In the winter of 1933, before Franklin Roosevelt's first inauguration on March 4, there was a clamor in the United States for a military dictatorship. The banks were closing, a quarter of Americans were unemployed, rebellion threatened on the farms. Only drastic reforms, mandated by the president's power as commander in chief, would save the country. Something like the fascism of Mussolini's Italy -- viewed benignly by many Americans in those days because it worked (or so everyone said) -- would save the country from communist revolution.
As Jonathan Alter reminds us in The Defining Moment, his brilliant book about FDR's first 100 days, men as different as William Randolph Hearst, financier Bernard Baruch, commentator Lowell Thomas and establishment columnist Walter Lipmann argued for the necessity of dictatorship to reorganize the country's economy.
The call for a military style dictatorship is the ultimate temptation to the greatest treason of a democratic society. Fortunately for us, FDR resisted the temptation and reformed the American economy by a mix of gradualist changes (like Social Security) and magical "fireside chats." Unfortunately years later he yielded to the temptation to a military dictatorship when he interned Japanese Americans simply because they were Japanese. In the first case he resisted the demands of the American people. In the second he caved in to their racist demands.
The United States is caught up in a new campaign for a military dictatorship -- rule by a military chief with absolute power. The White House, inspired by Vice President Dick Cheney, has argued that in time of great danger, the president has unlimited powers as commander in chief. If he cites "national security" he can do whatever he wants -- ignore Congress, disobey laws, disregard the courts, override the Constitution's Bill of Rights -- without being subject to any review. Separation of powers no longer exists. The president need not consult Congress or the courts. Moreover the rights of the commander in chief to act as a military dictator lasts as long as the national emergency persists, indefinitely that is and permanently.
Many, perhaps most Americans, don't mind. The president is "tough on terrorists" and that's all that matters. What is the Bill of Rights anyway? George W. Bush, his supporters will argue, is a good man, even a godly man. He won't misuse the powers, even if the power he claims is no less than Don Hugo Chavez exercises in Venezuela
The Supreme Court in its ruling about a Guantanamo detainee just before Independence Day was a sharp rebuke to Cheneyism. It dealt with only one case and left the president wiggle room. He could consult with Congress about new legislation that would provide more rights for the detainees in a military trial. But that violates Cheney's first principle that the commander in chief doesn't have to consult with anyone on matters of national security. If the president was consistent with the Cheney theory and the Alberto Gonzales memos, he should defy the Supreme Court and insist that he has the right to establish whatever judicial process he deems proper for these potentially dangerous people without any interference from anyone. He may still do that.
Republicans who will seek re-election in November already suggest they will run against the court's decision. The court, they will tell the American people who want the detainees to be shot at sunrise tomorrow, is soft on terror, just like Democrats in Congress. They could probably get away with this nonsense because fear will cause the voters to forget that this is the Republican court that elected Bush.
Richard Cheney is a vile, indeed evil, influence in American political life. He is a very dangerous person who would if he could destroy American freedom about which he and his mentor prate hypocritically. His long years in Washington have caused him to lose faith in the legislative and judicial processes of the government. The country, he believes, requires a much stronger executive. Such concentrated power would have been necessary even if the World Trade Center attack had not occurred. He uses the fear of terrorists as a pretext to advance his agenda of an all powerful president, a military dictator. So long, of course, as he is a Republican.