Boston University

John Adams, Donald Trump, and the Painful Saga of American Authoritarianism by Eli Kramer

On January 27th of 2017, seated in front of the Presidential Seal, U.S President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, barring any citizen from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — from entering the United States. With the stroke of a pen, one man had stopped the free travel of tens of millions of people into the United States. Headlines poured in: “I Study Authoritarian Despots, And Trump Is Borrowing A Lot Of Their Tactics” (VICE), “If You Want To See America’s Future, Look At Turkey” (The Guardian), and even “Billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch likens Donald Trump’s Muslim ban to Adolf Hitler’s policies in Nazi Germany” (Independent.)

Since the signing of that order, Trump has set off alarm bells across the country as many proclaim his reign has ushered in a paradigm shift in America from civil democracy to hostile authoritarianism. He signed executive orders, with no advice from Congress, to repeal aspects of the Affordable Care Act. He oversaw a policy of militarized police separating foreign families at the border. He threw the legitimacy of elections into question, raising issues of voter fraud where evidence is not immediately available. He authorized the launch of missiles at Syria without congressional approval. And most recently, he unilaterally recognized an unelected man as the leader of Venezuela, taking no input from Congress or the American people.

All of this, to be sure, is evidence of democratic backsliding. A democratically elected leader has legally obtained power, only to use that power to undermine the very system that permitted his free election. But how new is the trend of authoritarianism in America? I argue it’s nearly as old as the country itself, and understanding this history better arms us, the people, to resist authoritarianism in its modern form.

The United States presidency is an inherently authoritarian position. It is an office held by a single person, solely in charge of an expansive military — not to mention structuring foreign affairs, vetoing bills, and signing executive orders. They are free to declare a “national emergency” when they see fit. But before the president enters office, they must swear an oath to uphold our founding document, The Constitution. It’s worth noting, however, that the word “democracy” appears in this document exactly zero times. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that authoritarianism in America is nearly as old as America itself.

After the US gained independence from British control, the story goes, the founding fathers sought to establish a nation free from the tyranny we had just lived under. One of those founding fathers was John Adams. Soon after George Washington’s farewell address — which emphasized national unity, and putting the country as a whole above any individual — Adams assumed power. And as tensions grew with France, Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. Under this law, Americans could not “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government. One Vermont Representative protested Adams’ record as president in a strongly worded letter. He was soon jailed.

The trend continued throughout the ages. Andrew Jackson made law the Indian Removal Act, which gave broad power to the president to grant land to Native Americans living east of the Mississippi. When these Natives refused, Jackson used his power as president to order their removal. Nearly 4,000 of them died as a result.

Moving to modern times, the trend is alive and well. After his election, George W. Bush oversaw the passage and implementation of the so-called Patriot Act, one of the most egregious invasions of privacy in the history of the world. It granted the government power to monitor the private communications of every single American. Barack Obama signed 276 executive orders as president, including some which effectively implemented new laws without the approval of congress. He also oversaw the American-led military intervention in Syria without any congressional approval.

And that brings us back to Donald Trump, whose authoritarian moves have already been laid out. There is no doubt that democracy is eroding in America, but suggesting the problem is new mistakes the acorn for the tree. Without understanding the presidency’s authoritarian history, we aren’t awakened to how bad things truly are.

Photo by Al Drago, New York Times


  1. Kendall Sirica

    February 14, 2019 at 11:13 pm

    I really like the historical context you give as to how the American presidency and Constitution have been authoritarian from the start. It also gives more backing to the idea that presidential systems are much more susceptible to authoritarianism than parliamentary systems, like we have been talking in class. I do agree that democracy has been eroding – and may have never been fully formed – in America for a long time coming, but I would argue that Trump’s constant attacks on and attempts to delegitimize the media, his opponents, and the Mueller investigation are eroding current day democracy at a much quicker and, to me, scarier rate than we have seen before.

  2. Amber Chan

    March 6, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    It was really interesting to learn about the state of American democracy throughout our history. Often, we merely see past presidents’ actions as a part of history and do not think of them in the context of today’s world. You put into perspective just how powerful the American presidency can be, especially because we tend to always stress a system of “checks and balances” and never truly realize the authoritarian power the executive can wield. I also agree with the above comment by Kendall that, although we have seen democratic backsliding before, Trump’s direct actions against immigrants, certain groups of people in the country, and generally anyone who opposes him is an extreme case of democratic erosion. Perhaps, though, this is due to the increasing population and wider international affairs that Trump must deal with as compared to Adams and Jackson when we were a small, isolated nation. However, it is still not an excuse for not upholding the sacred words of the Constitution.

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