Next Tuesday, March 26, the US House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on whether to override President Donald Trump’s veto of its bill terminating his national “emergency” declaration. The Senate may vote the same day or shortly thereafter—or not at all.
The importance of this vote cannot be overstated. It is nothing less than a choice between dictatorship and democracy.
Trump is walking a path that dictators have walked before. He has declared a national emergency where none exists to grant himself extraordinary powers.
This is not just a fight about money; it’s a fight about freedom. He is seeking to take the power of the purse away from the people. He is trying to reduce the legislative branch of government to irrelevance. He is discarding the Constitution.
But as bad as that is, equally worrisome is Trump’s proven record of insatiability. No matter what he gets, he will always want more. Any measures to appease him will only lead him to demand more of everything—money, power, control. If Trump’s declaration stands, over time he will use his emergency powers to crush dissent, a free press and an independent judiciary. He has already threatened violence against his critics, whose criticism is legitimate and sanctioned by the Constitution.
He has to be stopped and overriding his veto is at least a place to begin.
As though to emphasize the current danger, history itself seems to be screaming a warning. The House of Representatives voted against Trump’s emergency declaration on Feb. 26. That was the eve of the anniversary of the 1933 Reichstag fire, which Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used to declare a national emergency in Germany and suspend freedom of expression, the press, assembly, privacy, habeas corpus, unreasonable search and seizure—in short, all the freedoms guaranteed in America by the Bill of Rights. Then a physically intimidated and purged Reichstag passed an Enabling Act that formally established the Nazi dictatorship. All this occurred exactly 86 years ago.
Haven’t we learned from history? If we’re to remain a democracy these lessons have to be heeded: Despots never stop their quest for power on their own until someone stops them—and if they can’t be stopped legally, the only recourse becomes violence. Democracy has to be protected. Freedom has to be preserved. The Constitution has to be defended.
The way to do that now, in our own time, is to override Trump’s veto.
The role of Florida’s delegation
The initial votes on terminating the emergency declaration (House Joint Resolution 46) revealed splits among Florida’s senators and representatives of Southwest Florida. A vote for the resolution was a vote to terminate the emergency, a vote against it was to continue it.
Sen. Marco Rubio voted for the resolution, stating: “We have an emergency at our border, which is why I support the president’s use of forfeiture funds and counter-drug money to build a wall. However, I cannot support moving funds that Congress explicitly appropriated for construction and upgrades of our military bases. This would create a precedent a future president may abuse to jumpstart programs like the Green New Deal, especially given the embrace of socialism we are seeing on the political left.”
Sen. Rick Scott voted against the resolution, stating: “For years, everyone in both parties has said they want to secure our border, but they never did anything about it. It’s time to get serious about border security and the safety of American families. That’s why I support the president’s efforts to secure the border and voted against the resolution of disapproval today.”
When it comes to Southwest Florida, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), whose district includes large portions of Collier County, voted against the termination. His website does not include a statement explaining his vote. (A request for a statement has been made to his office and will be added to this report if it is made.)
But by far the most interesting vote was cast by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.). Rooney joined 12 other Republicans in voting for the resolution to terminate the emergency.
Rooney’s statement was revelatory: “I voted for the resolution because I believe in the rule of law and strict adherence to our Constitution. We are, as John Adams said, ‘A nation of laws, not men.’ The ends cannot justify the means; that is exactly what the socialists want.”
The reader can ignore Rooney’s gratuitous swipe at socialism (and Rubio’s too) since that’s just an effort to justify a break with the party line; it’s his belief in the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution that counts. Clearly he believes Trump’s declaration violates both those principles.
Just how momentous Rooney’s break with Trump is on this issue can only be appreciated in the context of his record.
Rooney has been a committed, conservative Trumpist since running for Congress in 2016. He shared the stage with Trump during their election campaigns. Rooney called for a pro-Trump political purge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in December 2017 and has never recanted or retreated from that position. He buys the idea of a “deep state” and regards public service, public servants and liberals as enemies and has little use for public education. Rooney voted repeatedly to continue Trump’s shutdown of the federal government. He voted against making Robert Mueller’s report public. He put forward legislation to advance the Trumpist agenda and voted with Trump 95 percent of the time in the 115th Congress and until this vote, 100 percent of the time in the 116th. Even Trump personally characterized as “brutal” Rooney’s defense of Trump actions.
Nor has Rooney previously shown much respect for the Constitution. Last year he attempted an unsuccessful legislative end-run to cut short congressional terms by cutting salaries, in violation of constitutional provisions on terms, an effort he has now abandoned.
Rooney has consistently been an enthusiastic Trump supporter, enabler and booster.
So when even Francis Rooney—even Francis Rooney!—sees Trump’s emergency declaration as an unjustified means to an end that violates the rule of law and the Constitution, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
In the first round of voting, HJRes 46 did not pass by the two-thirds margins that would indicate an assured veto override; as a result, much of the political betting is that the veto will stand.
However, the importance and possibilities of the coming override vote should not be dismissed. It is a second chance to set things right.
As stated at the outset of this essay, this is not politics as usual. This is not another routine procedural vote in the US Congress. This is a matter of freedom or tyranny, democracy or dictatorship—it’s a moral question, not just a political one. The true question at issue is: Will the United States continue to function as a representative democracy?
Those legislators who think they can appease Trump or that his emergency declaration will be a one-time departure from the Constitution or that they are not putting the nation and its future at risk by voting with him are wrong.
Nor should they think that their vote in favor of Trump will endear them to him. The nature of despotic rule is that it is whimsical, capricious and arbitrary. Do they think they’ll earn his favor? Donald Trump has consistently turned on his supporters and enablers. But that’s also the nature of despotism: no one is safe and the despot is ultimately loyal to no one but himself. It’s why the founders created a nation built on laws and not men.
Those who voted against the emergency declaration are already under pressure to change their votes. The arguments no doubt run the range from high principle to political expediency to crass rewards and punishment.
It’s unclear whether Scott or Diaz-Balart will change their votes, although they should. If Diaz-Balart votes to sustain the emergency declaration he will be making possible an American Castro, the kind of despot who forced his family to flee Cuba—a situation with which he is intimately familiar.
Rubio and Rooney have taken commendable positions against the emergency declaration. For them, maintaining those positions by voting to override is more than just a matter of political consistency—it’s a moral duty.
The override vote will be a critical moment in the life of the nation, a nation founded in opposition to one-man rule, whether hereditary monarch or usurping despot.
It was that principle and the values of freedom and democracy that made America great. Now it’s time to sustain that greatness.
When the vote is called, gentlemen, do what’s right.
Liberty lives in light
For further reading and research:
The Dictator’s Playbook
Learn how six dictators, from Mussolini to Saddam Hussein, shaped the 20th century. How did they seize and lose power? What forces were against them? Learn the answers in these six immersive hours, each a revealing portrait of brutality and power.
- Available at the Collier County Public Library:
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, published by Tim Duggan Books.
Regarding the “emergency” on the border:
© 2019 by David Silverberg