Press, United States.

Robinson, G (2001) By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, Harvard University Press, United States.

Jamie L. Carson, A Switch in Time Saves Nine: Institutions, Strategic Actors, and FDR’s Court-Packing Plan, Vol. 113, No. 3/4 (Public Choice, 2002), pp. 301-324.

[1]Seymour Martin Lipset, “American Exceptionalism Reaffirmed,” in Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 8.

[2]Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Crown Publishing Group, (United States, 2018), 19.

[3]Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Crown Publishing Group, (United States, 2018), 18.

[4]Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Crown Publishing Group, (United States, 2018), 18.

[5]Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Crown Publishing Group, (United States, 2018), 22.

[6]Steven Levitsky, The Rise of Competitive AuthoritarianismJournal of Democracy 13.2 (2002) 5.

[7]Steven Levitsky, The Rise of Competitive AuthoritarianismJournal of Democracy 13.2 (2002) 6.

[8]Nicholas Kristof, “Trump’s Threat to Democracy” The New York Times. Last Modified January 10, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/10/opinion/trumps-how-democracies-die.html

[9]Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books (United States, 2012) 45.

[10]Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books (United States, 2012) 46.

[11]Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books (United States, 2012).

[12]AlbertRomasco, The Politics of Recovery: Roosevelt’s New Deal, (United States, 1983), 29.

[13]Jamie L. Carson, “A Switch in Time Saves Nine: Institutions, Strategic Actors, and FDR’s Court-Packing Plan”, Public Choice, Vol. 113, No. 3/4 (2002) 302.

[14]Jamie L. Carson, “A Switch in Time Saves Nine: Institutions, Strategic Actors, and FDR’s Court-Packing Plan”, Public Choice, Vol. 113, No. 3/4 (2002) 303.

[15]Jamie L. Carson, “A Switch in Time Saves Nine: Institutions, Strategic Actors, and FDR’s Court-Packing Plan”, Public Choice, Vol. 113, No. 3/4 (2002) 303.

[16]Jamie L. Carson, “A Switch in Time Saves Nine: Institutions, Strategic Actors, and FDR’s Court-Packing Plan”, Public Choice, Vol. 113, No. 3/4 (2002) 304.

[17]Jamie L. Carson, “A Switch in Time Saves Nine: Institutions, Strategic Actors, and FDR’s Court-Packing Plan”, Public Choice, Vol. 113, No. 3/4 (2002) 314.

[18]  GregRobinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans,Harvard University Press (United States, 2001) 74.

[19]Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books (United States, 2012) 153.

[20]Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books (United States, 2012) 154.

[21]Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books (United States, 2012) 156.

[22]Peter Morici. “How Wise is Trump’s economic nationalism?, Dayton Daily News. Last Modified November 24, 2017, https://www.mydaytondailynews.com/news/opinion/opinion-how-wise-trump-economic-nationalism/0qE3YTFacfg1eAbt3Y64MK/

[23]Peter Morici. “How Wise is Trump’s economic nationalism?, Dayton Daily News. Last Modified November 24, 2017, https://www.mydaytondailynews.com/news/opinion/opinion-how-wise-trump-economic-nationalism/0qE3YTFacfg1eAbt3Y64MK/

[24]Peter Morici. “How Wise is Trump’s economic nationalism?, Dayton Daily News. Last Modified November 24, 2017, https://www.mydaytondailynews.com/news/opinion/opinion-how-wise-trump-economic-nationalism/0qE3YTFacfg1eAbt3Y64MK/

[25]Arkansas Business, “A Trump Tariff Timeline”, Arkansas Business, Vol. 35, No. 16 (2018) 11.

[26]Jennifer Lee Barrow, “Trump’s Travel Ban: Lawful but Ill-advised”, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy(2018) 692.

[27]Jennifer Lee Barrow, “Trump’s Travel Ban: Lawful but Ill-advised”, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy(2018) 692.

[28]CBS News. “Supreme Court upholds Trump travel ban” CBS News Online. Last Modified June 26, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/travel-ban-upheld-supreme-court-decision-tuesday-trump-2018-06-26/

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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penrose
penrose
September 1, 2022

Roosevelt was a warmonger and a war criminal, along with his Partner in Crime Winston Fat Boy Churchill. They should both be tried posthumously at the Hague so their true place in History can be clarified.

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