When Our Dictator Shows Up

Dorothy Thompson

Escanaba Daily Press/February 19, 1937

“There is one certain remedy for a headache,” said the Grouse crankily. “It is cheap, instantaneous, and guaranteed. That remedy is decapitation.”

“I fail, as usual, to follow you.”

“I refer to the President’s way with that bothersome old lady, the Supreme Court. He says the Supreme Court has, and is, a headache. He proposes to cure it. But he is a busy man. It’s a long way upstairs to get the aspirin, and the doctors disagree anyhow as to just what’s wrong with Auntie. So he has jumped into the kitchen for a cleaver, and the sure and lasting cure. Nice fellow, the President. Can’t bear the sight of long drawn out pain.”

“Your metaphor is fantastic.”

“I mean it to be. This is a fantastic world. Social ministrations with the hatchet, real or figurative, are becoming an international habit. In Moscow political inconveniences are sometimes bumped off, but oftener retired on full pay. Or put under protective arrest. The President proposes to put the nine old men under protective arrest, watched by six young huskies, unless they will retire on full pay. All the same methods. Hatchet. Decapitation. Humane or otherwise.”

“I take it that you object.”

“I am positively startled by the vigor of my objections. Hence the attempt to express myself fantastically. For along about now the American people, who are seldom interested in anything for more than two weeks, will begin to say, ‘Oh, let the President do what he likes. He’s a good guy.’

“Also, they really feel that the Supreme Court is a nuisance. Why, they think, should they bother to nurse her along?”

“Well, and why should they? You tell me.”

“Government by decapitation becomes a habit. The removal of obstacles by crying ‘Off with their heads!’ was employed by the Queen in Alice’s crazy dream. It has now become entirely too general for my taste. Besides, there is another cure for Auntie’s headache. It has been used eighteen times before. The only objection to it is that it takes time and patient treatment.”

“But they say that a constitutional amendment would take years to pass.”

“They also say that the people overwhelmingly want the things which a constitutional amendment might give them, don’t they? You can’t have it both ways. The Prohibition amendment, which a majority of the people never wanted, passed in a few months. If the New Deal hasn’t as competent a machine as the Anti-Saloon League, I am astonished. If all the farmers, all the working men, and all the unemployed, really want what we are told they do want, nothing could stop such an amendment.”

“Wouldn’t an amendment really amount to the same thing as the President’s proposal?”

“It would not. The method of legitimate constitutional government is to say: “If you don’t like the law, change it. If you don’t like the powers of the Supreme Court, limit them. If the meaning of the law is doubtful, clarify it.’ That is exactly the opposite of saying, ‘The law means what I and the current majority in Congress say it does, and we shall fix it so that the judges and we see eye to eye.’ That method can only have one result—after a while there isn’t any law. The main difference between democracy and dictatorship is that in a democracy the judicial system is there to protect the citizen and in a dictatorship it is there to protect the state.

“But, if I were you I would not talk too much about dictatorship. For we have always had in this country the dictatorship of one oligarchy or another. And that lies in the nature of the State, which few since Thomas Jefferson have realized is by its nature a predatory instrument. The State is a means by which one set of fellows legally despoil the others. For a long time business controlled this instrument, and with it despoiled those who were not business men, and the Supreme Court still represents their mentality.

“Now, the Congress and the Administration represent the groups from the bottom who have got on to the fact that the State is a means by which they can get something for nothing. And the Supreme Court, since it still represents the other, just ousted bandits, stands in their way. This is just another fight, and this time a fight for control of the means of oppression, which the State is. The chief objection to everything that has happened in the last four years is that the State, which, by and large, is no earthly good to any hard working, honest and decent human being, and only interests those who want something for nothing, is getting so strong that soon we shall all give up the struggle and let it run everything. And when it does all history shows that it will run everything into the ground. For the State never consists of people who write memoranda about doing things. And when it gets strong enough it finally represents only one predatory group—that of its own members. It takes about a third of the national income now, and before everything is finished it will probably take all of it. Anything which retards this inevitable process is highly desirable.

“Also, and apropos of dictatorship: No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument for expressing the incorporated National Will. When Americans think of dictators they always think of some foreign model. If anyone turned up here in a fur hat, boots, and a grim look he would be recognized and shunned. Likewise anyone resembling six Roman Emperors, or someone you must greet with a stiff arm and a Heil. But when our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American. Since the great American tradition is freedom and democracy you can bet that our dictator, God help us! will be a great democrat, through whose leadership alone democracy can be realized. And nobody will ever say ‘Heil’ to him or ‘Ave Caesar,’ nor will they call him ‘Fuehrer’ or ‘Duce.’ But they will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike blat of ‘O.K., Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaay!”

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