Fiat Voluntas: Rule by Decree

Our system of governent was conceived as one of enumerated powers. Republican governments are forbidden to exercise powers that are not explicitly set forth in the various charters, constitutions and legal precedents that establish their authority. Kings may be privileged to rule by decree, but governmental executives in our system are limited by law.

Or at least they used to be limited. Today's mayors, governors and presidents claim extraordinary powers, and they seem to do so without restraint. Official responses to the current flu epidemic are illustrative, if not unprecedented. The various mandatory lockdowns, closures and prohibitions may be justified in the public mind as reasonable emergency measures, but it's no sure thing that they're all legal, and those that are authorized by law may mark a dangerous movement toward authoritarian rule.

To accommodate rule by decree, the nation now operates under emergency conditions and has remained in a state of emergency for the better part of a generation. At this moment, we are coping with more than 50 separate national emergencies, each justifying extraordinary executive powers that republican governments aren't supposed to tolerate. Sometimes, they're powers that simply aren't mentioned in our charter, and sometimes they override explicit guarantees, such as the right to a speedy trial, or violate ancient proscriptions, such as the prohibitions on bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. Our news media may take it for granted that our president is empowered to vaporize Syrian soldiers, for example, but there's no law allowing that. It's murder.

Not that anyone's taking notice If we're to believe our news-mongers, we hardly blink an eye at abuses of governmental authority. This might account for the distinct lack of interest among newsmen in the legal basis for decrees of high-ranking public officials. Also possible is that their averted gaze is a consequence of the cozy relations that bind news reporters to authority figures. A reporter who questions an official's legal authority could see an interruption in the flow of leaks and press releases from that official or agency. Dog might have to do some actual digging, a brand of journalistic drudgery that's anathema to members of the guild.

Consider the story now circulating among newsmen suggesting that Trump will issue the ultimate decree, declaring himself re-elected notwithstanding the results of the upcoming vote. Where's it come from, this story? Mostly, it comes from reporters' own tortured brains as they solicit confirming predictions from office-holders, all in a panic over a plot for which there is no evidence whatsoever, aside from gossip passed among reporters and their sources. Trump seems to be having some fun teasing the news-mongers, and they're jumping around like marionettes. If you hear somebody question whether members of the Secret Service, White House police, military staff, and cabinet officials will risk imprisonment by pretending Trump is still president, the questioner's probably not a newsman. The federal law against insurrection--which is what this would be--calls for a 10-year jail sentence, but you won't read about that in your newspaper.

We probably shouldn't be surprised, since the current crop of media people is the slimy residue of what was once a highly credible assembly. Journalists who refused to censor, distort and gossip to the boss' order have long since retired to their gardens and basement workshops, and our free press is now in the hands of the most compliant band of scribblers since Pravda filled its Moscow newsroom.

It's not that reporters don't like autocrats. They know that the current autocrat-in-chief, for all his wilfulness and caprice, inherited most of his power to decree on their watch, much of it ceded willingly by the legislative branch while the press looked on in silence. Franklin Roosevelt didn't dare drop a bomb on a Japanese or German soldier until Congress had voted a declaration of war. He was restrained by the Constitution, which didn't give him authority to wage war on his own. Truman, a few years later, had to refer to the war he waged against Koreans as a police action to get around constitutional limits. The Viet Nam atrocity eventually got the support of the legislative branch, but Congress never did get around to a formal declaration, setting the stage for Reagan and each of his successors to engage in organized murder and mayhem without legal aurhority of any kind. The surrender of the mass media to rule by decree, year after year after year, must be regarded as complicity. Tyranny is great for reporters. They can simply pass on the stuff that comes in from the tyrants, giving them plenty of spare time for celebrity interviews.

There must be a protocol in place among journalists--they're as secretive a profession as irony allows--requiring them to avoid discussions of law. Law, after all,, is meant to be obligatory, and if you start telling people what they must and must not do, you damned well better know what you're talking about. Journalists are reluctuant to make authoritative statements of any kind, not just because they're too lazy to search out facts, but mainly because they don't want us to find out for sure what's really going on. Rather, their job is to tell you what they think you would like to know about what's going on, and that sort of thing deoesn't actually have to be true.

With a new administraation poised to inherit the power to decree, the situation may be more complicated than we're led to believe. Biden may be impaired cognitively to the point that others will have to "advise" him on practically every move he makes. If history is any guide, there will be individuals and factions competing and, more often, cutting each others' throats for influence over the half-president's decrees. Huge amounts of money will be at stake, and the resulting conflicts are almost certain to dominate private discussions of public policy. With or without Trump, the USA under despotic rule is likely to continue its current spiral toward catastrophic failure.