Trump encouraged his followers to ignore the illness that landed him in the hospital: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” He even suggested that getting this deadly disease was like a fountain of youth: “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” Physicians commented that it was the dexamethasone talking — the powerful steroid that Trump is taking, whose side effects include aggression, agitation, mood changes, trouble breathing and trouble thinking.
The jokes practically write themselves — Covita, Benito Trumpolini and so on. The president was acting as if he were the leader of Belarus, Turkmenistan or North Korea. Like those tyrants, he shows no regard for the people who will suffer because of his whims — whether the Secret Service agents he exposed to covid-19 with his Sunday afternoon joyride or the White House staff he will now expose. In his videos, he made no mention of all the Americans who have already died of covid-19 and showed no awareness that none of them had access to the kind of cutting-edge medical care he received. His words and actions encouraged his followers to continue disregarding public health regulations.
Of course, Trump is not really a dictator. He just plays one on TV, like Sacha Baron Cohen (in “The Dictator”), Woody Allen (“Bananas”), or Charlie Chaplin (“The Great Dictator”). But while their buffoonery was funny, his is not. Trump is not a professional actor or wrestler. He is still the president of the United States, with vast power at his command.
Over the past four years, Trump has shown that he can fire officials who try to uphold the rule of law, pardon his cronies, bar immigrants and refugees, blackmail a foreign country into helping him politically, collude in foreign attacks on our elections, profit from the presidency, lock children in cages, falsify a weather map, politicize intelligence, trash our alliances, undermine international institutions, incite racism and violence, take us to the brink of war (with North Korea and Iran), send security forces to attack peaceful demonstrators, stymie efforts to fight a pandemic and even override Food and Drug Administration safety standards for the approval of a covid-19 vaccine. (The White House finally dropped its objections, allowing the FDA to issue its regulations on Tuesday.)
This is a situation that the 25th Amendment was created for, but it has become a dead letter. A professor of medicine suggested in a Post commentary that the president’s power should be transferred to the vice president when his blood oxygen level plunges. But, of course, a president who clearly lacks self-control even in the best of times lacks the judgment to transfer power when he is ill. Trump also lacks any concern for the public good that would lead him to take an action that would, in his eyes, signal weakness. And Vice President Pence and the rest of the Cabinet are too cowardly to declare Trump unfit to command even when he so obviously is.
It’s time to rethink the whole concept of presidential power. House Democrats have introduced an important piece of legislation, the Protecting our Democracy Act, which would curb some of the abuses Trump has engaged in, such as commuting the sentence of an ally, ignoring congressional subpoenas or invoking emergency powers to spend money that Congress hasn’t appropriated.
But more is needed. We cannot count on insubordination on the part of senior military officials to protect us from a president misusing his commander-in-chief authority. When nuclear missiles are to be launched — whether from a ground silo, airplane or a submarine — the order must be authenticated by two members of the military to ensure that no single individual can unleash World War III. Journalist Garrett M. Graff argues the same rule should be imposed on the president: He should be forced, either by legislation or a constitutional amendment, to seek the concurrence of another individual — e.g., the vice president, defense secretary or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — before being able to launch nuclear weapons.
Trump’s reckless and foolhardy behavior should alert us to the dangers of an imperial presidency before it’s too late.