Oh ye people who are free, remember this maxim: Liberty may be acquired, but never recovered. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
By Sebastian Torero
On September 30, 2011, 90 miles outside of Yemen’s capital Sana’a, Anwar al-Awlaki was getting into his car when a US drone missile struck his vehicle, killing him. One of the other people killed in the blast was Samir Khan. Two weeks later, out searching for his father, 16-year old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, is killed, once again by an unmanned drone. All of them were American citizens
Those two weeks in 2011 saw three Americans killed without trial, in a foreign country, on the President’s orders. Their rights had been utterly disregarded, their Constitutional protections moot to the fact that they were members of al-Qaeda, an organization once considered to be America’s greatest enemy. At least, two of them were. The final one, that teenage boy searching for a father he hadn’t seen in years? According to former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, well, he should’ve had a more responsible parent.
President Obama was the second president in American history to use armed drones. He did so extensively. In the eight years of his presidency, Obama ordered 473 drone strikes, killing 2,436 people in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia. According to the administration’s own numbers, 64 to 116 of those killed were civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has that number six times higher.
The drone program is an instance where technology and the contemporary political climate have combined to bequeath the president with powers far beyond those granted to the office in the Constitution. Another was the invention of nuclear weaponry. The bombing of foreign countries by unmanned aircraft and the potential destruction of the entire both lie in the hands of a single person.
The past decades have seen the emergence of the imperial presidency, a massive expansion of presidential powers creating a political landscape that our Founding Fathers would be unable to recognize. This change has been given the most spectacular assistance by the War on Terror. The reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, to the deaths of 2,996 innocent people, is understandable when taken in context. The world Americans thought they lived in was destroyed that day. The old playbook had been torn to shreds. It was no wonder things changed as drastically as they did.
But more than 15 years later, the imperial nature of the American presidency remains intact. The powers of war have consolidated themselves around one person, and the War on Terror drags on, whether in name or not. Those powers that transferred to the hands of Barack Obama, the power to kill American citizens, sanction torture, and monitor millions without a warrant, now belong to Donald Trump. This enigma of a man with an utter disregard for the truth, who has said he would murder the families of terrorists, bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.” Who says, and perhaps even believes, that he is the one man to bring safety back to America.
National security is not the only area in which the powers of the presidency have expanded during the previous administrations. President Obama had a penchant for using executive orders to enact policy. Now, major initiatives such as a prohibition on US government officials using torture methods, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, can be signed away with the stroke of a pen. And Donald Trump can create a significant amount of domestic policy from the Oval Office. Just as the president can do good, so he or she can do evil.
Americans have allowed the presidency to continue to accrue more and more power, upsetting the system of checks and balances our government is based upon. All the while keeping quiet because their man was in charge. A person they had voted for was at the reigns, so they trusted the system. And all the while, the imperial presidency was waiting to spring its trap on the American people.
Donald Trump has clear hallmarks of an authoritarian leader. That should be a cause for alarm, regardless of political affiliation. Authoritarianism is antithetical to every political value our country is meant to uphold. The problem is that Donald Trump has assumed his position of power at the very moment our country is most in danger of slipping into authoritarianism. Our polarized Congress is more concerned with fighting the opposing party and political points than preventing tyranny.
Donald Trump is not an evil man. He may not even realize the full extent to which he is threatening democratic institutions. He does not call the media the enemy of the people or say a judge who decides against his executive orders is a threat to national security out of some insidious desire to undermine our system of government. He does so because he is a man used to being the boss and having total control, and because he is a narcissist. Unfortunately for Trump, our system of government is meant to reject total control and narcissism. It is meant to limit the power of the president, and the media is meant to keep a critical watch over the actions of those in power. But Donald Trump is not used to being limited in his power or such criticism, so he lashes out. And Congress lets him. We let him. And if in the future, a leader who seeks absolute power does arise, the guardians of democracy will have been stripped of their posts, and we will be left to the will of a despot.
This is why Donald Trump is an extremely dangerous president. But it is also what makes him the president America needs at this exact moment. We live under a system of weakening of checks and balances, increased influence of money and corporate interests in politics, and a growing dissonance between the policies carried out by our government and the desires of the people who are meant to be ultimately sovereign.
Donald Trump is the wake-up call we have long needed; a cold shower to make Americans realize just how close our country is to slipping into autocracy.
The duties of the American people to counter the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump are many. Conservatives, true conservatives, those who believe in a free press, an independent judiciary, in our Constitution, must speak out when the president threatens these foundational aspects of our democracy. They must demand that their representatives do the same. Republican politicians have every right to forward their policy agenda, but they must not at the same time become lackeys of an administration that acts in violation of our most basic principles. As for progressives, resistance cannot only be a rallying cry against Donald Trump, but against the entire system of government that is so clearly failing the American people. The goal of resistance cannot only be for Democrats to take the House of Representatives in 2018, but resistance against a system of government which has seen power coalesce into the hands of few and become subject to the highest bidder. And there must be an active effort among Americans of all political and ideological persuasions to change the system in major ways. This could mean Democrats getting rid of superdelegates, perhaps an end to state legislatures drawing congressional districts, maybe creating an electoral system that allows greater access to third parties. Whatever the change is, change is necessary. Trump is a clear sign that our system of government is failing, and an even clearer sign that we have strayed too far from the principles of governance our country was built upon.
The power of the presidency was intended to be limited in the expectation that it could fall into the wrong hands. Now, it has.
Donald Trump is the president. That is why we must change, why the country must change, to ensure that we do not dread on the morning after Election Day because we understand we are not ruled by an authoritarian leader but by a president wisely limited in his or her powers.