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The Divine Right of Populists

Like US President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson owes his political success and hold on power to the idea of a fully sovereign executive. Advanced most forcefully by the German jurist Carl Schmitt to defend the Third Reich, this line of thinking threatens to render the world's two oldest democracies unrecognizable. 

LONDON – Countries undergoing political crises often favor the leadership of strongmen who promise to restore order and prosperity through sheer force of will. The allure of such authoritarians is obvious, especially when they portray normal checks and balances as only exacerbating chaos and dysfunction. That was the thinking behind the original model of a constitutional dictator: in the Roman Republic, a “commissarial dictator,” elected by the Senate, was granted powers unchecked by constitutional norms until the crisis was resolved. The abnormality of the situation called for the abandonment of normality.

Today, the world’s two oldest democracies have gone some way toward mustering this kind of response to perceived political crises. In the United States, Attorney General William Barr is promulgating the idea of the “unitary executive” in support of President Donald Trump’s authoritarian decision-making. This theory, which can be traced back to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 70, gives the president total control of the executive branch. And according to Barr’s interpretation, that means Trump has the right to terminate federal investigations into his own misconduct, and that of his cronies. The recent murmurings of resistance from Barr look more like an attorney general trying to mask his attempts at enhancing executive power than one trying to assert the independence of the US Justice Department.

In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, some viewed the plebiscitary decision to leave the European Union as replacing the sine qua non of the British constitution – that Parliament is supreme – with the idea of the “will of the people.” For much of the government, as well as MPs who favored “Leave,” Parliament’s failure to accede to this “popular will” was tantamount to defying the ultimate source of democratic legitimacy. In fact, Brexit was a fundamentally opaque policy, and the ambitions of Parliament were simply at odds with those of the government.

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