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A Tale of Two Tyrants: Charles I and Donald Trump

“When somebody is President of the US,” Donald Trump has asserted, “the authority is total.” And he has added: “I have Article II powers; I can do whatever I want.” Comparable statements of absolute authority were made in England in the 1630s by King Charles I, who based his claims on the divine right of kings. According to this theory, the king, having been chosen by God, is accountable to no one, hence above the law. Eventually, though, Charles I was tried by Parliament as a tyrant. Many observers have argued that Donald Trump has acted like a king, especially since his impeachment and trial. However, it would be more accurate to say that he has been governing as a tyrant. And the absolute ruler he most closely resembles may be Charles I. 

Despite the temporal distance and some differences between their circumstances, several striking similarities link these two heads of government: their flouting of traditional norms and constraints, and disregard for the prerogatives of representative bodies, that is, Parliament and Congress; their refusal to abide by the rule of law; and their fixation on policies that most of their people opposed as regressive. In the first few years of his reign, Charles called elections for Parliament, as was traditional, since only Parliament could approve taxes, and he needed the funds. However, when Parliament demanded that Charles recognize fundamental rights and freedoms before they would authorize further taxes, Charles dismissed them and ceased to call elections. 

From 1629 to 1640, he ruled without Parliament, a period called the Eleven Years’ Tyranny or, in a revisionist phrase, his Personal Rule. To obtain funds during this time, Charles expanded significantly the few means of raising revenue that lay within the prerogative of the monarch, for example, levying ship money. Ship money was traditionally required from coastal towns and cities to pay for naval protection in times of war—but Charles levied it on all the inland counties of England annually, even in peacetime. Doing so provoked intense resistance around the country, as did his selling of monopolies for royal income. 

Donald Trump has similarly engaged in a pattern of breaking laws and unstated norms that constrained the behavior of previous presidents. He welcomed and encouraged intervention in the 2016 election by an adversarial power that aided him (as concluded by a recently released bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report ). The Special Counsel investigation found substantial evidence of five to ten cases in which he obstructed justice to cover up his cooperation with the foreign adversary. He has also announced that he intends to overturn the Affordable Care Act by personal dictate and without the authorization of Congress, as well as to end the DACA program despite the Supreme Court’s ruling disallowing his efforts to do so.

In addition to such largely unprecedented evasions of limits and violations of norms by the king and the president, both engaged in a more direct subversion of the system of justice. Charles evaded the constraints and rules of the normal courts and legal system through reliance on the Court of Star Chamber to punish political opponents and religious dissidents. Composed entirely of the king’s advisors, this court was not bound by common law. There was no right to trial by jury, no protection against self-incrimination, and the punishments it imposed could be grotesquely extreme. Radical Protestants who wrote against the religious policies of the king and Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud were fined huge sums, sentenced to prison for life, and had their ears cut off. William Prynne was branded on his cheeks; John Lilburne, was whipped on his naked back as he was dragged through the streets behind a cart.

Donald Trump has also corrupted the rule of law. He commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, a long-time crony convicted of seven felonies, to hide alleged wrongdoing in support of Trump’s election. He has removed US Attorneys and Inspectors General who are or might be investigating him, and his Attorney General has moved to reverse the conviction of his first National Security Advisor who confessed to lying to federal agents. In these efforts and others, Attorney General Barr has served as Trump’s fixer, hollowing out the Department of Justice and destroying its integrity. There is thus now one law for Trump, his henchmen, and his armed followers, and another for the rest of the country. 

After two years of intense stalemate, when Charles could reach no compromise with the Long Parliament on limiting his power, he raised an army and made war on the Parliamentarians. Because he thus initiated the long and brutal Civil War (1642-48), Charles was charged after his defeat with having made war on his own people. 

Donald Trump can similarly be characterized as having made war on his own people. His ordering of attacks by the National Guard on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park outside the White House, and his deployment of militarized federal agents to beat, gas, and shoot mostly peaceful protesters in Portland, Oregon, constitutes a grossly disproportional, military-style response to people’s exercise of their First Amendment rights.  

Moreover, President Trump’s inaction in response to the new coronavirus disease—his total abdication of responsibility—is allowing a biological agent to attack the country, leaving the rest of the population defenseless, especially those most vulnerable to being sickened and killed: poor people, old people, indigenous and other people of color, none of them “his people.” The President ignored previously formulated federal plans for a pandemic response, shut down the office charged with warning of such a threat, and refused to use the powers entrusted only to him in the Defense Production Act to make inadequate supplies and tests available. He has undercut scientific authorities at almost every turn, peddling delusional thinking and a nonexistent cure instead. The scale of preventable deaths caused by Donald Trump’s callousness exceeds the combined number of US military deaths in all the country’s wars since 1900, excluding only World War II. There will almost certainly be that many people killed again by the virus by the end of the year, and the total may well match the toll taken by the 1918-1919 pandemic. Like Charles, Trump has his people’s blood on his hands.   

