Looking back on President Donald Trump’s presidency so far begs the question of what he has accomplished to date. If referring to the list of democratic norms Trump has quickly eroded since entering office, then yes, mission accomplished. Problems on this list include electoral integrity, tampering in an independent investigation and the continuation of the usurpation of military force.
To be fair, this last norm enumerated has been eroding for well over a century. Theodore Roosevelt, with the aid of the Spanish-American War, remade the office into what we now consider a modern-day commander in chief. Franklin Delano Roosevelt built upon it further during World War II and the Vietnam War.
The Roman Republic created the position of dictator for times of acute military emergency. A military is typically more effective with one person leading it than it is with multiple people.
Though the institution most famously failed under Julius Caesar, it was only after many before him slowly eroded the institutional checks and balances that had upheld its integrity to that point. There is a reason that the founders of the American Republic invested the authority to wage war in Congress’ hands and not a singular individual.
Fast-forward to the events of April 13: the United States, along with its allies France and the United Kingdom, destroyed three Syrian chemical weapons facilities with over 100 airstrikes.
While many will certainly applaud these actions, the American public ought not to because these strikes will not dissuade President Bashar al-Assad from the continuation of killing his own people with barrel bombs — something the international community refused to draw a similar red-line around. The strikes have also further eroded America's own ability to govern itself and justifiably police the world moving forward.
Trump’s degradation of the institutional checks on the president to wage war differ from his predecessors' on two fronts.
First, Trump has no legal justification for his actions. The Authorization for Use of Military Force issued by Congress in 2001 to wage war on those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and their “associated forces,” holds no water.
President Barack Obama blurred the lines between terrorist organizations when he used the AUMF to target the Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq, Libya or Somalia, but Trump has further blurred this distinction by conflating “associated forces” and a sovereign country. This new reality will have severe consequences for future military intervention.
Secondly, Trump’s subsequent tweets and braggadocious personality — unlike his predecessors — prescribe a sense of moral authority upon the office and his alone. Trump has usurped America’s institutionally based justifications for global intervention into the hands of a single individual, instead of an entire nation — from where the values and real underlying soft power arise.
Once America’s moral validity is entrusted into the hands of a sole savior, then any crisis can eventually need saving.
If that crisis — the erosion of America’s democratic norms — one day needs saving by the president, then the republic has become a dictatorship.