Eric Posner: Will Constitutional Law Constrain a Dictator Trump, Or Enable Him?

Law of the Donald
Eric Posner
March 3, 2016

If Trump is elected president, will constitutional law and American political institutions protect us from a would-be dictator? Europeans worry about the emergence of Caesarism in the United States, just as the founders did when they invented the presidency. Authoritarianism is making gains around the world; why not here? Of course, Trump may not want to be a dictator. He has repeatedly stated his desire to make “deals,” implying a willingness to cooperate with Congress. But there is no reason to believe anything he says; many of his actions and statements are those of someone with a dictatorial mentality if nothing else, and his popular support derives from his authoritarian image: he appeals to people who yearn for a strongmanto protect them. So the question is worth asking. What is the answer?

Let’s consider one of Trump’s proposals: to strengthen libel law so that he can punish those who criticize him. Could he do this? He cannot do it by executive order, and he probably cannot do it even if he persuades Congress to pass a law. First Amendment doctrine is clear: a court would strike down the sort of libel law that Trump advocates (or appears to advocate).

But there are ways that Trump could maneuver around this barrier. If he can appoint flunkies to head the Department of Justice and the FBI (Chris Christie, maybe?), they can order agents to spy on a political opponent and bring prosecutions. All that is needed is a reasonable suspicion of law violations, and there are so many laws that any prominent person, particularly journalists and opposition politicians, might violate even if inadvertently—campaign finance laws, tax laws, business licensing laws, and secrecy laws come to mind, depending on the person’s activities—that an excuse for audit, inspection, or surveillance can be ginned up. Judges can interfere at various steps along the way; whether they do will depend on whether there are plausible reasons to think that the person has broken a law (think of Hillary Clinton, for example). While nothing may come of the investigation, the risk of such harassment, if pursued vigorously enough, may deter opposition to Trump at the margin.

Eric A. Posner