While everyone is running around screaming that Trump’s acting unconstitutionally (which is is), they shouldn’t worry too much that Trump is effectively calling himself a dictator. He doesn’t really want to be a dictator; he just wants to play one on TV.
Greg Sargent puts it this in his column in today’s WaPo: Here’s what really matters about Trump’s despotic claim of ‘total’ authority
When everything is all about maintaining appearances, with no concern whatsoever for underlying substance, this seeming contradiction disappears in a puff of Trumpian chaos pixie dust. Trump asserts “total” authority to be seen as taking charge in some general sense, while refusing to accept responsibility for specific bad outcomes to avoid being seen as at fault for them.
So he’s not actually seizing power; he’s just claiming has it. That way, when the governors do eventually reopen their economies, he will claim that they did so on his instructions and take the credit for the reviving economy. Conversely, if the virus flares up again, he will claim they acted without (or in defiance of) his orders, and they get the blame.
If Trump were a true authoritarian (instead of playing one on TV), he would be much more dangerous, as he would use this medical crisis as an excuse to rip down the remaining democratic constraints on him and wield absolute power for real (as Orban is doing in Hungary). But that requires real work, and also taking real responsibility. If you are totally in charge and everyone has to do what you say, you lose the ability to blame others for the orders you give or don’t give.
Trump knows this, if not consciously.
[I]f you wield actual authority, you become accountable for outcomes. The nature of executive power—embedded in the word “executive”—is that it is the power to do things: not to vote or to appropriate money or to deliberate, but to actually do. And if a leader does things, it follows perforce, particularly in an electoral system, that he can be held accountable for the things he did, or didn’t do, or did badly. Trump hates accountability beyond all things. This is the man, after all, who said only a few weeks ago of the federal government’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Being an Actual Authoritarian Is Too Much Work for Trump
As Greg Sargent puts it:
Trump is chafing to put on a reelection show of presiding over the recovery, so he’s working to create the impression that he’s cracking the whip at states. It doesn’t matter that he has little power to actually compel action, since few voters will pay attention to the legal details.
So, as much damage as Trump has done and continues to do to the institutions of our country, we can at least be thankful that he’s too lazy (and also too incompetent) to be really good at it. Yes, he remains a clear and present danger to our democracy. But his claim to having total authority is one that we don’t need to spend an excessive amount of time denouncing (Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress are already doing so). We need to focus on making sure — proactively — that he doesn’t steal the credit for whatever the states manage to do.