The irony of Donald Trump’s assertion that he would seek to have dictatorial powers for the first day of his presidency is that he was supposed to be saying he had no authoritarian inclinations at all.
Trump’s original formulation of the idea came during a conversation with Fox News host Sean Hannity in December. Hannity aired clips of observers offering warnings about Trump’s embrace of authoritarian rhetoric and offered Trump a chance to tamp down any such concerns. But Trump didn’t want to.
“I love this guy. He says, ‘You’re not gonna be a dictator, are you?’ I say, ‘No, no, no — other than Day One,’” Trump said at the time. “We’re closing the border. And we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that I’m not a dictator, okay?”
Those two issues, immigration and fossil-fuel production, were simply picked up from a bit earlier in the conversation. But Trump discovered that people liked the line — dictator for a day! — and so he has at times sprinkled it into his patter at rallies. That’s how his politics work: He angles for applause and, if the crowd likes something, it’s on the path to potential policy implementation.
On Wednesday, UMass Amherst released the results of a poll conducted by YouGov in which respondents were asked about the concept. The framing of the comment was stark, excluding Trump’s specific plans for using his theoretical dictatorial power. It was just, “Trump recently said that if elected, he would be a dictator only on the first day of his second term. Do you think that this is a good or bad idea for the country?”
A plurality of respondents said this was “definitely bad” with 6 in 10 saying it was “definitely” or “probably” bad. Among Republicans, though, a third said it was “definitely good” with three-quarters saying it was at least “probably” good.
Again, this isn’t “Trump wants temporary absolute powers to build a wall on the border.” It is “is it good or bad if Trump has absolute powers for a fixed time period.” And three-quarters of Republicans responded that this was probably a good idea.
This response isn’t surprising as such. It’s been obvious for years that there is a non-insignificant part of the American public, largely on the right, that is supportive of the idea of suborning democracy to absolute executive power. There is unquestionably a gap between “supporting a dictatorship in theory” or “as a way to indicate anger at the system” and “approving of an actual implementation of dictatorship.” But it seems safe to assume that the more people you have in the theoretically accepting group, the larger the literally accepting group would turn out to be.
Past analyses of acceptance of authoritarianism in the U.S. have found a correlation to hostility to diversity. In the UMass Amherst poll, the groups most supportive of Trump’s “dictator for a day” idea are men (26 points more approving of the idea than women on net), and White Americans. There was not as wide a difference between respondents with and without a college degree.
Of course, Trump’s formulation also doesn’t really make any sense. He can’t be “dictator for a day” except to issue mandates that could then be challenged in court. He can try to mandate that a wall be built on the border with Mexico, but he tried that when he was president, too, declaring a state of emergency that allowed him to shift funding around to pay for it.
Fox News host Maria Bartiromo asked him what he meant by it in an interview on Sunday, again framing it in the context of the concerns raised by outside observers. Trump said that he’d offered the idea “in jest.”
But also: “I’m going to close the border and we’re going to drill, baby, drill, that’s all,” he said. “And then after that, I’m not going to be a dictator.”
Did he mean executive orders, Bartiromo pressed? In response, Trump praised executive orders in general and suggested that President Biden was the one undercutting democracy.
In other words, he doesn’t really know. Think of it less as a plan than as an aspiration.
One that most of his party views positively.