In a striking coincidence that is also a sign of their authoritarian characters, both Charles and Trump fixated on a policy idea and pursued it almost compulsively, with a steadiness that they showed on no other issue. Charles pushed relentlessly for a set of beliefs and a church organization that were virtually Catholic except in retaining the king as the head of the Church of England. Trump has steadfastly embraced an ideology of white supremacy, most clearly in his allegiance to the cause of the Confederacy. In both cases, a large portion of the people opposed what they considered a regressive, backward-looking policy. As ways of disciplining such progressive dissenters, Trump’s militarized treatment of protesters for racial justice closely tracks Charles’ harsh treatment of Puritans and Presbyterians. 

While Charles was a Protestant in rejecting the authority of the Pope, one of the most consistent features of his reign was his determined attempt, through Laud, to impose High Church forms of belief and practice, asserting the authority of the traditional Church hierarchy, including bishops, and requiring ceremonies and rituals such as the wearing of vestments.  Radical Protestants assigned more authority to individual believers and local congregations, viewing bishops, set prayers, and elaborate rituals as regressive vestiges of Catholicism and superstition.             

What the High Church ceremonies and hierarchy were for Charles, the idea of the Confederacy as a noble Lost Cause is for Donald Trump—an idea, embraced by his most fervent supporters, but increasingly rejected by Americans, that white men deserve to rule. When neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, he contended that “there were good people . . . on both sides.” More recently, as monuments to Confederate generals who fought to maintain the enslavement of Africans have been attacked, Trump’s reaction in defense of white supremacists has been fierce, showing none of the vacillation that characterizes his positions on other issues. Even as the military services favor renaming bases honoring traitors who killed US soldiers, Trump uses the theme of legitimate white Americans besieged by racial others to cast himself as the defender of  “our history” and “our heritage.” 

Against protesters asserting that Black Lives Matter, Trump deployed unmarked federal agents to “dominate” the streets. Trump’s actions did not bring peace and order; rather, they aggravated confrontations and served as a pretext for more violence, mostly by the federal agents.

In an ironic reversal, the extreme Protestants in the seventeenth century were radicals who opposed the established powers of king and bishops; in the twentieth-first century, their descendants—evangelical Christians—have taken on the opposite role, as the most extreme defenders of backward-looking values and institutions, repudiated by most members of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

After Charles was defeated in the Civil War, captured, and held in more or less close confinement for three years, he refused to compromise or abdicate, attempted repeatedly to escape, and continued to plot to regain power. He was finally tried as a “man of blood” on charges of tyranny, treason, and making war on his own people. He refused to answer the charges, or to accept the right of any court to judge him. Found guilty, he was beheaded in January 1649. 

Donald Trump could be subject to the same charges. After obstructing the impeachment investigation by ordering members of the executive branch not to testify or to cooperate in any way with investigators, he now takes the position that Congress has no right even to investigate him, asserting an absolute immunity that contradicts the constitutional system of separation of powers. 

As President, he has treasonously pursued the interests of the foreign power that helped him get elected. Moreover, he has made war on his own people indirectly through culpable inaction, allowing the uncontrolled spread of a disease that will probably kill several hundred thousand Americans, and directly, through his deployment of a militarized federal police. 

Trump differs from Charles I in combining seventeenth-century claims of divine right with fascistic techniques of propaganda (the Big Lie) and intimidation (use of secret police). To divine right and fascistic authoritarianism, he joins the mob rule of a minority that has no regard for the rights, beliefs, or values of any other group—a minority of about one-third of the population, comprised of intolerant religious extremists, believers in white supremacy, and fundamentalist free-marketeers. But such differences do not obscure essential parallels. 

The English had to endure a protracted civil war before Charles I’s claims to absolute rule could be checked. Even then, the problem he posed was not solved. It took forty more years—a decade of military rule under Oliver Cromwell, then almost thirty years under Charles’s two sons and the threat of another civil war—before the primacy of Parliament and the concept of a constitutional monarchy was established in 1689. At that time, essential freedoms that protect a people against absolute rule were recognized in the Declaration of Right, which served as a model for the US Bill of Rights.

It is not an easy or a quickly accomplished task to re-establish norms and the rule of law after an autocrat has gained control and subverted mediating institutions from the Department of Justice to the Postal Service. We can foresee that Donald Trump and some of his armed followers will use violence and perhaps try to start a civil war to prevent his having to leave office. He has claimed that he has “magical authorities” to break the law. His arms outstretched, he has announced to a stadium full of cheering fans, “I am the Chosen One!” It is up to all decent people and officials who respect constitutional government to oppose such contemporary assertions of a divine right to absolute rule.