I once met a guy from Turkmenistan.

It was back when I was a reporter who spent a lot of time hanging around in the courthouse, and he was here as part of an exchange program to learn about our legal system. His host, a local lawyer, asked me to baby-sit his guest while he had a quick meeting with a judge.

Sitting on a bench in the hallway, I tried to make a little conversation.

“So what kind of government you got in Turkmenistan?” I offered to better reveal my complete ignorance of his home country.

He shrugged and said, “Is basically one guy.”

And indeed he was right. The leader at that time was Saparmurat Niyazov, who, as the Cold War ended, had made the transition from Communist Party boss to full-blown medieval despot. My new friend pulled out his wallet and showed me Niyazov’s picture, which was on all the country’s money. On the back of the bills you could see the golden statue of himself the president had erected on a rotating base so that it always faced the sun.


He made up his own alphabet and renamed the holidays and months of the year after his children. To get a government job or a driver’s license, you were tested on the details of his autobiography. One guy.

It cracked me up. I felt very superior at the time, but these days I wonder if we aren’t sliding into a similar system of government.

Last week, the Department of Justice let an appeals court in Louisiana know that it would not be defending the Affordable Care Act, which was found unconstitutional by a single judge in Texas late last year. If it stands, the ruling would not only eliminate health insurance for 20 million Americans, but also wipe out hundreds of consumer protections such as the ones that require insurance companies to cover people with with pre-existing conditions, or prevent companies from canceling policies for people who are so sick that they hit lifetime coverage caps.

A victory here would create chaos in the lives of everyone who relies on health care – which is basically everyone. And it would be the work of basically one guy – Donald Trump.

Critics on the left and right say that the original decision is based on dubious legal reasoning and it is not likely to survive an appeal. But even if it doesn’t happen, there is still plenty to be worried about.

It’s a problem if the president of the United States of America wants to act like he’s the president of Turkmenistan.


The Affordable Care Act passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by a president. It was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Republicans failed to repeal it when they had unified control of the government.

Like it or not, it’s the law.

But not in “New Turkmenistan.” Here one guy can assert his will over the other branches of government, and choose not to defend the laws that he has sworn to enforce.

It goes along with his declaration of a national emergency, when he could not get enough funding for a wall on the southwest border. This could be a typical move for a leader in a authoritarian system, but it’s not supposed to happen in ours, which is built on the checks and balances and the separation of powers.

Congress writes the laws, which includes the budget, and the president executes them.  If the president could decide how much to spend and where to get the money, you wouldn’t need a legislative branch any more than they did in Turkmenistan.

Congress had the power to prevent this power grab, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers did pass a resolution knocking down his national emergency declaration.


Unfortunately, there were too many Republicans in Congress who prefer the one-guy system, and they failed to override Trump’s veto, permitting him to spend the nation’s money as if it were his own.

Trump did not invent this kind of excess. Presidential war powers have been creeping in the authoritarian direction since World War II, and Barack Obama used executive action when his policy goals were blocked by a gridlocked Congress. But Trump is taking it to a new level.

Under our Constitution, one guy is not supposed to have more power than the collective will of millions of citizens, as expressed through the laws passed by their representatives.

That kind of thing does happen in other places. Like Turkmenistan.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]



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